By Richard Neer
WFAN, New York
Talk Show Host
NEW YORK — He wasn’t a talker in the sense that he hosted programs on traditional news/talk outlets. Indeed the content of most of his programs featured more music than talk. But when he did crack the mic, you couldn’t find a more intelligent voice observing pop culture than the late Pete Fornatale.
Pete got his start at WFUV-FM, the Fordham campus station and, ironically, that is where he did his final program in mid-April. In his own way, he was every bit the pioneer that radio legend Alan Freed was in exposing popular music to the masses. The difference was that while the early rock ‘n’ rollers spun “silly love songs” that you could dance to, Fornatale cared more about the lyrics, not the beat.
He was one of the first to string together songs in a meaningful fashion – the art of the segue – as it became known. There was a purpose behind every record he played. When CSNY rushed the single, “Ohio” to radio stations to protest the Kent State killings, Pete was the first to play it, indeed repeating it several times before enhancing it with his own emotional comments on the tragedy.
Peter also paved the way for talkers with unconventional voices. His own was slightly nasal with a higher pitch than the sonorous tones listeners were used to on big city radio. But in New York, that qualm quickly passed with astute listeners who were enlightened by the content of what he said. He was probably the first real musicologist on commercial radio who presented rock and folk music as an intellectual as well as emotional experience.
He wrote books, taught classes on many levels, gave lectures and hosted multimedia presentations. Unfortunately, in the early 1980s consultants took over what had been free form FM radio. They didn’t understand Peter’s appeal and lobbied to oust him from the midday shift he had occupied for so many years. When I was program director of WNEW-FM I tried to hold out as long as possible against some of the more radical changes the consultants wanted to affect. For Fornatale, my idea was a weekend program that played to his strengths, a show that was to be called “Mixed Bag,” after the Richie Havens album of the same name. He would play folk and country rock, songs with lyrics on a deeper level. When I broached the subject with him, he was excited and immediately expanded and refined my rough concept and made it his own. It became his hallmark program.
He took it with him wherever he went, from WNEW-FM to K-Rock and eventually back to WFUV-FM. He was a great interviewer and a dear friend to many artists, ranging from Garland Jeffries and Richie Furay (Poco) to Art Garfunkel. Musicians were comfortable talking to someone who truly understood and appreciated them.
Peter was always a pleasure to work with. Even if he didn’t agree with a particular direction, after expressing his views, he executed whatever he was asked with loyalty and dedication to his craft. He welcomed newcomers to the station with open arms and helpful advice. One major regret I have about writing my story of those years, FM:The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, is that I wasn’t able to interview Pete extensively, since he was working on a similar project and wanted to be heard in his own voice. Although he’s still a prominent character, his personal recollections would have made it a better book.
But fortunately, he leaves books of his own and numerous recordings, many available at his website. Peter passed away quietly the morning of April 26, 2012, but his voice will be heard for generations to come.
Richard Neer is a sports talk host at WFAN, New York, an anchor on A Touch of Grey, and sports editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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