Sunday, December 28, 2008

40 Years of Fornatale

[ 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, 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.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bill Ashford, RIP

[ From: "Bill Ashford, legendary DJ of Colorado free-form radio," By Rebecca Jones, Rocky Mountain News, December 26, 2008 ]
Bill Ashford, KFML AM & FM, Denver, Colorado, 1972

Bill Ashford, a Colorado pioneer in the underground "free-form radio" genre best remembered for his years as a disc jockey at Boulder's KRNW and Denver's KMYR and KFML, died Dec. 10 in Ocala, Fla., his home since 1993. He was 66.

At the time of his death, Mr. Ashford was... the producer and programmer of The Rock Garden Show, a free-form rock Internet radio station.

Mr. Ashford spent his life in broadcasting, starting with getting his own radio show at age 14. But it was at the fondly remembered KFML that Mr. Ashford found legendary status, at least among early 1970s Colorado listeners.

"This was progressive radio, with an open-ended, free-form approach to programming, low- key and genuinely hip disc jockeys playing album cuts regardless of length or sales statistics," said longtime Denver music critic and author G. Brown. "And Bill was the hippest of them all.

"He had encyclopedic knowledge. He could take you somewhere with a set he would craft. He perfected the art of the segue, going from one key to another. It was a rhythmic thing, crafting these sets based on his knowledge of the music. It was the halcyon days of radio."

"He was dedicated to what he did," said Thom Trunnell, now a Denver deliveryman, and the onetime program director for KFML. "He believed it was important, as we all did. He had a way of knowing who was doing what, how to present it.

"He had a lot of connections and knew how to get information about bands and performers sooner than the rest of us did. He was a musician's disc jockey."

Born Dec. 5, 1942, in Fletcher, N.C., Mr. Ashford's first album was a Bix Beiderbecke 78, a Christmas gift from his father. It was to be the first of many.

"Duke Ellington once said there were two kinds of music: good and bad," said Trunnell. "We tried to present what was good. And Bill really had an ear for that."

Over the course of his career, Mr. Ashford worked at radio stations in Denver and Boulder; Fayetteville, N.C.; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Indianapolis; Grand Rapids, Mich; Colorado Springs; and Ocala.

He was also a songwriter. He co-wrote Floods of South Dakota with his then-wife, singer Judy Roderick. Years later, Tim & Mollie O'Brien recorded a version that in 1992 was nominated for a Grammy.

"He was always all about the music," said Gail Ashford, his wife of 31 years. "Because he was a songwriter, he was always coming up with a good tune, a good lyric.

"As I clean the house now, I'm finding all these scribbled notes everywhere. He would get up in the middle of the night and put song sets together because he would have them in his head. He'd be dreaming about this stuff. It was like living with an artist who painted with music.

"To me, Bill will always live on in a good lyric well written, a beautiful melody well sung and a screeching guitar riff."

Last summer, Brown tracked down several old Denver DJs, including Mr. Ashford, for a special tribute to the Summer of '67 on Denver's now-defunct KCUV.

"He had a four-hour stint on the show," Brown said. "We got so many calls from people who remembered him. To reconnect like that was really a joy for me."

Mr. Ashford is survived by his wife, Gail Ashford, of Ocala; four daughters, Mary Ashford Rohrich, of Steele, N.D., Holly Ashford, of Tallahassee, Fla., Hannah Ashford, of Tampa, Fla., and Erin Ashford, of Tallahassee; a stepbrother, Roger Ashford, of Charlotte, N.C.; his stepmother, Margaret Ashford, of Newberry, S.C.; five grandchildren and one great- grandchild.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bill's Ocala Obit

Bill Ashford's obituary from his local newspaper in Ocala, Florida. There is also an on-line guest book where friends can leave messages about Bill and for his family:


Ocala - Mr. William Marion "Bill" Ashford, age 66, of Ocala, Florida, went with Jesus on Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at West Marion Community Hospital. He was born December 5, 1942 in the Smokey Mountains of Fletcher, North Carolina, the son of the late, William Marion and Frances Ashford. He moved to Ocala, Florida in 1993 from Colorado Springs, Colorado.

At the young age of 14, Bill had his own radio and TV show, and continued through the rest of his life as a radio and TV announcer, as well as a music programmer and song writer. In 1992, Bill received a "Grammy Award" nomination for his song, "Floods of South Dakota", published by Sweet Southern Music Publishers. He was a consummate music man and word man his entire life. He worked in radio in Fayetteville, N.C., Denver, CO, San Francisco, CA, Austin, TX, Lake Tahoe, CA, Indianapolis, IN, Grand Rapids, MI, Colorado Springs, CO, Ocala, FL and The Villages. He was a Pioneer in "Free Form Rock Radio" and one of the original founders of "Internet - Free Form Music" and he is known for producing and programming "The Rock Garden Show"! He is also a member of Broadcast Music Incorporated.

Bill loved writing songs and collecting music, old albums & radios, traveling in the Smokey Mountains and to the Oceans abroad and was a die hard, North Carolina "Tar Heels" fan of both, football and basketball, but most of all, he loved spending time with his loving family. He is also a parishioner and lector at Queen of Peace Catholic Church of Ocala, FL.

He is survived by his loving wife of (31) years, Gail Ashford of Ocala, FL, his 4 daughters, Mary Ashford Rohrich of Steele, ND; Holly Ashford and husband William Galotti of Tallahassee, FL; Hannah Ashford of Tampa, FL and Erin Ashford of Tallahassee, FL; a step-brother, Roger Ashford of Charlotte, NC; his step-mother, Margaret Ashford of Newberry, SC; his (5) loving grandchildren and a beloved great-grandson.

... The family request in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Alpha Center for Women, 118 N. Pine Avenue, Ocala, FL 34475, in Memory of Mr. William M. "Bill" Ashford. | Star-Banner | Ocala, FL

Friday, December 12, 2008

BILL ASHFORD (1942-2008)

Legendary freeform programmer Bill Ashford has passed on to that control room in the sky -- where there are no cue burns, records and CD's don't skip, and the new music endless...

There's a fair amount of information about Bill at this site. Please use the Google search bar above the "Free form Radio" masthead to search within this site. An external search will also bring stuff up, but most all of it is linked here.

Notable links include:

  • Bill's Ocala Obit

  • Ashford Rocky Mountain Obit
  • Monday, December 01, 2008

    Bill Drake (1937-2008)

    Bill Drake and the Drake Format were not well-loved amongst those of us doing freeform in the early 1970s. It was OK if he stayed on AM, but when he moved to FM, he became an enemy.

    Well, that's all passed us now. We see where things have gone and, as we feared, Bill Drake was instrumental in tightening the playlists of the future. His influence is still pervasive throughout radio land to this day.

    Thanks to Lee Baby for letting me know about Ken Levine's tribute to Bill Drake:

    By Ken Levine: Bill Drake 1937-2008

    Main comments page at