The WNEW on-air staff circa 1977, with Pete Fornatale second from left.
For a disc jockey, Pete Fornatale had a nerdy voice. But it was soothingly nerdy—imagine the friendly, reedy bleat of Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, only tamped down by Jackson Browne instead of hopped-up on Gospel.
Fornatale, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 66, was the beau idéal of the FM D.J., and I was lucky, in my youth, to happen upon him in his 1970s heyday at the New York station WNEW. In 1977, I was a pre-teen growing wary of the Top 40 AM station that I listened to regularly, WABC: the rote playlists, the noisy commercials, and the unctuous baritones that all their D.J.’s seemed to have, the aural equivalent of pompadours and bad dye jobs. What broke my faith in WABC for good was a family car ride on August 16 of that year, when we heard the station jock on duty announce, in the same brassy, hustling tones with which he’d earlier introduced Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” “Elvis Presley diiiiiiiied today!” Good god, did these men not have souls?
My older siblings were already listening to WNEW, where Fornatale had worked since 1969, and I followed them there. WNEW had what would prove, in retrospect, to be an all-star stable of free-form FM pioneers, among them Scott Muni, Vin Scelsa, Alison Steele, and Dennis Elsas, but Fornatale was the one who spoke to me, literally and spiritually. That voice, which to my AM-trained juvenile ears sounded so wrong for radio, made him seem like an underdog, a dork among the cool kids, which suited my own self-perception. And the eclecticism of his shows was liberating. It wasn’t hip to like the Beach Boys at that time, but I loved them and Pete played them, and he was unafraid to intermarble the strange, twitchy new music of the nascent New Wave (e.g., the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and Talking Heads’ “Pulled Up”) with the denimy, singer-songwriterly sounds of Browne, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell.
My brother was on WNEW’s mailing list and late in ’77 received a giant wall poster (above) featuring all of the station’s D.J.’s peering through the windows of an old train car, its exterior graffitied (suitably for the period) with the slogan BUILT ON SOLID ROCK. It was gratifying to discover that Fornatale looked exactly as I expected him to: skinny, bespectacled, and bearded—your kindly adjunct professor of rock studies.
In the 1980s, I fell out of love with radio, and so, it seems, did Fornatale, who felt increasingly marginalized by formatting strictures and the rise of shock-talk. But the streaming-and-podcast era brought me back into the fold, with one station in particular, WFUV-FM, which broadcasts from the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx, enchanting me with its remarkably vintage-WNEW-like spirit. How apt, then, that this station turned out to be not only the very place where Fornatale got his start as a college sophomore in 1964, but also the place where he finally found a proper home again in his later years. (Scelsa and Elsas have also found safe haven at FUV.) Fornatale hosted a Saturday program called “Mixed Bag,” each week devoted to a specific theme; as recently as two weeks ago he was on the air, commemorating the centennial of the Titanic’s sinking with a characteristically all-over-the-place playlist.
The big WNEW poster still hangs upon a wall of my brother’s old bedroom, which my septuagenarian mother has never bothered to redecorate, rendering it an unwitting shrine to the FM era. Pete and his colleagues smile out at a poster on the opposite wall of the Willis Reed-era Knicks, and a few feet away from a tacked-up still of James and Carly from the No Nukes concert film, and near a novelty bumper sticker that reads JESUS SAVES—BUT MOSES INVESTS! It’s precisely the kind of mixed bag that would have made for a great Pete Fornatale show.
Listen here for an amazing 1977 in-studio appearance by an uncommonly chipper Brian Wilson on Pete Fornatale’s WNEW show.