I Heard Them on the Radio
I grew up listening to voices.
According to my mother and my own dim memories, growing up in Fresh Meadows, I would be done at the playground around 4 p.m. and be taken back to our apartment in time for me to watch Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Back then, the show was aired daily and I was apparently fascinated by the music and the dancing.
After moving to Long Island, I went to sleep with a transistor radio playing (much as my mother used) and the station was set to WNBC, which then was a talk radio format and every night I listened to host Brad Crandall. One night, I distinctly recall going downstairs to call in about some long-forgotten topic but as I sat on hold, I noticed my father watching television, seeing for the first time, a bunch of people in red, blue and gold shirts stand on a platform and vanish. But I digress.
Whenever we drove, the radio was on and I was captivated by Bob Murphy and the crew calling games for the New York Mets. His voice became a constant for me for the next forty years until his passing in 2004.
Harkening back to pop music, the other voice that became a companion belonged to Cousin Brucie. Bruce Morrow was the most popular disc jockey on WABC, the top 40 behemoth that dominated New York radio in the 1960s. For many, many years, it was his upbeat tone that introduced me to one group after another, playing my favorites without my having to ask.
As I entered adolescence, FM radio had become the bastion of progressive rock music and new stations sprouted up. WPLJ was FM’s Top 40 wasteland while New York’s WNEW and Long Island WLIR had the more interesting music and better disc jockeys. I got to know them all, from Dave Herman to Dennis Elsas, from Scott Muni to the Nightbird herself, Alison Steele. Steele, keeping us company from 10 p.m. into the early morning hours, tried to find new ways to differentiate the rise of heavy metal music and coined the term “Thunder Rock”, exemplified by Blue Oyster Cult’s “Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll”. While the phrase never caught on, I give her credit for getting us to think about what we were hearing. Her opening poetry and commentary was never less than captivating.
It was WLIR, the scruffier, more free-wheeling station from “smallola” (a.k.a Mineola) that first introduced me and my peers to punk rocks and alternative bands such as The Talking Heads. Jocks seemed to go from LIR to NEW to PLJ and back again. It was weird when guys I went to high school with wound up become broadcasters for these stations because I knew the, and their voices connected me to music and home in new ways.
But, as formats changed, the jockeys either adapted or faded away. One, who maintained his distinct style and seemed to bend with the changing breezes was Pete Fornatale, who I first heard on WNEW. Pete could play the best rock but also proved FM’s versatility with a show he dubbed “Mixed Bag”. Apparently, he began experimenting with this while a sophomore at Fordham, pioneering while hosting a show on WFUV-FM. He then simulcast on WNEW before making the jump to the professional station. Pete played long form music and is credited for introducing New York listeners to groups including Poco and Buffalo Springfield.
As the formats changed around him, Pete stayed in place, formalizing his style with the introduction of “Mixed Bag” in 1982, a show he did continuously until he left WNEW and its sad abandonment of rock for talk. Then he took his bag to WXRK in 1989 before coming full circle and finding a berth Sunday mornings (and more recently Saturday evenings) back at WFUV.
He knew his stuff and could be counted on to have interesting conversations with performers, many of whom could trace their careers from interview to interview as they returned to play for Pete and us. He continued to introduce us to new performers and styles, never afraid to embrace what he liked.
After a stroke on Monday, Pete passed away yesterday at 66, far too early.
His New York Times obit ended with this quote: “If you give me the right idea for a program,” Mr. Fornatale said in 2004, “I can give back to you a three-hour journey where, if you tune in at any time, you’re likely to hear something that will entertain you. But if you take the ride with me, when we get to the end, you’ll say, ‘Wow, what a long, strange trip it’s been.’ ”
Just about all I have left now is Jonathan Schwartz, who began with WNEW and went from rock to Sinatra before getting his own show that was even more eclectic than “Mixed bag”. I get to hear him only on weekends now, but it’s always a joy because no two shows are the same and his knowledge and stories are vastly entertaining. His taste is wonderful and he’s not afraid to mix things up on a whim. But it’s his voice, one of the last from my youth, that conjures memories while sustaining the history of the American Songbook for today’s audiences.