[ From: "40 Years of Free-Form Radio, the Circle Unbroken," By Ben Sisario, NEW YORK TIMES, November 20, 2004 ]
It could very well be 1964: Pete Fornatale is preparing for another radio show on WFUV-FM, the station of his alma mater, Fordham University, just two blocks from where he grew up on 188th Street in the Bronx. He lines up the Beatles, the Beach Boys and some left-field stuff like Ahmad Jamal and Al Hirt. For inspiration as a host, he looks to Jack Paar.
But this is 2004, and Mr. Fornatale is no longer a Fordham sophomore, or a radio novice. For almost exactly 40 years, he has been one of the cornerstones of free-form FM radio in New York, playing long sets of classic rock connected by themes of his choosing.
After a long run at WNEW in the 1970's and 80's, when he shared the airwaves with jocks of similarly discursive styles like Scott Muni and Vin Scelsa, and some time at WXRK (K-Rock) in the 90's, Mr. Fornatale and his weekly show, ''Mixed Bag,'' are now back at WFUV, where he began his career on Nov. 21, 1964.
''I love the idea that I've come full circle,'' he said the other day from his home on Long Island, where he was busy preparing tonight's show, which will be on WFUV, 90.7 FM or WFUV.org, from 5 to 8 p.m.
Mr. Fornatale, 59, still comments extensively on the music in his friendly, professorial voice. (He taught English at a Catholic high school for a few years after graduating from Fordham.) He remains a happy contrarian about the state of mainstream radio. Then as now, he used his show as a soapbox against regimentation and uniformity.
When he started in 1964, he said, ''commercial radio was still mired in the Top 40 blather of the day.''
''Hit records separated by commercials just was not doing it for me and my peers anymore,'' he said. ''So I suggested a rock 'n' roll show that would play album cuts, islands of music that would come together in some cohesive theme. Each song meant something, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.''
At WNEW he helped break country-rock into the New York market, playing records by Poco and Buffalo Springfield, among others, that did not have a great deal of airplay elsewhere on the dial. And he never forgets his loves.
''I'm dedicated to the idea that musicians have validity well beyond their Top 40 shelf life,'' he said. ''I'm as interested now in what Roger McGuinn is doing as I was when I first heard 'Turn, Turn, Turn' in 1965.''
After 40 years Mr. Fornatale's themes can be almost academically dense. Recent shows have included a tribute to great inventions on the 214th anniversary of the founding of the United States Patent Office.
The themes can also be on the facile side. An annual ''Color Radio'' show has the Beatles' ''Yellow Submarine,'' Joni Mitchell's ''Blue,'' Love's ''Orange Skies'' and so on.
Still, his idiosyncratic style keeps people listening. His time slot on WFUV has about 30,000 listeners each week, the station says.
Allen Levinson, 48, an investment manager from Upper Saddle River, N.J., says he has been a loyal listener for 25 years and digs the what-will-he-play-next aspect of the theme show.
''It becomes like a party game,'' he said. ''You feel like you're actually sitting in a room with Pete and playing a game of Trivial Pursuit.''
Mr. Fornatale is modest about the origins of the free-form radio format. He didn't invent it, he said, nor can it be known who ever did; it's just an idea that was out there in the 60's.
His only goal, he said, is to entertain and educate.
''If you give me the right idea for a program,'' he said, ''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.'''
Too bad Pete didn't give credit where credit is due on who and how freeform started.