Robins: Pete Fornatale -- an appreciation
A brutal nor'easter paralyzed the region in December 1992. With the Long Island Rail Road down and highways closed or impassable, it took hours by bus and subway to get into the city to cover the one event in the Northeast that wasn't canceled: a Paul McCartney concert for MTV at the Ed Sullivan Theater. It was a privilege to be there, but how the heck was I going to get home?
When I arrived at Penn Station after 1 a.m., there was a little miracle: The Port Washington line was running. There were two passengers in the car: Pete Fornatale and me.
We often met on the post-midnight train back home to the North Shore after a concert. And always, Pete was as welcoming and reassuring as he was the first time I heard his voice, at the tail end of the 1960s on WNEW-FM.
By then, rock had outgrown AM radio, with its chattering personalities and endless rotation of the same dozen or so songs. In 1969 Fornatale joined WNEW-FM's team of soft-spoken all-stars who loved the music as we did, and spoke to us in an intimate, friendly way.
There was nothing forced about Pete's ability to connect with listeners. He was innately curious and empathetic; conversations about music gave way to more personal discussions on those half-hour train rides.
He and his then-wife invited my family over for an afternoon barbecue. We played a backyard game of Wiffle ball with our little kids that was as competitive as it was relaxing.
Those who read the many appreciations of Pete Fornatale, who died Thursday at age 66, will note that, besides being a first-rank broadcaster, he was also a prolific author. This was an annoying trait: He seemed able to churn out an entire book in the time it took me to write a Newsday feature story about it. In interviewing him, and in listening to his radio interviews, I learned a lot about technique: Be prepared enough to be spontaneous, and always treat the subject of the interview with dignity and respect.
Dignity and respect were words not often associated with rock and roll. Pete's enthusiasm and professionalism helped the world understand that the best rock music deserved as much artistic respect as the most acclaimed movies, ballets or Broadway shows.
A few years ago, Pete invited me on his WFUV-FM show, "Mixed Bag," to discuss my book, "A Brief History of Rock, Off the Record." Later, we walked the Bronx neighborhood where he grew up, and we shared a long Italian meal.
Talking with Pete that night, something struck me: For Newsday, I had interviewed dozens of celebrities. But here I was, dining in the Bronx with Pete after being interviewed on his show. This was the big time, as big as it ever gets.
Wayne Robins was a music critic, reporter and writer for Newsday from 1975-95. He lives in Queens.