This is turning into a significant year for documentaries about free form radio. We’ve already mentioned Freeform or Death, a film about WFMU-FM in New Jersey. Now comes Radio Unnameable, a doc about free form radio legend Bob Fass at Pacifica station WBAI in New York City. Fass began his remarkable career there in 1963.
I remember listening to Fass in the 1970s (a rather heated argument with Abbie Hoffman lingers in my mind, but I can’t recall what it was about). There was something wonderfully revelatory about his hyper-spontaneous program. It was as if with the arrival of night we were finally going to find out what really happened that day.
“All over the city right now there are myriads of people doing their thing,” Fass explains in the film, “which is to clean up the effluvia of the day time people, the people who work from nine to five and come in the next morning and find everything clean.” Radio Unnameable was and still is a kind of effluvia discussion show, with endless talk, music, citizen reporting, and whatever else Fass conjured up for his audience.
There’s lots of good stuff written about Fass and WBAI, including Marc Fisher’s Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation, Jessie Walker’s Rebels in the Air: An Alternative History of American Radio, and Jeff Land’s Active Radio: Pacifica’s Brash Experiment. I wrote about Fass in my second book on Pacifica, Uneasy Listening: Pacifica Radio’s Civil War, which excerpted a description of Radio Unnameable from Jay Sand’s masters thesis on Fass (which used to be entirely available on the web). The show inevitably began with Fass’s conspiratorial greeting: “Good morning, cabal”:
Fass could begin one night’s program with several songs from the Library of Congress blues collection, then speak for a while about a War Resistance demonstration while Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” would fill the background, then talk with a woman whose friends had been arrested at a march and try to collect the $500 to bail them out, then take a phone call from Abbie and Anita Hoffman who just want[ed] to say hello, then play Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” and sing along, then talk with a woman who has lost her cat about how his cat is also named “Mao,” then play Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band over and over because he loves the album, then talk with a hippie named Quasimodo about a “shindig” being thrown for volunteers of Liberty House. Fass could open another night with a discussion with a hippie about her seeing a woman let her child run wild at the Be-In (“It was just sort of a sad commentary,” the hippie says. “Her little daughter is just left there so that she can go spread her love around to other people. It was just sad, that’s all.” “Do you draw a larger truth from that?” asks Fass. “No,” she replies. “It’s just that I was wondering if in the middle of this institutionalized love there’s a little of this sad aspect. . . . It bothered me, that’s all.”)
Judging from the YouTube preview of the film, there’s some discussion about WBAI today. “Every faction has their own turf,” one interviewee contends, “and nobody cares about anything but their own turf.” There’s also some discussion about the future of free form in the age of wired and wireless broadband. But the documentary is mostly about Fass and what he was and still is.