One of the little-noted casualties of the Social Media revolution is our fluency in composing a simple and heartfelt message of condolence. The Victorians were brilliant at expressing sympathy, but they were steeped in so much tragedy that stationers couldn’t keep black-bordered notepaper on their shelves. In whatever ways we may have surpassed our great-grandparents, we’re nowhere near as good at death. We are thoughtless and trite, and never more so than when we’re trying to appear thoughtful.
It doesn’t matter if one’s parent, spouse, dog-walker, or favorite wrestler passes away—or, as in the present instance, if one’s friend, mentor, inspiration, and boon companion via the radio dial and internet departs this vale of strife—the most we can be bothered to blurt out in our haste to move on to the next political argument or cat meme is, “I’m sorry for your loss.” This may be due to our inability to slow down and proffer genuine sentiment even as we wallow in prefabricated internet sentimentality. I fully expect to see it shortened to “ISFYL [frowny face emoji]” as a matter of time-saving convenience.
Since Facebook is (among other things) the virtual express lane of a drive-through mortuary, I saw that phrase pop up often in comments on the initial posts reporting the death of my friend and colleague Rich Conaty. Stunned as I was by his unexpected passing, I couldn’t help shouting at my computer screen, “What do you mean, ‘your’ loss? We all lost a great one today. Everyone lost him.”
What we lost, aside from a fellow human passenger on this careening sphere, was this: Rich Conaty was the host on WFUV-FM of The Big Broadcast for almost 44 years. During that time he almost single-handedly curated 1920s and 1930s pop and jazz for New York City radio listeners. Unlike his worthy (and now lamented) colleagues Joe Franklin and Danny Stiles, Rich was not so much shopping “nostalgia” as playing music he had discovered as a young man and liked personally. With nostalgia, as I have said before, you had to have been there. Born in 1954, Rich started spinning records by Paul Whiteman and the Mills Brothers as a Fordham University undergrad in 1973.
I first heard about Rich in the late 1970s, but I never heard him until he took The Big Broadcast to 50,000 watt WNEW-AM in the early 1980s. Having a similarly precocious taste for old music, I scoured the radio dial to find prewar records. WNEW management pestered him to mix in Sinatra and Streisand with Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters, and soon he was back on WFUV (and out of my listening range) again.
Then in 1996, WQXR-AM became WQEW, and Rich was back on a fifty-thousand watter. I schemed to tune the radio just right, since a local station bled into the frequency, but I enjoyed two more years of The Big Broadcast until it vanished from AM radio again. Fortunately for all of us, the age of Internet Radio was just beginning and I was able to listen online via stream from 2003 onward.
I don’t know if I can convey how difficult it is for a young kid who has an unusual taste in music not shared by others in close proximity. Finding someone who plays, promotes, and curates that music is almost unimaginable. Radio broadcasters in my vicinity would not play it. Record stores seldom carried it. I was mocked for even liking it. So here was Rich with his oasis of the music of wit, elegance, and real sentiment broadcasting every week. And beyond that, Rich worked closely with Vince Giordano in getting the Nighthawks going. The Nighthawks are still going—as are hundreds of musicians and dozens of bands inspired by them.
Rich Conaty is a hero. He is directly responsible to countless listeners finding and loving delightful music that they never would have heard otherwise. And he was most generous with his support when I decided to start my own program of prewar jazz and pop, RADIOLA!, in June 2005. Without Rich, that show never would have existed—nor would The Syncopated Times, whose launch he also encouraged.
After several months’ hiatus from radio production, I decided to produce my traditional New Year’s Eve RADIOLA! program last year. I spent a week transferring and restoring old records, and arranging them in a four-hour playlist. After finishing the playlist on the afternoon of December 30, I looked at Facebook and I learned that my friend, my mentor, my inspiration as a broadcaster—my hero, Rich Conaty—had died. I went ahead with recording my show that evening—with a special dedication to Rich. It sounds like an old showbiz story, and as such would have made him smile.
Rich was only seven years older than me. Most regrettably, his radio longevity did not translate into actual longevity. I still can’t quite believe that he’s gone. My own sorrow for our collective loss is profound.