Pete & Vin: A Moment in Time

Photo by Thom Wolke Photography
by John Platt | 04/30/2012 | 6:26pm

Photo by Thom Wolke Photography

The outpouring of messages from Pete Fornatale's fans in the past five days has been unbelievable. Thank you all for sharing your memories and prayers. They've been touching, and they've helped me process my own grief - stronger than I ever expected - at losing a friend and colleague.

There have been some particularly eloquent testimonials from media professionals who knew Pete well: among them, George Vecsey of the New York Times , Wayne Robins of Newsday and Budd Mishkin of NY1.

For many people, I think the overpowering sadness stems from that formative moment in time 40+ years ago, between Woodstock and Watergate, when everything - the music, the media, our mindsets - was changing. Those of us on the air were all so young, just in our early '20s and fresh out of college radio. FM radio was emerging as a force, because of the FCC's ruling about original programming and the explosion of great music that didn't fit on AM. There were no rules, so we just made it up as we went along, and the audience came along for the ride. We were the boomers, the children of the '60s, and we were fueled by an idealism that anything was possible, that we could change the world. Pete knew there was a reservoir of goodwill about him from that time that never evaporated, and he cherished that.

Wiser heads than mine can quantify how much change actually resulted from that time, but in many ways Pete personified that idealism over the course of his career. When he played a song like "Get Together" or "Give a Damn," you knew he meant it, so it resonated in a special way. Losing Pete severs a little of that tie to our own youthful idealism. Deep thinker that he was, Pete might agree, but still urge us to not lose faith, so maybe that's what we owe him.

Back in 2001, when Pete and Vin Scelsa brought their shows to WFUV, I took them to lunch on Arthur Avenue to discuss their shared history and different approaches to radio. Pete, always handy with a metaphor, said that at one time he and Vin had been "chefs," but as radio had changed, they'd been reduced to being "waiters." Thankfully, they were able to create exquisite radio banquets on WFUV, and we continue to honor the Art of the DJ, which allows that freedom to flower in its many different forms. You'll find the gist of their conversation below:

John: Do you guys remember the first time you met?

Vin: Peter does, I don’t.

Pete: I have a vague memory of it.  I was aware of Vin from ‘FMU  I was up in the Bronx doing my thing, and I knew that there were other people out here, and I certainly knew that Vinny was one of them. 

Vin:  My ‘ FMU experience was very intense and compact.  We were very political.   We modeled ourselves on WBAI more than on any kind of commercial radio.  Our big heroes were Bob Fass, Steve Post, Abbie Hoffman.  And so the idea of free form radio was for us both an artistic statement and a political statement.  I mean the mere fact that you were playing certain music on the air, whether it was Leonard Cohen or the Judy Collins In My Life album with “Marat Sade” on it - music that had never been heard on popular radio before - that was a political statement as well as reporting about the demonstrations.

Pete: We already have an essential difference here. While you couldn’t be on the radio then and not be politically aware, I was not politically active, not to any large degree.  And my radio heroes were more traditional  They were the Dan Ingrams, who I felt even in the structure of commercial radio got away with murder and was able to do wonderful things. But there was something else going on, this incredible explosion of music, which wasn’t being played on WABC and WMCA. It just made perfect sense.

Vin:  We were discovering the music all on its own, and we had this enormous desire to share it with people, because it was great stuff.

Pete:  A bunch of wonderful coincidences, if you believe in coincidences, were going on.  Technologically, you had the FM explosion, not based on anything other than a government decision that if you had two signals in the same market then you couldn’t simulcast the same material on both.  Then you had the music of the first generation probably influenced by Elvis starting making their music in the ‘60s.  And the third thing is that people like me and Vinny were arriving on college campuses with these FM frequencies and these tabula rasa- they were blank pages.  My show, “Campus Caravan”, started in November of '64.  The complete freedom to put this package together, for better or for worse stamped me then and is still with me today, and it is the thing that I always reacted to most strongly when it was taken away or tampered with. And here too is another difference between Vinny and me; he never put up with it. He would sooner walk out that door (and I saw him do it many a time) than give in an inch to those forces. I on the other hand compromised, whenever and wherever necessary.

Vin:  But let’s explain this. In addition to these very high ideals for my personal art and what I thought radio should be, I also had a very kind and understanding wife working full time, who was willing to support my idealism, so that I could walk out whenever something displease me.  At ‘NEW, Scott [Muni] really fought to have the playlists and the formats kept away from us.  We were given this enormous amount of freedom there.  We were promoted as musicologists, and that’s really how the listeners looked at us. We were the guides through all of this.

Pete:  Reflected to this day in the e-mails that I think we’re both getting at the station to exactly that effect. There are people that have attachments to Vinny and me because of this guide role that are almost happier about us being where we are and doing what we’re doing than we are. It’s been fantastic to reconnect, because they’ve truly missed what was a very important.

John: But are people going to assume as you two are here and Dennis Elsas is here, that WFUV is trying to recreate WNEW? Could that be a fair assumption?

Vin: Could never happen. The world doesn’t really need WNEW now, that’s why it doesn’t exist.  By having us there at FUV now, it lends a sense of continuity, of history. So we’re the people we never thought we’d be; we’re the elders. The idea of, what Pete says, a canvas, is a perfect one.  I mean, that’s what I always feel like I’m doing when I’m doing a free form show.  I’m painting a picture, and I’ve got all these colors, all these textures.  The show is always still very spontaneous.  Somewhere during this record, something will tell me what to play next.  And that’s playing without a net.

Pete:   My analogy is that Vinny and I were allowed to become chefs.  We were allowed to go into this kitchen using whatever ingredients were available to us to present the most wonderful dinner that could be provided for the listening audience at that given moment.  And somewhere along the line people like Vin and me became waiters, and not only waiters, but fast-food waiters.  “You want fries and a coke with that?” 

John: But Pete, you have much more of your show worked out in advance than Vin, right?

Pete: That was Vinny’s point, and it is true.  I want to know the structure before I go in there.  I guess what happened is I must have gotten scared as a child by that terrible feeling of falling and knowing that the net wasn’t there, and that I just like to know.

Vin:.  I’ve always felt that Peter is more of an academic in his approach, and I’m a little more of an anarchist in my approach.  And when we were together at NEW, Peter and I were really on opposite sides of whatever the sides were there for a long time- that’s my perception of it.  Peter and I eventually discovered that we had more in common than we ever realized.  Ultimately, our programming philosophies were exactly the same: leave us alone. 

John:  Both of you are known as great interviewers.  What is the secret of a great interview?

Vin: The secret for me is being a fan of the person I’m interviewing.  It’s going out of my way to invite someone who I really want to spend time with to be part of my show.  And then I try to immerse myself as much as possible in their work.  All too often I think what they get at radio stations is a ten minute slot with somebody who has no idea who they are, and they find that to be so frivolous and unrewarding.
Another thing that I do is I always work live, I never work tape.  And when I work live, I will give an enormous amount of time to the interview, meaning more than an hour.  And they usually don’t get that, and they are thrilled to have it.  Doing it live so there is no net, no way to say “We’ll fix that in the editing.”  The interview is for real, and it keeps people on their toes and it keeps things electric. 

John: Pete?

Pete: I agree with a lot of what Vinny said, but I don’t mind to prerecord them as long as they are live on tape.  Something else he implied, which I agree with, is establishing trust.  The idea is that these artists have been burned.  They have been through the mill and when they come to you, it’s like they have a thorn in their paw.  Your job is to get that their thorn out of their paw as quickly and comfortably as possible, and that allows them to relax and open up to you as an ally and a friend, not an enemy, not the opposition. 

John: What do you admire most in the other person’s show?

Pete: I’ve got mine. Vinny has an uninhibitedness that I admire, and envy, and enjoy.  I might have had it at some point, but something along the way put some constraints on my ability to be uninhibited on the radio.  So, yes, I know that I work within a more strictly drawn formula than Vinny does, but its self-drawn, so that’s OK.  But I do admire when he is on one of his flights.   It’s like watching Jonathan Winters.  I’m just thanking God for a talent like that existing in the universe while I happen to be alive.

John: Now, Vin?

Vin:  What I admire about Pete is his very sense of continuity.  There’s the knowledge that if something has to be remembered, honored - if Pete’s on the air, he’ll do it.  Because once again that goes back to the academic thing.  I’ve never been comfortable with that - I’ve never been able to research.  You know, I love to read, but I’m very scattered.  What I admire about Pete is his ability to do all that research, and bring those things together. That’s the difference between us, and it just points out what we each admire in each other.

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