The recent death of veteran disc jockey Pete Fornatale is a sad reminder of the importance of radio. Nowadays, teens and 20-somethings mostly listen to music on their smartphones and MP3 players. They use services such as Pandora and Spotify, in which the next song up is driven by their own tastes and social networks. There is no knowledgeable voice to share the stories, offer surprising selections and guide them to listen differently..
When I was a teenager, I adored rock radio. I loved the music, but it was the disc jockeys who meant the most to me.
We are now long past the golden age of FM radio, when DJs chose their own music and spoke for as long as they wished about any topic they chose. To better understand how this age came about -- and what we have lost with its demise -- we have to go back to 1964, when AM radio still ruled and rock DJs usually spoke quickly between the songs. Most of them had little of substance to say in those days, but the most famous and highest-rated New York City DJ was an exception. Murray "The K" Kaufman knew as much or more about rock and roll than anyone who preceded or followed him.
Kaufman had a huge ego. In February 1964 he had the audacity to call himself the fifth Beatle, because he was aggressive enough to stay in their Plaza Hotel suite for hours on end and travel with them during their first visit to the United States. But along with his bravado came influence. Three months later, he single-handedly made Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" a classic. He played it frequently even though it was the B-side of the single; he refused to play what he considered to be the inferior A-side.
A month after that, the Rolling Stones appeared on Kaufman's show, promoting their first album. Instead of asking them the usual "Why don't you wear suits and ties like the Beatles do?," he said, "You've got to hear this song, 'cause I think you should record it." He played "It's All Over Now" by the Valentinos. Nine days later, the Stones recorded it. It went to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom, giving them their first No. 1 hit.
Meanwhile, in November 1964, 19-year-old Pete Fornatale became the first person to host a rock music show on New York's FM band, on WFUV. Unlike his AM colleagues, he spoke in an unhurried manner and featured album cuts as well as some singles. He created music sets: groups of songs that went well together musically and/or lyrically. This had never been done before with rock music on New York radio, and the style was eventually adopted by all the full-time FM progressive rock stations.
I discovered Fornatale's show in early 1966, when I was 15, and he soon became the most important person in my life. He spoke on the air as if he were a friend -- and he was a child of rock who knew so much about it.
In late 1966, FM had its first full-time rock station in New York, WOR-FM, because the FCC forced AM stations that simulcast on their FM stations to stop doing so. The timing was perfect; no year has ever come close to 1967 for turning the world of rock upside down. Icons such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin (within a group) and Traffic released their debut albums. It was also the year of the "Summer of Love," the year that the Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield became famous, the year of the Monterey Pop Festival, and the year of the most important album in rock music history: the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
In 1967 Fornatale, still with WFUV every Saturday from noon till 2, played a set I will never forget -- three songs that had mock church services: 1964's "Benedictus" by Simon & Garfunkel, which was totally in Latin, and two songs released that year, "Requiem for the Masses" by the Association, and "Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You" by the Bee Gees, which featured Gregorian chants.
This type of programming was unheard of on AM radio, which usually had screaming DJs, chimes, and jingles after every song. Fornatale was essentially creating a work of art, by putting together songs that had similar themes, which happened to be impossible to dance to -- and proving that contemporary music was to be taken seriously. Unlike on AM radio, he was playing music that had nothing to do with popularity or record sales.
On WOR-FM, in 1967, Murray the K was talking slowly and playing what he called "attitude music" -- songs that conveyed deep-thinking from artists such as Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Tim Hardin. He explained why he thought certain songs -- like Ochs' "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," Simon & Garfunkel's "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" and Hardin's "While You're on Your Way" were important. And he didn't only invite musicians as guests, such as Paul Simon; he even had conservative editor and TV host William F. Buckley, Jr. on the show, getting Buckley¹s reaction to certain controversial lyrics, including those in Dylan's anti-war classic "With God on Our Side."
Kaufman also played long sets that mostly included album cuts. It was the dawning of the golden age of FM radio, which gave musicians more incentive to be creative with their albums and not just care about singles that had catchy melodies.
Fornatale became famous on WNEW-FM, which he joined in 1969, but he spent the final 11 years of his life back at WFUV -- still playing and saying what he wanted, until his final show on April 14. Whenever he spoke, I raised the volume on my radio.
The smartphone set only needs to do that if the noise from the street makes their music difficult to hear.
Lew Goodman was WFUV's program director from 1969 to 1971 and hosted a show there from 1968 to 1973.