‘Nixon Republican’ vs. ‘Louisiana Biggot’ and the Fairness Doctrine
“Talk show hosts are laid-back people with pretty faces and boyish grins,” read a profile by United Press International when Barry Farber got a TV show after more than two decades on the radio.
“Farber is craggy, shaggy and intense. He frowns. He ruminates. He interrupts conversations to take notes with a ball point pen that virtually
disappears in the great paw at the end of his shirt sleeve. … He looks more like a hungry bear demolishing a log in search of his dinner, and that’s just the way guests in his ’arena’ may perceive him before they retire, bathed in sweat and wondering whatever possessed them to take him on in the first place.”
As it turned out, Farber—who got his first radio program in New York in 1960—had a short lived TV tenure in the early 1980s, but one need only read this description to understand the impact he had on future talk show hosts in general.
In other venues he has been widely credited for offering reasoned commentary without the bombast so prevalent today. “For the sake of ratings, I will not get into race-baiting and polarization and divisiveness. I will not pretend to be ignorant and stupid,” he said in a 1996 interview. “People like me are at a disadvantage today.”
Farber remains a longtime staple in the New York market and a national voice. He is widely reported to know 26 languages. But the North Carolina native who kept a slight southern accent even he reached big city radio, is quite modest about his knowledge of languages.
“When I entered the Army, I took tests in 14 languages and I qualified as an interpreter and that’s how I spent my time in the Army, translating,” Farber said in an interview for this book. “I am a student of as many as 26 languages. Some I know very, very well. Some I know only greetings, and some I can simultaneous translation in. But it would be wrong to give the impression that I’m fluent in 26 languages. I’ve done broadcast and speeches. I’ve done speeches in Hungarian, Norwegin, Spanish, and I participated in Spanish broadcast and in French, but not extensively.”
He is a self described “Nixon Republican” even after the downfall.
“I was liberal when it came to the issues of racial justice,” Farber said, speaking of his early days when civil rights was the defining domestic issue and the Cold War was the defining international issue. “But I had lucked out and visited the communist world on a fluke when I was 21 years old (Yugoslavia) and I saw all the anticommunist stuff I read was true and it was true in big dimensions. I was very, very liberal on the issue of race, very, very rightwing when it came to issues of communism vs. freedom.”
William Safire, who would go on to become a Nixon speech writer and then a New York Times columnist, gave Farber his first job as a producer for the Tex and Jinx interview program that broadcast over WNBC-AM.
He got his own radio program in 1960 on 1010 WINS-AM, called “Barry Farber’s WINS Open Mike.” It was the only talk program on what was at the time a rock-n-roll station.308 Given the time, it never occurred to him that he could play an influential role advancing the conservative movement as current day talk hosts. Instead, 1010 WINS put his show on to fulfill an education requirement and keep the FCC dogs at bay who had grown hungry after the Payola scandal.
“My first job, I was literally skin grafted with a one hour talk show onto a station that didn’t want or need a talk show but figured they damn well better start moving in the direction they had promised they would or they would lose their license,” Farber said in describing his circumstances. “So I was on WINS when it was a total Rock-n-Roll station, number one in New York, and that’s where I got my first job on New York’s number one station, Rock-n-Roll. I was the one hour talk show from 11 at night to midnight.”
“In those days we didn’t think of ourselves as nation-savers, America rescuers, or ralliers of whatever our political opinion was,” Farber said. “We didn’t know it was possible to criticize politicians,” he said. “It occurred to me to get more exciting guests and bigger name guests. It never occurred to me to do what Rush and Sean are doing today. I really wish it had.”
Throughout most of the 1960s and 1970s, he became a fixture on WOR.311 In 1967, he became an all night host. He considered the station a dynastic station, with programs passed from one generation of hosts to the next.
“In 1962, I was invited over to WOR, which was sort of like being invited to the throne room. That was the number one station. I was not part of a dynasty. I was the first Farber there, 8:15 to 9,” he said. “Then they added 9:15 to 10. Then they gave me the all night and kept 8:15 to 9 because we were really bringing in good money. I would set with my panel from 11:15 to 2:03 and 30 seconds in the morning. Then they would play that over again, and that would bring them out to 5 a.m. So when you consider, here I am on the air Monday through Friday, 8:15 to 9 and 11:15 to 5 in the morning, plus repeats on the weekends, I was more than 25 percent of WOR’s entire work week.”
Of the Fairness Doctrine days, Farber said he was glad to see it go, but in all of his broadcast years prior to 1987, he was never personally affected.
“I’ll tell you a dirty little secret. We dealt in opinion all the time and the Fairness Doctrine was only invoked upon me once. It was observed in the breach. It was ignored,” Farber said. “Now the Fairness Doctrine was worse than a lot of people realize. It didn’t merely say we had to grant equal time if somebody felt aggrieved and asked for equal time. If someobody were mentioned in a negative way under the Fairness Doctrine, we were obliged to seek that victim out and invite him to take equal time.”
The only time he was cited for violating the doctrine was in the 1960s when a white supremacist named Richard Cotton, who Farber called “a Louisiana bigot,” demanded his time to respond.
“All I owed him was about four seconds,” since a guest mentioned him in a roll call of bigots. “But I thought, this is a hoot. This is a new thing for me. Instead of giving him four seconds, whatever that would have done, I invited him on for the whole 11:15 to 2:07 in the morning.”
“He said ‘Mr. Farber, I’m entitled to be here and I’m entitled to have my say. The first thing I want to say is that America was on the wrong side in two wars: The Civil War and World War II.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon.’ He said, ‘You heard me. America was on the wrong side in the Civil War and World War II,” Farber recalled. “I said, ‘I’m from North Carolina, so anyone can argue that. But you mean we should have never fought the late Adolph Hitler?’” he recalled. “He said ‘You heard me. We were on the wrong side.’ It went like that all the way through.”
Farber responded with history, reason and logic and said, “I wiped him out, he was a smoking crater.” But, he said the most powerful
letter he ever received came after the biggot’s appearance. “Dear Mr. Farber, You must be proud of yourself for having destroyed Richard Cotton on the air the other night. Not so fast Mr. Farber. You see, they play by a different rule book. They don’t care about coming into radio studios and winning debates. His mission is to recruit 50 other mentally ill haters out there who will write a post card to his P.O. Box and send him $50 for his Christmas hate package.”
Farber felt horrible, and said the letter was correct. “They don’t care about winning arguments. They want to recruit like-minded people and the only way they can do that is to be as extreme as they can possibly sound.”
But ultimately, “In my experience, the Fairness Doctrine, was almost never invoked … People were attacked right and left by my guests and we never heard from them again. And I remind you this is WOR this is not some little dinky station somewhere.”
Farber believes expanding universe of talk radio, made possible by ditching the Fairness Doctrine, has definitely improved the dial.
“More people with more knowledge are coming on,” Farber said.
Covering a quarter of WOR’s airtime was enough exposure to give him political aspirations.
He exited radio in 1977 to run for mayor of New York City. He initially sought the Republican nomination, but before the primary, the Conservative Party nominated him, putting him in company with William F. Buckley, the Conservative Party candidate for New York mayor in 1965. The difference is that Buckley famously said the first thing he do if he won was demand a recount. Farber had a strategy for winning.