Quality radio lost a real pioneer yesterday. Pete Fornatale, who was one of the innovative leaders in the early days of FM rock radio, died at 66 after suffering a brain hemorrhage two weeks ago.
Listeners in the New York area have known him for more than 40 years on Fordham University's WFUV and on WNEW-FM back in the late 60's and early 70s when that station was breaking new ground in radio and in music. More recently, we'd see him hosting on TV when PBS stations would run classic rock concerts during their fundraising periods.
I remember hearing Pete soon after he started on WFUV. I was in college in the late 60s and I got involved with the college FM radio station, first playing soft pop (we'd call it elevator music today) and then a twice-weekly jazz show. There were two stations at my school -- the AM rock station that played only in the dorm, and the FM station that, with its 10-watt signal, made it into the town and, on a good day if the wind was blowing right, got as far as the Canadian border 20 miles north. I gravitated to the FM station, since the AM was programmed in the style of the fast-talking, screaming rock DJs that were popular at the time. I was never glib in front of the microphone, so the slower-paced FM format better suited me.
I remember coming home on breaks and tuning to college stations in the area, to hear what others were doing. WFUV stood out like a beacon, and the calm and intelligent conversational-style DJs like Pete Fornatale were a welcome change. And on FM, especially college stations that were mostly commercial-free, the DJs could play longer album cuts -- even entire albums -- without interruption.
Pete Fornatale went on to commercial success on WNEW-FM in New York, which was the radio beacon for album rock -- what we then called alternative rock. He was on with other low-key DJs like Jonathan Schwartz (still heard these days playing and talking about Sinatra-era music on local radio here and also nationally on satellite radio), Alison "The Nightbird" Steele and Meg Griffin. These DJs didn't shout silly slogans at us. It was almost like they were guests in our living room, bringing some great records to play on our turntable and sitting across the room chatting with us about the music and the musicians. It was a novel concept back then, and Pete Fornatale was a master at it.
Thinking about Pete makes me recall the earlier days of radio 40 years ago. As someone who was on the air back then, it was a great time. The DJs pretty much played what they liked, with little or no interference from station management. These days, at most commercial stations the DJs are tightly confined to a list of what to play and when to play it -- often computer-generated from one of the major radio programming companies in Texas and elsewhere in the heartland. And half the time, no one bothers to say what songs you just heard or who performed them. It's like radio has lost its soul.
Radio used to be personal and local. Now it's largely automated and syndicated, with the local DJs doing little more than sequeing between music and ads. In many markets local radio news and public affairs programming is minimal or nonexistant, since the FCC 20 years ago lifted the requirement that broadcasters using the public airwaves devote some of that time to public service and news.
Thinking of Pete Fornatale brings back many memories of great radio listening. And luckily for me, it brings back personal memories of the fun I had sharing good music on the radio with unseen listeners.
Thanks, Pete, for helping keep radio's soul alive all these years.
Looking for an illustration for this post, I stumbled across some silent footage taken at my college radio station back when I was in school. This isn't me in the pictures, but this is the studio where I used to do my shows. Thanks to Ted Perkins for the video.