The Fordham University community mourns the untimely death of rock historian and WFUV veteran disk jockey Pete Fornatale, FCRH ’67, an icon and legend of the New York FM radio scene for more than four decades.
Fornatale, who was 66, died on Thursday, April 26 after suffering a stroke.
Fornatale got his start in radio as a Fordham sophomore in 1964, when he created Campus Caravan, WFUV’s first rock and roll show, at a time when deep exploration of rock music was virtually nowhere to be found on the airwaves.
The 19-year-old Bronx native developed a format of playing lesser known artists, and album cuts beyond artists’ hit singles, which grew into a new form of late sixties progressive rock FM broadcasting that influenced a whole generation of listeners.
“If you heard a thoughtful opinion on the state of rock and roll, Pete Fornatale was saying it. If you heard a hot musician talking on the radio, Pete Fornatale was doing the interview. If you heard a new song on the air, Pete Fornatale was playing it,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham. “In many ways he was the voice of a generation—of several generations—and we will not see his like again. If they have FM radio in heaven, they’re listening to Pete right now.”
Fornatale was born in 1945 and was raised in the Belmont section of the Bronx. He attended Fordham Prep before enrolling at the University, where he had the rare opportunity to meet and be influenced by media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who in 1967 was a visiting professor at Fordham.
He got his first job in commercial radio at New York City’s WNEW-FM in July 1969, just weeks before the Woodstock Festival took place, and where—on his very first show—he had to read an advertisement for the festival. That uncanny connection to an event that defined the sixties counterculture never left him and, on its 40th anniversary, he published Back To The Garden: The Story of Woodstock (Touchstone, 2009).
“I always associate Woodstock with my own important anniversaries of being on New York radio,” Fornatale said in an interview in 2009, drawing a parallel between a new progressive radio format and a rock concert, both of which broke the molds of their times. “Not knowing it at the time, [we]created this brand of radio that influenced an entire generation,” he said.
After two decades in commercial radio at WNEW and WXRK (K-Rock), Fornatale returned to WFUV in 2001, where he hosted Mixed Bag for the last 11 years. The show was heard nationally on WFUV and on XM Sirius Radio every Saturday from 4 until 8. His distinctly non-AM voice, with its unassuming tones and easy, discursive style, drew listeners worldwide—as did his encyclopedic knowledge of rock and roll.
“This is a devastating loss, not just for his family, friends, and colleagues at WFUV, but for radio listeners everywhere,” said Chuck Singleton, interim general manager of WFUV. “Pete was a beloved air personality and a master communicator. His influence as a pioneer of progressive FM radio is almost incalculable.”
Over the years, Fornatale conducted interviews with some of rock and roll’s most legendary musicians – The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Richie Havens, Emmylou Harris, Lou Reed, Pete Seeger, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cyndi Lauper, and Ben Folds, among others. He was also instrumental in introducing new artists on his show, including Suzanne Vega, The Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin. Colvin, who has won several Grammy Awards, told The New York Times in 2001, “Pete helped pave the way for so many of us. He was a rare guy in radio then.”
His knowledge and passion for music was also reflected in his career as an author. He wrote or co-wrote six books on pop culture and music, including Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (Rodale, 2007) and All You Need Is Love: And 99 Other Life Lessons from Classic Rock Songs (Touchstone, 1998).
He regularly served as an expert guest commentator on PBS specials on legendary rock performers. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the coveted Armstrong Award for Excellence in Musical Programming, and the New York AIR Award for Achievement in Radio. In February, he received the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists’ 2012 AMEE award for excellence in broadcasting.
Fornatale was a board member of WhyHunger, a grassroots support organization that works with community groups to fight hunger and poverty, and served as co-anchor of the annual Hungerthon broadcasts.
On his return to WFUV in 2001, Fornatale commented to The New York Times about his unusual move back to noncommercial radio: ‘”Working at WFUV now is a blessing in more ways than you can imagine,” he said. “’Walking the streets where I grew up, in the corridors where I first started my career, playing the music that I love so much and that touches people so deeply. It’s a rare opportunity to be relative, vital, alive and creative.
“Time passes so fast. One minute I’m a kid reading my first station I.D. at WFUV, I blink and it’s 2001 and my wife is kissing me goodbye, wishing me luck at my first day back. My life’s all wrapped up in a nice red ribbon.”
He is survived by his former wife, Susan, and three sons; Peter Thomas, Mark, FCRH ’98, and Steven, FCRH ’02.
(For a personal reflection on Pete, visit FordhamNotes.)