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Busy Signals

May 1, 2012

 The death this past week of FM jock Pete Fornatale brought back memories and some thoughts about the indelible invisible mark radio left on me and a lot of other boomers as well.

Looking back over it now from the interneted view up here in 2012, it’s clear to me that radio was really the pre-net. Before websites and social media, we kids connected via radio. Instead of electrons we had airwaves. Oh we had television too, but that was, at the time, still aimed mostly at adults and, more important, it was visible and above-ground. But this other place was a world of sound that was literally out of sight, as most transmissions took place in the dark, after bedtime, and under the pillow. This was facilitated by an ancient wireless mobile device called the transistor radio.

There I nightly would tune into a secret world parents were either oblivious to or ignored; an underground society, connecting us like so many spokes to a hub with tens of thousands listening with me across the city to the same shows, and with tens of millions listening with us across the nation to the same songs.

Here in New York, a prime example of this secret society was to be found not in a DJ but on non-rock WOR in the personage of one Jean Shepherd,

who would later be better known for writing A Christmas Story, and for hosting Channel 13’s “Jean Shepherd’s America”. But for 45 marvelous minutes every weekday night from 1956 to 1971, Shep, as we guys would call him, would spin tragi-comic tales that revealed the deeper embarrassments and foibles of growing up. We’d invariably all be talking about the previous night’s show while walking to school together the following morning.  

But to me and most of us, rock was radio’s raison d’etre. New York had three stations for us white kids: WMCA, WABC, and WINS. I kind of rooted for MCA and “The Good Guys” as they were, at a measly 5,000 watts, clearly the underdog. ABC was pure corporate white bread. But WINS always attracted the best jocks, starting with Alan Freed in the fifties who was the first to actually call it “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and culminating in the creative narcissistic genius of Murray “The K” Kaufman, who for a time would achieve rock star status in this town.

But my favorite was the mysterious Mad Daddy, who came on right after Murray (which was too late for most of us) and who spoke only and always in rhyme, anticipating rap. How demented his brilliance was we’d soon find out.

But before this, I somehow deciphered, although he tried to project a pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain image, that if I listened late into the show, as his sentences would trail off, he’d sound for a syllable suspiciously like Pete Myers, another DJ I’d caught once just up the dial at non-rock WNEW, where he’d play Sinatra and the like. 

Myers would kill himself a few months later, but he was one of the best we ever had.

Now like I said, I had a soft spot for WMCA, partly because their night time DJ Gary Stevens was creatively wacko, but mostly because of the busy signals. 

Like most stations, they’d run the “be the 12th caller when you hear “She Loves You’” and you’ll win….” type of nightly contest. But soon, teenagers all over Long Island and Brooklyn would discover a strange secret: the world’s first dating site. The phone lines, you see, would get overloaded every night, and all of us at once would get busy signals, and it would be like Hey! (BEEP!) You! (BEEP!) What’s (BEEP!) your (BEEP!) name? (BEEP!) Mine’s (BEEP!) Herbie (BEEP!) Hershkovits (BEEP!)…for hours at a time.

Ridiculous as it now looks, it was then like discovering a surreptitious underworld, and I met new friends (and went on not a few dates) from there during my pimples-and-braces phase.

But my most vivid and life-giving memories of New York radio were the early days of FM. Just as the United States military found out the true meaning of “unintended consequences” with their invention of the internet, so did the FCC, when in 1965 they ruled that the AM stations that owned FM outlets had to begin developing original programming for them. Grudgingly, the well-established radio execs allowed their orphan stations to do whatever they wanted. No one was listening anyway, right? But within months, it became clear, they had been sitting on a gold mine all those years. (Imagine: rock ‘n’ roll actually sounds better without static!) (Makes me wonder what might be an equivalent hidden gold mine today.) Soon jocks were jumping over each other to leave AM when they realized the future of radio was on the FM side. 

In New York, a hip, black DJ named Roscoe (“Wanna take a mind excursion?”) helped pioneer the free form radio format, first on WOR-FM, and would soon be followed by Johnathan Schwartz; Vin Scelsa (a true master); and Pete Fornatale, the man who passed away just this last week. Pete was not only a jock but also a rock historian (his expertise was sixties rock and folk and folk rock). I met him once when I visited WNEW-FM back in the ‘80s when I was trying to fashion myself as a talk show host. I parked my cab late one night and went up to the station to drop off my resume. And there was Pete, with his friendly voice, spinning his own records. At the time, you could walk right in and talk your way into the sound booth, and that’s what I did. 

For a brief, anarchic time, FM would become the unregulated home of the golden age of rock, just as both of them would merge with and feed the counter culture. So an entire medium would be literally broadcasting the sound of revolution daily to every high school and college kid in America. And then many of us would be taking it to the streets.

Radio never sounded so good. Nor did rock ‘n’ roll. And neither, for a time, did we.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2012 12:04 pm

    Nice Charley…but you must be ALOT older than me, because my childhood was spent with Dan Ingram, Scott Muni and Cousin Brucie on WABC.

  2. Shelley Wininger permalink
    May 1, 2012 3:25 pm

    He is

  3. dave abramowitz permalink
    May 1, 2012 8:14 pm

    The Jean Shepherd I used to listen to growing up from about 1959 to 1965, and often under the covers with my transistor radio, was on, it seemed often half the night. I recall, especially on Saturday nights, sometimes listening to him until the true wee hours. I was amazed to later learn all Jean Shepherd’s stories he had us so believing were all true were all, made up, impromptu, extemporaneous mind-riffs and self-entertaining, wonderful trips.

    I’m surprised you also didn’t mention WOR’s Long John Nebel who had many great late, late-night lasting radio shows about such things as UFOs and the unexplained, mysterious psychic and occult phenomena. Jackie Gleason was a frequent guest. Jackie Gleason believed so much in UFOs he had his mansion of a house in Florida especially constructed to lool like one, with the hope of attracting “them.” Years later, I read that Gleason approached his friend, President Richard Nixon and asked him if they could go together and view the charred remains of the crashed UFO alien in the Roswell incident. It was reported Dick Nixon got special security clearance and that they both somewhat drunkenly went together to view it. No. I’m not. just like Jean Shepherd, spinning yarns.

    In the so-conformist early and late 1960s, Long John Nebel was really something! Does anyone remember any other colorful unforgettable radio talk or DJ personalities?

    Thanks for a great post again, Charley. you should compile all these most memorable experiences so many of us can identify with, and the best of your few precious years of sharing, and make quite a compelling book out of it.

  4. May 1, 2012 10:33 pm

    Excellent post, Charlie!
    Memory lane… Although i moved from NYC in ’63 (when i was 12), I do remember ‘Murray the K’ and listened to the radio all the time.

    My first record purchases, when I was about 8, were 45s: Great Balls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis and Tan Shoes and Pink Shoelaces… by: I-forget-who. I never stopped being a freak from then on out…

    My sister was 4 years older, so when TV hit, we learned all the dances on American Bandstand. We still dance like that together sometimes, doin’ the lindy hop and swinging each other around. maybe that’s why i later became a movement theater artist..

    Thanks for the well thought out, well written, not overly nostalgic reminder of radio days.
    FYI I now listen to WFUV for rockin’ roots (old and new) and contemporary folk and rock singer/songwriters, and WBAI for keeping up to date on what’s REALLy going on, with global ecology and radical community cards packed heavily in my left pocket.

  5. May 2, 2012 1:56 am

    Thanks for the fascinating history of New York radio–especially FM radio, which, as you point out, was integral to the late 60s/70s youth culture. By the 90s FM radio had become sanitized and sterile. Maybe in the future when we look back at the early days of the internet we’ll see the internet in the same way that we see FM radio today–as a source of cultural renewal.

  6. murray permalink
    May 7, 2012 12:54 am

    Your expression has become more and more secure.. Love it.
    Thanks for the memories. FM was alive. What an escape. What energy. Dance was alive, so uncertain. and explosive.
    What an awkward stage.

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