Opening on Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York, “Radio Unnameable” is a loving tribute to WBAI’s Bob Fass as well as an examination of the station’s sad decline. For anybody who has listened to a Pacifica station over the years, this is a film not to be missed. Established in 1949 as a listener-sponsored radio network by a pacifist named Lew Hill, it is one of America’s most important voices for the cultural and political outsider. And as this documentary by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson demonstrates, there was probably nobody at WBAI who better expressed the affinities between cultural and political rebellion than Bob Fass, who is now 79 and approaching his fiftieth year at the station.
Like Lew Hill and many other important on-air hosts at WBAI and other Pacifica stations over the years, Bob Fass has been a long-time member of the largest group on the left in the U.S. This is the non-party “different drummer” tendency whose patron saint Henry David Thoreau once said, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”
Fass showed up at the station in 1963 to audition for a gig as a player in on-air dramas and readings from classic literature, a type of show that sadly disappeared long ago from a station now largely devoted to preaching to the choir. Once he got his foot in the door, he wrangled himself a show that came on at midnight and deserved the name “unnameable” in the sense of uncategorizable. It consisted of free-flowing conversations with his listeners over the phone and in-studio guests, including some of the marquee names of the past half-century from Arlo Guthrie to Allen Ginsberg.
Although a good ten years older than most people who got involved with radical politics in “the sixties”, Fass made connections with Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman who despite all their foibles did define the “new left” for millions on campus and in the streets. What Fass shared with the “yippies” was a hatred for authority and a Dada-like sensibility that was expressed on a fairly regular basis in “flash mob” type happenings organized out of the WBAI studio.
One of the most controversial such events was a “yip-in” at Grand Central when hundreds of his listeners showed up at Grand Central to raise a non-violent ruckus. When a couple of anarchists removed the hands from the railway station’s landmark clock in a protest against rules and “the man” one supposes, the cops waded in with billy clubs and tear gas. As the confrontation unfolded, Fass kept track of the melee from behind his WBAI microphone.
But for the most part, Fass has become best known not for his activism but for his intimate and even familial ties to his listeners, who are termed “the cabal”. With his avuncular and soothing manner, he is the polar opposite of the typical commercial radio call-in hosts like Howard Stern even if Stern would be the first to admit that he learned about “free form” radio from listening to Bob Fass.
As befits a documentary about radio, most of the content is aural with prime examples of Bob Fass in conversation with his legion of fans. While the conversation progresses, we see some fascinating photos or motion pictures of New York in the 60s or 70s that have a distinctly film noir quality in keeping with the schedule for “Radio Unnameable”, from midnight to 3am. When Fass first broached the subject of launching the show at midnight, when the station traditionally went off the air, the management asked whether anybody would be up to listen. Fass replied that people worked at night getting the city ready for the next day, from people at switchboards to taxi drivers. One of the interviewees is a Verizon technician (with a nose-ring no less) who tells us how much Bob Fass has meant to her over the years.
I got a big chuckle out of one fan’s devotion to the show, a man who lives in Ellenville, New York, just about ten miles from where I grew up, and 90 miles from Manhattan. Since there is a mountain range that blocks the FM signal, he jerry-rigs a solution that involves connecting a cable from his car radio to the radio in his house.
This is a solution that reminded me of my own in 1959 when I begged my parents to help me find a way to listen to NY FM stations, especially WBAI. My father hired our TV repairman (back then you did not replace TV’s since they were so expensive) to erect a 25-foot antenna in our back yard. This was before Fass was a fixture at the station and even if he were, his virtues would have been lost on a 14 year old kid whose only goal was to listen to interesting music. Dion and the Belmonts et al were deluging the local stations, and I wasn’t having any of that.
WBAI introduced me to some of the most incredible programming I ever could have imagined. Gunther Schuller was the host of a 60 part series on the evolution of classical music in the 20th century. I can remember almost like it was yesterday Schuller explaining how the shifting harmonies of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun influenced Schoenberg. He would play a moment or two of the Debussy side by side with some of Schoenberg’s 12-tone music and explain their kinship. Composer Henry Cowell, who surveyed folk music of the world from the Roma people to China, hosted another memorable show. Cowell was a left-wing composer who was part of the broad popular front of the 1930s and 40s. His interest in folk music, which was reflected in his own great compositions, reflected the same kind of internationalism found in Paul Robeson.
After moving to NYC in 1965, shortly after graduating college, I began listening to WBAI in order to get uncensored news about the war in Vietnam. Their reporter Chris Koch was based in Vietnam and exposed administration lies on a daily basis. It helped me to turn definitively against the war, which led to my radicalization. After joining the Trotskyist movement, I lost track of WBAI. In the various cities I traveled to on behalf of the SWP, there was only one that had a Pacifica station. That was in Houston, Texas where Pacifica radio and the SWP were two of the main targets of the Ku Klux Klan. Our bookstore had been destroyed by a pipe bomb a few months before I had arrived in late 1973. Meanwhile the Pacifica station’s transmitter had been dynamited twice.
After leaving the Trotskyist movement, I returned to NYC and made WBAI an important part of my life. During the decade of the 1980s, I was deeply involved with Central America solidarity and the station was literally part of the movement. I became friends with fellow CISPES activist Will K. Wilkins, who hosted a morning show. Will was also a big fan of world music, which WBAI scheduled frequently. I also listened to the last generation of free form radio personalities, like Larry Josephson. Josephson was a neo-conservative crank who hated the leftists who dominated WBAI’s programming. Like many 60s liberals, Josephson had shifted to the right. The only thing that made him interesting was his confessional approach, which was a combination of Woody Allen’s self-deprecating shtick and bitter tirades against the women who had dumped him. Anybody who listened to him for a few moments would understand why he was so lonely. He was an amusing but creepy person.
In the 1990s, program director Samori Marksman, a black Caribbean Marxist and no-nonsense sort of guy, purged the station of such personalities. The station became even more left-wing and more earnest. As somebody with a taste for the neurotically offbeat, I found myself listening to the station less and less, especially since the Internet has become my main form of entertainment.
I had hopes that the revolt against the “NPR-ization” of the station in the early 2000s would have led to a renaissance but unfortunately the station has gone downhill steadily. Essentially the station has become a kind of fiefdom for various shows that appeal to a defined demographic and that are ultimately designed to preserve the host’s “right” to an hour or two of airtime. This would not be so half as bad if the hosts had an ability to engage or entertain the listener. Mostly they came across as slightly obsessed, if not bordering on the insane on occasion. The station has become a hotbed of conspiracy theories, mostly involving 9/11. If Bob Fass has been associated with the nomenclature “Radio Unnameable”, the station unfortunately can best be described as “Radio Unlistenable”.
Much of the film appears to owe a lot to a profile on Bob Fass that appeared in the December 4, 2006 New Yorker titled “Voice of the Cabal” that I highly recommend. Although this magazine has gone into a decline as precipitous as Pacifica’s, the article is definitely worth reading. Marc Fischer, the author, states:
The station’s programming, which in Fass’s early years featured literary readings, classical music, and political discussions of an academic bent, has become a Balkanized schedule of shows such as “First Voices Indigenous Radio,” “Out-FM,” “Joy of Resistance” (“multicultural feminist radio”), “Beyond the Pale” (“progressive Jewish politics”), “The Largest Minority” (“issues affecting people with disabilities”), “Afrikaleidoscope,” and “Asia Pacific Forum.” Fass’s show is one of the few on the station seeking a broad audience. “It’s become very tough to be at the station,” Fass said. “I feel like there’s no ‘us’ anymore, just each group with its own little corner. There are black nationalists who don’t have much patience for white people. There are young people who don’t want any old fogies around. I always thought unity makes a lot more sense than separation. But a lot of people don’t want to hear that anymore.”
The malaise at Pacifica can of course not be separated from the malaise facing the left in general. The health of the station from the early 60s until the mid-70s or so was very much related to the cohesion of the left and its esprit. An antiwar movement and a counterculture combined to maintain a focus at the station that inspired some great programming. As the movement declined, and as corporate America began to dominate our lives more and more, the health of the station was impacted. If there is any hope for the station, it is in a revived mass movement that can pull us all together—Black and white, male and female, gay and straight, and young and old. The Pacifica stations can prove invaluable in a period of deepening class crisis. Let’s hope that the station can return once again to its glorious status, even if the odds against it are formidable. Nothing less than the future of humanity is at stake.