Barry Farber was my pal for over 50 years, since we first met on November 4, 1965.
I know the exact date because we were on the air together in a tribute to our mutual friend, the great war correspondent, Dickey Chapelle, who had just been killed on a combat patrol in Vietnam.
Word of Barry’s recent death, reported everywhere from the New York Times to Washington Post, hurt — a whole lot. He was a great guy and a wonderful friend.
That’s why I want to tell you a little about the man, not the legend.
Sure, Barry was a father of talk radio and ranked the ninth greatest radio talk show host of all time by the industry publication Talkers Magazine. He was also inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame and was named Talk Show Host of the Year by the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts. The obituaries and tributes all duly noted this.
So listeners wouldn’t miss anything, Barry stopped guests who continued to debate while off the air. “Don’t waste the fight in the dressing room.”
But, all the success, honors, and acclaim do not capture the basic goodness of my buddy, Barry Farber.
When my 19-year-old son drowned in an accident, friends came from all sides to comfort, help, and advise. When I said I’d give the eulogy, nearly everyone was against the idea for fear that I might collapse while doing it. Plan B: Have someone standing by to finish if I couldn’t. An awesome task. Barry was called.
Barry had a perfect excuse to avoid a terrible experience: He was scheduled to be on the air at the same time as the service. But a mutual friend, another talk show great, Bruce Williams, stepped up to host the show so Barry could come to the funeral. He studied my eulogy notes and stood beside me until I finished.
Barry probably interviewed and set up debates with more political figures, celebrities, and other news-makers than anyone else in history. And he treated all of them fairly, regardless of their viewpoints. Unlike most talk-show hosts, he didn’t stack his panels against one side.
Barry gave airtime to hundreds of good causes, but if they were controversial, he’d bring on another guest with an opposing opinion.
Those who appeared on the Farber show even included undercover Soviet intelligence agents. They received the same courtesy extended to all guests.
Barry’s political views evolved over the years. The biggest changes in his outlook occurred when he moved to New York City from North Carolina.
Because of his strong opposition to segregation, he thought of himself as a liberal, but discovered that on many issues his views clashed with those of Northern liberalism.
Barry coined the expression “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.”
His strong anti-communism was nurtured while he was in college, especially when he attended the 1951 Zagreb Peace Conference. By 1956, he was helping to smuggle Hungarian freedom fighters into Austria after the collapse of the anti-Soviet uprising.
His world travel and exciting experiences added authenticity to a pleasant Southern drawl and a sharp wit. The Farber persona mesmerized radio audiences and kept them awake for hours listening to his late-night shows.
I can attest to the impact of his broadcasts. On countless occasions, people I’d just met told me that they listened to me for hours on Barry’s show. That includes many old folks who say they were fans when they were teenagers … a half century ago.
Barry put it in his usual unique way. “I’ve been told I kept more people up nights than Mexican food.” Or, when the children were out of the room, “more than sex.”
Another indication of his drawing power was an occasional audience from 1440 Broadway, the office building where WOR broadcast.
At night, there were only cleaning personnel, plus a handful of white-collar workers still at their desks. Most tuned their radios to the Farber show, and when debates became especially heated, they came to the 24th floor from all over the building and crowded into the control room to watch the fireworks.
What were the secrets to Barry’s incredible popularity?
First, unlike most talk shows, his program wasn’t an ego trip for the host.
He was a genius at orchestrating interesting conversations, even when the participants were hot under the collar. And — super important — if things did heat up, it did not become a screaming session. Barry was the referee, the adult in the room, not an additional shouting voice as on most talk shows today.
He regularly assured his audiences that more interesting discussion was coming. Going into a commercial break, he’d often promise “To be continued” — a line he sometimes used to close the show.
So listeners wouldn’t miss anything, Barry stopped guests who continued to debate while off the air. “Don’t waste the fight in the dressing room,” he said.
He had a great sense of humor, with an endless supply of stories and one-liners. Both sophisticated and country, they were pleasing to almost everyone.
Barry’s ad libs were priceless. My favorite came late one night after I slipped him a note while we were on the air. It said I’d have to leave soon to get the last bus home. He looked at my message, then complained to the audience, “Where did I go wrong? Johnny Carson’s guests leave early to catch a plane to the west coast. Mine leave early to get the last bus to Sayreville, New Jersey.”
I usually stayed overnight to join other guests in going to a nearby watering hole after the show, half partying and half continuing to discuss serious subjects. Always the Southern gentlemen, Barry flirted with many of the women guests. But he never made any of them feel uncomfortable.
In his endless effort to get things done, he always carried a supply of small pieces of paper. He’d stop in the middle of conversations to jot down reminders.
Barry was passing on wisdom, coated with humor, right to the end. He recently told his daughter, Celia, of his concept of death: “Going somewhere I’ve never been before. Like Finland or Estonia.”
As Barry always said, to be continued.
Charles Wiley, a veteran journalist who served in World War II and covered 11 wars as a reporter, is a longtime popular speaker for Accuracy in Media, continuing to speak on campuses still today, into his 90s. Wiley racked up thousands of hours on air with Barry Farber.