RIP Paco Navarro: His Crime Wasn’t Bringing Disco to New York Radio

Paco Navarro was dressed in khaki the first time I met him.

It wasn’t the outfit of choice for a New York disc jockey who loved the flamboyance of radio’s golden disco era. That’s just what they gave you in the Fairton Correctional Facility, which is where we met because in early 1991 he was 38 months into a sentence for conspiracy to sell heroin.

“I used to shop at Banana Republic,” he said. “No more.”

But Paco had a parole hearing coming up, and he was optimistic — rightly, it turned out — that he would be released well before he maxed out on his 4- to 10-year sentence.

In fact, he was already making plans for life after Fairton. When asked about his very first wish once he got back, he turned to a woman jail officer and deadpanned, “Can you cover your ears, please?”

After everyone laughed, he said he wasn’t kidding.

“I am looking forward to spending time with a woman,” he said. “A New York type of woman.”

Also on his list: lobster, a good steak, a glass of wine.

And getting back on the radio.

That happened, too, which is good, because that’s where Manuel Francisco “Paco” Navarro left the mark people will remember.

Paco died Thursday, from a miserable blitz of dementia, Alzheimer’s and pancreatic cancer. While he was coy about his age, he was 82.

He wasn’t coy at all about his radio legacy and his role in bringing disco the airwaves of New York.

A native of Puerto Rico, he had been working on Spanish-language radio since he decided at 17 that radio offered a more lucrative future than acting.

By 1978 he was an established Spanish radio star, with 20 years behind the mic. Now based at New York’s WJIT, he had emceed 38 shows at Madison Square Garden and seen Spanish language radio become bigger by the year even as it remained invisible to the mainstream.

WJIT had a sister English language station, WKTU, which was drifting around with less than one percent of the city radio audience.

As Paco told it, he suggested WKTU switch to disco, a format no station had ever tried. Disco songs had cracked the top-40 and R&B stations, including WBLS in New York, but no station had pulled the trigger for all-disco.

WKTU did. Almost overnight, that less-than-one-percent of the radio audience became an astonishing 11.3%.

Paco recalled that his own show, 6–10 p.m., drew 20% of the audience, or one in every five city listeners. That’s even more astonishing, and it was one of the seismic quakes that finally ended WABC’s long domination of New York radio.

As a deejay, Paco had a velvet voice and a winking style. He loved live remotes, he said, because that brought radio to the fans and enabled him to host events. He remembered, for instance, Wet T-Shirt Night in Seaside Heights.

“We had a great time,” he said.

Deejays got to talk more on the air in those days, and Paco did — though not at the expense of the music. “Paco’s my name and disco’s my game,” he’d say. His popular daily features included a mix segment.

His Puerto Rican accent gave the music an extra exotic touch, underscoring the cultural blend that came together in disco.

“It was the music that appealed to all the kids in the city,” Paco said. “Black, white, Latino. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was out. Groups like the Village People were expressing what was happening all over the country. I’d go out at night and disco was everywhere. It was the pulse of the city.”

As it turned out, disco had more wattage than durability. While dance beats have been an important element of popular music since cave dwellers pounded out a rhythm on two wooly mammoth bones, disco itself was considered a controversial craze. Within a few years it had receded, though dance beats pulsed on.

Paco left WKTU when it switched to a rock format in 1985. He returned to WJIT for six months and then left radio. It was widely speculated that he was too identified with disco to get another gig, but in 1991 he said he was ready for a break and stepped away of his own accord to try other things for two years.

Those things included a seafood importing business and an ad agency, both of which went bust. He was out half a million dollars, he said, so he was on the brink of returning to radio when, on July 1, 1987, he was arrested at a deli in Closter, N.J.

He and two other men were charged with conspiracy to distribute a kilogram of heroin. At Fairton, Paco didn’t deny he was involved, but wanted to stress that “I was not a drug user or a drug seller. I was convicted of conspiracy. I was foolishly trying to help people I thought were friends. I was stupid — no, I wasn’t stupid. I have a master’s degree in psychology. I know better. I was ignorant.

“I’m very sorry for what I did and I feel I have paid for it.”

Once he got out and reconnected with women, a clothing store, lobster, steak and wine, he also made it back to the radio. He was primarily heard on Spanish-language WADO, though he had a brief run on WNEW-FM in the mid-2000s.

Love or hate disco, Paco was a lively, entertaining old-school radio personality who felt, correctly, that “you can’t just play records. You have to be company for the audience.”

He was that. Rough as some of his patches were, and rough as it was for a Puerto Rican host to crack mainstream New York radio, he left his mark when he did.

[Several extended Paco airchecks have been posted on Facebook’s Original WKTU page.]

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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