Remembering Barry Farber

A giant of conservative talk radio passes from the stage.

Surrounded by his beloved family, radio broadcast legend Barry Farber died at home, in his bed, on May 6, one day after his 90th birthday. His daughter subsequently recounted how her father had “told me recently that his concept of death was ‘going somewhere I’ve never been before, like Finland or Estonia.’”

A marvelous individual who had been so many places during the course of his nine decades of life, Mr. Farber was a gentleman in every sense of the word. A world-class scholar, he was too humble and self-effacing to make a spectacle of his brilliance. Instead, he doled it out in bite-sized pieces with a clarity that could be easily digested by everyone from child to university professor; with an easy charm that could disarm even the most fervent political foe; and with an eloquence that routinely held his radio audience spellbound.

Farber was born in Baltimore and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he witnessed enough anti-black discrimination to make him a passionate advocate of civil rights. Meanwhile, his early affinity for “social democracy” dissipated when he observed the abject failure of big-government programs across the United States. Thus, the young Democrat evolved into a conservative who championed the type of limited government envisioned by the Founders and the Framers.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Farber became a newspaper reporter and then entered the world of broadcast journalism as the producer of a New York-based interview program on WNBC. In 1960, he launched a new career as a radio talk-show host. While becoming one of the giants of the industry, Farber laid the groundwork – along with the late Bob Grant – for the giants who would come along a bit later: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Dennis Prager, Larry Elder, and others.

One of Farber's most remarkable achievements was his success at learning foreign languages. In his teen and college years alone, he mastered Italian, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Russian, and Serbo-Croatian. By the end of his life, Farber was fluent, to varying degrees, in more than 20 different tongues. In an interview he gave when he was 79, Farber described this accomplishment with his characteristic humor, humility, and understatement:

We have a language club [that meets] every Monday night in New York. And we advise those who come to the language club: When anybody asks you, 'how many languages do you speak,' it's dangerous to answer that with a digit higher than 1. Because somebody will come at you with some street slang in that language, and you'll lose your … credibility. So when you ask me, 'how many languages do you speak?', I give you the approved, politically correct answer. I say 'one.'  And then you pause and take a breath, and you say: 'However, I am a student of' – and then you add as many languages as you like to think you speak. I am a student of about 21.

Even a very limited familiarity with another language, said Farber, could serve to bridge psychological and cultural gaps between people who otherwise might fail to recognize important things that they had in common:

In no other field [besides the study of languages] is there as much difference between knowing zero, and knowing a little. If you're into brain surgery, for example, there's very little difference between knowing nothing, and knowing a little. If you're into the flying or servicing of intercontinental jet aircraft, there's very little difference between knowing nothing, and knowing a little. But if you know one word of [a] foreign language … Next time you're in a cab, let's say the driver is black … and you see by his name that it ends in an 'eau.'  […] He's got a French name and he's black. Ask him in English, 'Are you from Haiti?'  The answer is always yes. And when he says yes, say [something in] Haitian Creole. That's his language. And you'll see the smile light up from the back of his head.... The minute you give him one word, one phrase of his language, the ice turns into steam [and] doesn't even waste time going through the stage of water.

Notably, Farber drew a distinction between language and communication, the latter of which is something far deeper: “You can't define communication, rapport between two people. But when it's not going on, you know it's not going on. I mean, you know when you're clicking. And you know when you're dropping a tulip leaf down the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo.”

Farber also emphasized the importance of putting one's own ego aside, so as to leave room for courteousness and consideration of other people's feelings:

Once upon a time I was at a party, and the [hostess] was very, very wealthy. [And] somebody else at the party worked for Christie's or Sotheby's, you know, one of those galleries. And she said … 'Jean, I've got a customer for that picture' – she pointed to a picture on the wall – 'for $72 million.'  And the [hostess] didn't want to sell it. And the woman who asked her said, 'Why [not]?'  And the [hostess] said, 'Well, I like to look at it.'  That impressed me.

A couple of days later, I was a guest at an investment banker's office in midtown Manhattan, and he was showing me around. He was very proud of the artwork in the office, and he pointed to a picture and said: 'You see there, that picture alone is worth $17 million.'  Now, freeze. What is the natural human thing to do? The natural human thing to do is to say, 'Hey man, that's nothing. I was at a party the other night and I saw a picture worth $72 million.'  Uh-uh. No, no.… You'll get what you want a lot quicker if you just sit there and let yourself be impressed. Why rain on his parade?… It's just common sense. Put yourself in his position.

Another guideline for good manners, said Farber, was this: “Don't ever ask things, the negative answer to which would make [the other person] feel bad. [For example,] 'Do you still date that movie star?' […] 'How about that play you told us about, [that] you were writing, last Thanksgiving?'  But these are just two examples. Two communicatory snowflakes in an unending blizzard.”

Farber took a brief break from broadcasting in 1970, when he ran for New York's 19th U.S. House District seat against leftist Democrat Bella Abzug. Though Abzug won, Farber made an impressive showing for a conservative running in Manhattan's heavily Democratic West Side. Part of his appeal was his fearless style. When Abzug refused to debate him, Farber would confront her on the street while she was campaigning and challenge her to impromptu debates in public. On one occasion, he held a pocket tape recorder up to Mrs. Abzug's face and demanded: “Would you like to repeat your charge that I'm a red‐baiter in front of all these people?”

Following his election defeat in 1970, Farber returned to radio.

Seven years later, Farber again made a run for political office, this time seeking the mayoralty of New York City. After narrowly losing the Republican primary to Roy Goodman, he ran on the  Conservative Party line in the general election and lost to Democrat Ed Koch. Mike Long, the longtime Conservative Party state chairman who managed Farber's Republican primary bid in '77, recalls that Farber “campaigned in different languages and wowed crowds with his humor and historical anecdotes.”

From the late Seventies through 1989, Farber hosted an “Afternoon Drive” program on WMCA Radio in New York. In 1990, he became a national talk-show host on the ABC Radio Network. A few years after that, Farber, Michael Castello, and Alan Colmes collaborated to establish their own independent network, called Daynet. Farber eventually joined the Talk Radio Network as a weekend and fill-in host until 2017. And from 2009 to nearly the end of his life, he hosted a program on CRN Digital Talk. He made his final live broadcast the week before he died.

Mike Thompson, who worked with Farber on radio in the early 1980s, says that Farber “captivated any audience” with his skill as “a classic storyteller.” Central to that talent was Farber's ability to say just enough to spark the listener's attention, and just little enough to leave the listener begging to hear the rest of the story. Farber himself once recounted such an occasion:

'Charles Fawcett. American, Episcopalian aristocrat from Charleston, South Carolina, who married and divorced six Jewish women within 18 months to save their lives.'  Now, is there anybody who can live without hearing the rest of that story?

Sean Hannity once said of Farber: “Barry blazed the trail for all of us today in talk radio. I'm honored to call him a friend and a great American.” Rush Limbaugh put it this way: “Barry Farber was a standout when it was difficult to get a talk show – you had to be among the best to be hired to host long-form talk. Barry Farber was … the best.”

Talkers magazine honored Farber with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 2012. Two years later, Farber was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame.

Barry Farber was undoubtedly blessed with a great deal of natural ability and aptitude. But he achieved greatness in his field through exceedingly hard work and focused determination. “The way to succeed,” Farber once explained, “is to do first what the failures hate doing most.”

In his later years, Farber was was asked how he personally defined success. He replied:

My definition of success now is going to bed at night and realizing that there is nothing, there is nothing in your life that you have to apologize for. There is nobody you have wronged.... If you did, you made proper amends long ago. And there is absolutely zero-zero point zero-zero on your conscience.... Other elements of my life might be in chaos. But the important things are bull-proof and pig-tight. I don't owe anybody anything, and I haven't done anybody any wrong.

Those are the sentiments of a very good man who had his priorities in good order. That's what Barry Farber was. An extraordinarily good man who was too humble to ever boast about his prodigious and unique abilities. He will be greatly missed.