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Remembering Pete Fornatale

Friday, April 27, 2012 - 11:29 AM

Growing up here in NY, I listened constantly to WNEW-FM, which in the 70s still bore traces of the ‘free-form’ radio that I had heard about but was too young to have actually experienced.  Each DJ had his (or, notably, her) own personality – not just in what they said, but in the choices of music they played.  Scott Muni was even then something of an eminence grise, whose show would occasionally feature people like The Who dropping by.  Alison Steele, “the Night Bird,” engaged in nocturnal flights of musical and poetic fantasy.  Vin Scelsa was the crazy uncle who refused to remain locked in the basement.

Pete Fornatale winning the 2012 AMEE Award in Broadcast on February 6, 2012.

In this environment, Pete Fornatale stood out for his friendly, folksy delivery.  And his midday slot was noticeably lighter in mood than anything else on the station.  Pete gravitated towards the singer/songwriters; here was where you would hear bands like Aztec Two-Step, Pure Prairie League, the Pousette-Dart Band, Dan Fogelberg.  He seemed to glide untouched through the revolution that was punk.  Musically, his shift on the air was the least in touch with my own, very punk-inflected tastes.  But there was no question of tuning to someone else.  First of all, most other radio in NY was dreadful; and second, Pete would slip in jazz and folk records – things I was surprised by, and often surprised to find I liked. 

When I entered Fordham University and stumbled upon WFUV, which was still at that time run by the students, Pete Fornatale was a name that the older students would occasionally drop as someone who’d come from FUV and had “made it.”  (Legendary sportscaster Vin Scully was another.) 

Well, time went by.  WNEW-FM lost listeners, lost its DJs, changed format, changed call letters.  WFUV became a largely professional station.  And one of the professionals they hired was Pete Fornatale.  (It is a far better radio station now then when I was their Music Director.  Still, there was a certain lunatic charm to the place when the inmates were running the asylum – you simply could never predict when some amazing disaster would take place on the air.)

In 2002, I had a chance to work with Pete, on the popular annual Winter Solstice broadcasts that NPR does each Holiday season.  I’ve hosted these events since NPR began airing them, and when the producer suggested Pete as a co-host, he did so somewhat gingerly… would I freak out?  Feel threatened?  Quit?  But it made perfect sense: I am pretty sure that like most other people, I first heard Paul Winter, and his hit song “Icarus,” on Pete’s old show. 

Working with Pete Fornatale was like not working at all.  He was of course completely comfortable behind a microphone.  Off-mic, we talked about our respective shows – actually, we talked about each other’s shows (I was absurdly flattered that he knew mine) – and FUV, and of course music.  And I was pleased to find that his friendly, folksy delivery was absolutely genuine. 

The last time I saw him was 2008, when he joined us on Soundcheck to talk about his book on the Simon & Garfunkel record Bookends, and its effect on the wider American culture.  This was Pete stepping out from behind the mic; going to the podium or lectern and illuminating a perhaps poorly-lit corner of the music world.  But there would be no Professor Fornatale – just good old Pete. 

Pete Fornatale died yesterday.  He was 66.  New York radio has lost an important, veteran figure, and a sweet guy. 

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Comments [8]

Mary from Hawthorne

I am a former WNEW listener, a WNYC listener and a WFUV fan. I can't remember a time when I did not listen to Pete Fornatale. My Saturday ritual is to switch on FUV at 4pm to listen to Mixed Bag. Pete's voice over the airwaves was always reassuring. Icarus will now forever be his theme song. I don't think I will ever be able to listen to it without half-expecting to hear Pete's voice announcing how that about wraps it up for today's show... So much music in my life thanks to Pete. Rest in peace.

May. 02 2012 08:25 AM
Kevin from Morristown NJ

Pete was may favorite on wnew I still have the 1985 Bob Dylan birthday bash on tape. He seemed down to earth and able to connect with every day listeners. No pretence no bs the real deal and even though I have not listened to him in a long while I often think about him, what a loss and oh so young. Perhaps he was too good to be truly appreciated. But we all appreciate him don't we? Rip Pete

Apr. 30 2012 10:49 PM
The G Man, The Gator, Ace and other monikers

Scott was the Professor, Pete was the A.P. together they and their collegues educated all of us in Album long playing rock and an alternative to AM radio. My station was tuned to WNEW all the time until it left them and left us. That group of DJ's were to '70's and early '80's what the WMCA and WABC Radio Good Guys were to AM radio in the late 50's and early 60's. We will never see that type of real programming again. While the DISCO crowd was tuned to WKTU, all of us anti-Disco types who like hard rock, heacy metal, hair bands, jazz, etc. were tuned to 102.7. I will never forget it. R.I.P. Pete. I always enjoyed your Mixed Bag

Apr. 28 2012 09:19 PM
VICTOR JUHASZ

So shocked and sad to read this tribute to Pete. Much too young to exit. WNEW-FM in its late 60s-70's heydey was the real deal. I believe they referred to it as underground radio. The lineup of DJs was indeed impressive. Pete was always a gentle, easy going friend on the radio and his selections were definitely enjoyable. He also had a stint on K-Rock for a while and caught a constant genial ribbing from Howard Stern. Condolences to his family.

Apr. 28 2012 03:49 PM
Susan A.

Thanks for your remembrance of Pete. I was a loyal listener back in the mid to late '70s. Although I had not followed him after the demise of WNEW, the announcement of his death was quit saddening. There was a wonderful warmth to his show. I'm glad to hear that he was as a friendly off the air as on.

Apr. 28 2012 08:03 AM
Susan

So overwhelmed what happened to Pete Fornatale! I have been listening all day hearing about the loss of this amazing hero. Peace to his family. FUV has become a member of my life. I have found as an artist FUV became a common link within my interst i music and life. I apologize because I am babbling...I am just so sad to loose someone I never met...give peace a chance.....

Apr. 27 2012 10:04 PM
Eddie

Nice summation John. Pete was the real thing. I often bought that not enough people appreciated his rare talent. Perhaps I was wrong. He will be missed!

Apr. 27 2012 07:50 PM
Platypus Daron from Astoria

Wanted to point out that Kiss-Fm really did some pioneering work back in the mid-late 90's as one of the first stations to bring "celebrity DJ's" (recording artists) onto the air hosting their own shows. Roberta Flack, and Isaac Hayes were good examples. This spawned a national copy-cat trend for a few years in syndicated radio networks. Kiss' format had several "copy cat" stations around the U.S.. Not sure if they were all owned by the same radio group.

-The Platypus

Apr. 27 2012 02:38 PM

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