“There goes the last DJ/Who plays what he wants to play/And says what he wants to say, hey hey hey…” – Tom Petty “The Last DJ”
On April 26, a seminal voice that was an integral part of the local airwaves was silenced when Port Washington’s hometown hero Pete Fornatale died from a stroke at the age of 66. Part of the class of free-form rock DJs whose ranks included Dennis Elsas, Vince Scelsa and Carole Miller along with late lamented names like WNEW-FM icons Scott Muni, Fornatale mentor Rosko and Alison Steele, the former high school teacher was part of a vanguard of FM broadcasters who counterbalanced the condescending and infantilized manner in which the dominant AM stations of the ’60s and early’70s treated rock ’n’ roll. And while corporate radio monoliths eventually wrapped their rapacious tentacles around any semblance of creativity by way of narrow formatting, skeletal playlists and jocks who were essentially scripted if not automated, Fornatale was one of the dwindling group of Don Quixotes titling at the Clear Channel windmills of the world.
Fornatale got his start on radio in 1963 at Fordham University as an undergraduate. Somehow he got university administrators to sign off on “Campus Caravan,” a primitive free-form format that predated West Coast progressive radio legend Tom Donahue’s infamous Rolling Stone article, “AM Radio is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves” by four years. Fornatale later came full circle when he returned to 90.7 WFUV-FM, the campus radio station of his alma mater.
During the nearly five decades he was on the radio, Fornatale eventually became best-known as the longtime voice of the much-beloved “Mixed Bag,” a program that was a blend of rock and folk, with a heavy emphasis on singer-songwriters. The show was most noted for its creator’s propensity to string songs together around a theme, be it a holiday, current event or Fornatale’s deep-seeded love of baseball. It was what he once said was, “…a three-hour trip with me from Point A to Point F, and if you stay for the duration, when we arrive at our destination, you’re hopefully going to be wowed.”
Naturally inquisitive and easygoing, Fornatale was one of the medium’s best interviewers. And while he counted The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, Richie Havens and Art Garfunkel as personal friends, the late DJ was as avuncular in person as he came across on the radio. Both times that I had the privilege of meeting up to interview him for separate pieces, Fornatale was a genial subject, who gave me a tour of his North Shore hometown of Port Washington and Rockaway Park, where he later lived. And while I came to chat with him about music and later projects like his books and multi-media presentations, Pete would invariably turn into the natural-born interviewer he was, genuinely inquiring about my family and projects I was working on.
Fornatale’s empathy extended to the less fortunate and it was as large as the encyclopedic breadth of music knowledge he carried around in his head. While it would have been easy to pick a pet cause and lend a minimal amount of support to it while doing his weekly broadcast, the Bronx native instead became a board member of World Hunger Year, (now known as WhyHunger), the organization co-founded by Harry Chapin and Bill Ayres in 1976. For me, hearing Pete’s voice on the radio serving as the co-host of numerous annual Hungerthon fundraisers was as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and cranberries.
During the brief time spent with him during his program, Fornatale’s mellifluous and genial tone made it feel as if you were exploring music with a close friend whether you were in a car, with a group of friends or in the privacy of your home. His passion for music and being a broadcaster was genuine and if there was any doubt on my part, he pointed out that, “The thing about radio is that as long as you can keep your voice and wits, you can probably do it until you drop, and that’s my current intention.” I’ve no doubt that Pete is warming up those golden pipes and getting ready to pull together the first of an infinite amount of themed-playlists sure to keep St. Peter and his acolytes entertained for eons to come.