Radio Unnameable: The Singular Career of Bob Fass

Note: This review has recently been re-published on Devtome.

Radio Unnameable (2012)
Directors: Paul Lovelace, Jessica Wolfson

This is a documentary about Bob Fass, an underground celebrity not widely known outside of certain circles. I must confess that his name was only vaguely familiar to me prior to seeing the film. This was a good thing in a way, as it allowed me to learn all about the subject from the ground up. Fass is the kind of character who, even if you’ve never heard of him, you have certainly heard of many people and events where he played a central role.

The name Bob Fass will be familiar mainly to New Yorkers who tune their dial to the independent radio station, WBAI, which is owned by Pacifica Foundation. WBAI’s slogan, according to their website, is Free Speech Radio, and they have traditionally featured many controversial and offbeat programs, such a Democracy Now!

Pacifica has had its share of controversy in recent years as it has undergone various changes in leadership and faced financial hardship. Currently, there are rumors that Pacifica is about to sell out (literally!) to corporate radio giant Clear Channel.

Fass, whose program was called Radio Unnameable, was the creator of free form radio. As the name suggests, this meant that his program was a completely open-ended affair where guests and callers could discuss anything under the sun. These often ended up being radical and controversial topics, but they were just as often random and personal stories.

Part of the uniqueness of Radio Unnameable was its time slot -the wee hours from midnight to 5 a.m. This fact alone tended to skew his listener base to the unconventional. There is something about the late night hours that makes people drop their usual filters.

Fass was at the hub of many iconic countercultural events of the 1960s. Arlo Guthrie’s famous Alice’s Restaurant was introduced on Fass’s show in 1967. Other guests included Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, Judy Collins and Abbie Hoffman.

All of this and more is captured in this quite thorough documentary, which is sure to appeal to Fass’s fan base as well as those not yet familiar with him. Many of the events portrayed in Radio Unnameable are long forgotten by most people (those who knew about them in the first place). For example, Fass helped to organize a “Yip-in” at Grand Central Terminal which started off like an exuberant party but degenerated into police-instigated violence.

Watching this, we are reminded that in the pre-Internet days, radio played a pivotal role in keeping people informed and connected. Parallels are drawn to Twitter, as several of the events portrayed are analogous to the type of flash mobs that now rely on social media for their momentum.

The amazing thing about this man is that he began broadcasting in 1963 and is still at it today. After being thrown off the air for several years, he was reinstated by WBAI, albeit on a part time basis –the current WBAI schedule lists his show on Friday from 12 to 3 AM.

The young documentarians Lovelace and Wolfson provide a healthy sense of perspective to Fass and his story. While they obviously admire him, they also don’t fall into the trap of relegating all of this to a bygone era. They are aware of how internet activists and the Occupy Movement, for example, use similar tactics. This places Fass in a contemporary context as well as an historic one, which is certainly where he deserves to be.

For more information about this film, see: Radio Unnameable

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