Listening to Barry Farber opens the door to a vibrant and living history of modern America from the mid-20th Century to today.
© 2018 by Peter Barry Chowka
Barry Farber is a legendary and influential figure in the history of contemporary American media. He is best known for being a pioneering host of intelligent talk radio, on the air almost continuously since 1960 right up to the present time. These days, at age 87, he is still going strong, hosting a nightly live hour long talk radio program, The Barry Farber Show.
It was more than a half century ago in mid-20th Century America – the height of the post-World War II “American Century” – that Farber and a small group of colleagues experimented with and helped to establish the enduring popularity of the innovative talk radio format on the highest rated stations in New York City, America’s #1 media market. Additional pioneers of radio were working the same magic in other American cities, big and small. In the first three decades of radio, starting in the 1920s, most programming had centered around music, live and recorded; comedies, dramas, and sitcoms; and frothy variety shows. There was news and commentary, and some public affairs-oriented shows, but few of them were of a live, local, interactive nature. In fact, direct interaction of a host on the air with radio listeners was almost totally unknown. That all began to change after World War II when a handful of announcers began talking about issues during their shows and started to include – tentatively at first – comments by listeners who called in. These early experiments in major market talk radio were still quite new when Barry Farber entered the field.
Farber was well-prepared and well-positioned for his future decades-long career as a “talker.” Early on in life, before he entered the nascent talk radio field, he displayed a unique and astounding facility for linguistics. He eventually became fluent in at least 25 foreign languages. His expertise with languages was tapped by the U.S. government including during the Korean War. In 1957, shortly after Farber moved to New York, William Safire – who went on to have a long and distinguished career in media, politics, and journalism – hired Farber as a producer of the seminal Tex and Jinx Show, a popular early talk program on New York City’s flagship NBC-owned radio station WNBC. In 1960, at the age of 30, Farber got the chance to host his own talk show on WINS, another top AM radio station in New York.
The rest, as they say, is history. Farber’s mellifluous voice, with a touch of an appealing Southern drawl (he grew up in North Carolina), complemented his natural graciousness and warmth. His obvious intelligence, erudition, and familiarity with a wide range of issues including history, philosophy, and the news of the day added to his appeal, and quickly endeared him to large mainstream audiences ranging from working stiffs to Upper East Side sophisticates in the Big Apple and beyond. For years, Farber broadcasted on 50,000-watt clear channel stations that could be heard at great distances at night, when his live shows aired. As a result, he developed a loyal following in many states east of the Mississippi River. Unlike some other, more acerbic and confrontational talk hosts who enjoyed ratings success in the 1960s, like Joe Pyne, for example, Farber never insulted any of his guests or talked down to his callers. When he was on, he was always a gentleman. Hence, the sobriquet “intelligent talk.”
In the 1980s, Farber gained an even larger audience when his eponymous program found a home on major national radio networks of the day including ABC Talk Radio. In 2002, Talkers Magazine, the leading professional journal in the field, included Farber among the top ten of its list of the 25 Greatest Radio Talk Show Hosts of All Time.
As a 2006 bio of him at Talk Radio Network put it:
As smooth and civilized as Jack Daniels whiskey, and with just as much kick, Barry Farber is one of America’s legendary talk show hosts.
As a high school student in a NYC suburb one night in 1965, I discovered the Barry Farber Show on WOR AM 710 in New York, the clear channel super station where Farber spent 15 years on the air. I was immediately hooked – on both Farber and talk radio. I still have old reel-to-reel tapes that I recorded of some of his programs from the 1960s, exploring leading edge political, social, and cultural issues of the day including the first credible challenges by critics like attorney Mark Lane to the party line accounts of the JFK assassination. Eventually, I worked in talk radio myself, in college and later as an occasional host and a frequent guest. That experience made me realize that successes like Farber’s in the highly competitive radio business are not as easy to achieve as one might think.
Farber’s only break from a long career – 58 years and counting – of continuous broadcasting came in 1977, when he declared his candidacy for mayor of NYC and took some time off from radio. A conservative, he ran initially as a Republican and came in a strong second in his party’s primary. In the general election that November, he led the small Conservative Party’s ticket. Also competing that year, and ultimately dominating the general election campaign, were future New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a Democrat who ran for mayor on the Liberal Party ticket, and Ed Koch, another registered Democrat who won the election. Together, Koch and Cuomo captured about 92% of the vote in that mostly liberal city. One wonders how the future of New York and American history itself might have been different had Barry Farber become New York City’s mayor.
Back to the present: For the past decade, Barry Farber has been broadcasting his show weeknights between 8 and 9 P.M. E.T. on the CRN Digital Talk Radio HD channel, which is streamed on the Internet and carried on a number of cable TV providers around the country, with free podcasts available at CRN, iTunes, and many other platforms. The Barry Farber Show is a wonderful opportunity, which has been compared to enjoying a glass of fine wine, to hear someone who was there close to the beginning of talk radio, who has been covering the news ever since, and who has never lost his touch to inform and entertain an audience.
After decades of appreciating Barry Farber as a listener, I finally got the chance to engage him personally when I was invited to be a guest by phone on his CRN program on Wednesday, February 7. We compared notes on the news of the day, including the efforts of the Deep State to destroy the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Having prepped for the interview, Farber also asked me about my experiences reporting on Senator George McGovern when he ran for president in 1972. Farber, it turns out, also knew Sen. McGovern. Our conversation went so well that I was invited back for the full hour of the program six days later. In the meantime, Barry and I had a chance to exchange several emails and chat off the air. My plan now is to conduct a series of interviews with Barry Farber, for publication and also to ask him, for the benefit of the permanent historical record, about a wide range of people and issues in recent history who and which he is personally and intimately familiar with.
Listening to Barry Farber is like opening the door to a vibrant and living history of America from the middle of the 20th Century onward. At this point, I can’t think of anyone who I would rather talk to or who would have more to offer us as we try to understand the history of our times and – just maybe – come together as a people to make America great again.
Above: Two of Barry Farber’s Best Selling Books
Not surprisingly, considering his facility with language, Barry Farber is also a widely published writer. In addition to contributing articles to leading newspapers including the New York Times, he is the author of several books, including How to Learn Any Language and Making People Talk: You Can Turn Every Conversation into a Magic Moment. Amazon currently has two used hardcover copies of the latter book, published in 1987, for sale at $6,890.10 and $9,029.00 not including shipping. Since 2009 Farber has contributed an article per week at World Net Daily. His archive there numbers over 440 articles, published like clockwork every seven days. This is a man with a strong, disciplined work ethic. Like his nightly radio broadcast, his articles are well worth our attention.
In November 2014, Farber’s original hometown newspaper, the Greensboro, North Carolina News & Record, published a feature article titled “Farber’s road to Radio Hall of Fame started here.” The piece is rich with biographical detail. It also includes a telling quote by Farber, elicited from him when he was interviewed by his daughters Celia Farber and Bibi Farber, women of significant accomplishments in their own right, who joined their father on his own radio program on November 7th, 2014. Farber told his daughters and his audience:
“I would rather burn out than rust out. I am one of those who will not retire.”
It is a great gift to all of us that Barry Farber continues to feel that way.
Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture. In addition to his writing, Peter has been a guest commentator on NBC, PBS, the CBC in Canada, and, on January 4, 2018, the BBC in London. For announcements and links to a wide selection of Peter’s published and broadcast work, follow him on Twitter at @pchowka.