Pete Fornatale, pioneering NYC rock radio deejay and writer, dead at 66
Bronx native was one of first free-form deejays on early FM rock radio
By David Hinckley / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Thursday, April 26, 2012, 4:07 PM
Pete Fornatale, a New York deejay, historian and writer who for almost 50 years championed the spirit of musical freedom on the radio airwaves, died Thursday at Beth Israel Medical Center. He was 66.
He suffered a brain hemorrhage on April 15 and been in intensive care for the last week.
A native of the Bronx and a graduate of Fordham, Fornatale started his deejay career Nov. 21, 1964, hosting “Campus Caravan” on Fordham's WFUV.
He continued “Campus Caravan” until 1970, by which time he was also working at WNEW-FM as one of the pioneer free-form deejays on early FM rock radio.
“For the first time, we could play music on the radio the way we played it in our lives,” he said last year. “It wasn't just the top 40 played over and over. You could play longer tracks, you could play older tracks, you could make the music fit together.
“It was magical.”
“My fondest memory of Pete,” said his long-time radio colleague Pat St. John, “was listening to him one Sunday morning when he was doing a show on different songs about life.
“A particular favorite of mine is a very little-known song by Rick Nelson simply called ‘Life.’ After about an hour, I called Pete and suggested this tune, and he told me he'd just cued it up and it’d be the next song he was going to play.
“It goes, ‘Life, what are we here for? / I want to know more.’”
Fornatale worked at WNEW-FM until 1989, when he moved to WXRK. He briefly moved back to WNEW-FM a few years later.
But as commercial radio moved further away from the free-form spirit, he and other free-form advocates became increasingly disenchanted.
In 2001, he returned to non-commercial WFUV, where he hosted a free-form show he had started in 1982 called “Mixed Bag.” He also hosted a weekly in-depth interview show, and he frequently tied both shows to historic or contemporary themes.
His last “Mixed Bag” show on April 14, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
“This is just the right amount of radio to be doing,” he said last year. “I have this show every week where I can say what I want, but I don't have to be scrambling to fill four hours every day. That gets harder as you get older.”
He developed close relationships with artists like Paul Simon over the years and was also active in several charity organizations.
That included World Hunger Year, which was co-founded by his friend Harry Chapin in 1975 and is now run by cofounder Bill Ayres as WhyHunger.
Fornatale raised money and hosted WHY events for many years.
He also wrote a number of books on music, including a history of Woodstock and a biography of Simon and Garfunkel. He often hosted shows on WNET and was a consultant on music projects for MTV and VH1.
He said last year he was always fascinated by “the real stories of what happened with music and songs. So much gets mythologized, but to me the real story is almost always better.”
He won the Armstrong Excellence in Broadcasting Award in 1983 and received AFTRA's Media and Entertainment Excellence Award in February at the Plaza.
Fornatale was born and raised in the Belmont section of the Bronx, known as Little Italy.
He was just a few years behind Dion and the Belmonts, who were one of his favorite artists, and he recalled growing up to the sound of vocal harmony groups, as well as Elvis and early rockers.
The first record he bought, he said, was Elvis’s “Hound Dog.”
He graduated from Fordham Prep before he attended Fordham, and after he graduated he spent two years as a teacher before going into radio full-time.
“Pete was always teaching us,” said folksinger and friend Christine Lavin, “even when we thought we were just being entertained.”
Fornatale is survived by his ex-wife Susan and their three sons, Peter, Mark and Steven.