Bart Feder is a self-declared presidential geek. He memorized all of the U.S. presidents when he was only 5 years old and has been collecting antiquarian presidential books for the last 20 years. In fact, the collection has become so expansive, he has lost count of the number of volumes that fill the library of his New Jersey home.
His trove of presidential knowledge didn’t go unnoticed when Feder, 51, joined CNN in early 2008 as senior VP of programming. One day, then- CNN political director Sam Feist asked aloud if there had ever been a president from Indiana. Feder answered immediately, “Benjamin Harrison.” The room was impressed, and for the rest of election season, the staff made a sport of Feder’s “steel trap memory,” asking him a trivia question at the start of every morning meeting until inauguration day in 2009.
If Feder himself was a president, he’d be the kind you’d want to have a few beers with, according to his colleague and friend Darius Walker, CNN New York bureau chief. The two first met more than 20 years ago when Feder was an 11 p.m. producer at WHDH Boston and Walker was his assignment editor. “He’s very personable, very likeable,” Walker says. “By looking at him and talking to him, you wouldn’t get the sense that he’s so intense in his work.”
But Feder has always been passionate about the news. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the youngest of three; his father was a teacher and his mother a homemaker. As a child, he slept with a radio under his pillow at night, drifting off to the sounds of the all-news station. He skipped a grade and graduated high school early, enrolling in college when he was just 16. Starting as a political science major, he soon joined the radio station at Brooklyn College and was immediately hooked.
By 18, he was working full-time at WINS news radio in New York; college became a part-time gig. He recalls teachers asking if he could get them an interview at the radio station, which “kind of changes your perspective,” he says.
So while Feder attended three colleges over five years, he never graduated, a track record he now has to defend to his three teenage children, who like to hold it over his head. “I tell them do what I say, not what I did,” he says. “I don’t recommend my career path to anybody, it just happened to work out for me. “
While Feder did on-air work briefly at the college radio station and early in his 3½-year tenure at WINS, he always wanted to be behind the scenes as a writer, editor and producer. “I decided pretty early on that I liked the idea of doing more than one story at a time,” he says.
That ultimately led him toward management, and he worked as a news director at four different TV stations in the 1980s and ’90s, including the flagship WABC New York for four years. Throughout his career, he has earned a reputation as fair, balanced and methodical in a high-pressure environment. “He’s really thoughtful in his process of dealing with situations,” Walker says. “He’s a voice of reason and will think things through.”
Feder took an eight-year hiatus from television in the 2000s to serve as an executive at Web video company The FeedRoom. But when the bubble burst and the FeedRoom changed into a software company, he started searching for his replacement. And when the CNN position opened up at the end of 2007, he jumped at it, anticipating the big news year ahead. “I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather spend the election year of 2008 than at CNN,” he says.
A news guy to the core, Feder doesn’t spend his time defending CNN’s ratings against the louder networks of MSNBC and Fox News. “Our job is to do the best job as journalists and put the best product on the air, and when it actually matters, the world shows up,” he says. “And that’s enormously satisfying.”
As senior VP, Feder is responsible for all New York-based programming. He soon will turn his attention to developing a show for Erin Burnett, who joins the network this month. For now, CNN is leaving its options open regarding the show’s format and time slot, with Feder saying, “We don’t have any pressure as to when it launches.”
And then there’s of course the looming presidential election, always a boon to the network. Asked if the CNN team would revive the trivia tradition for 2012, Feder replies with a laugh, “My God, I hope not. It became very stressful.”
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