Radio Unnameable (Kino Lorber, NR)

film radio-unnameable_75Broadcast radio once played a key role not only in delivering information to people, but also in giving them a voice and bringing them together.


film radio-unnameable_500

As the airwaves become ever more homogenized, it’s worth recalling not only that this was not always so, but that there are still holdouts where the local, the creative, and the just plain weird can get a listen. Case in point: WBAI-FM in New York City, which carries, among many other programs, “Radio Unnameable,” a free-form late-night show hosted by the irrepressible Bob Fass.

The stories of Fass, his radio show, and, to a lesser extent, WBAI itself, are the subjects of Radio Unnameable, a smart new documentary by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson. It draws on a wealth of archival materials, matching selections from Fass’s broadcasts (Fass still keeps recordings of his shows on reel-to-reel, and his modest home in Staten Island seems to be fairly bursting with them) with film and still photographs that translate the oral medium of radio into the visual medium of film. Besides documenting Fass’s remarkable career, Radio Unnameable offers a great window into the days before cell phones and Twitter, when broadcast radio played a key role not only in delivering information to people, but also in giving them a voice and bringing them together.

Fass began broadcasting in 1963 and has been at it ever since, except for an enforced hiatus from 1977 to 1982, when he came out on the wrong side of a power struggle at WBAI and was temporarily fired from the station. The guests who have appeared on Fass’s show are a veritable Who’s Who of pop culture in the 1960s and 1970s, including Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Paul Krassner, Carly Simon, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Arlo Guthrie (who debuted “Alice’s Restaurant” on the show), and Jerry Jeff Walker (with the debut of “Mr. Bojangles”).

In February 1967, Fass used “Radio Unnameable” to organize a “fly-in” at JFK airport—several thousand people turned up at midnight at the international arrivals terminal with no higher purpose than to hang out together. Pleased and somewhat surprised by this display of the power of the airwaves, in April of that year, Fass organized a “sweep-in” to clean up a block of Manhattan during the garbage strike. Things did not go so well in Mach 1968, when a “Yip-in” (organized by the Youth International Party, or “Yippies”) turned violent after one of the participants decided it would be a good idea to tear off the hands of the clock at Grand Central Stations; needless to say, the New York City Police Department was not amused.

“Radio Unnameable” covered, and in some cases became actively involved in, other political events, as well. The station covered the 1968 Columbia University sit-ins and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, among other political events; several of Fass’s colleagues were arrested for conspiracy and incitement to riot for their role in the Chicago, although he was not. During the Chicago Seven Trial, Abbie Hoffman phoned in daily reports to the station, and attorney Flo Kennedy regularly called in with the events of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s trial and incarceration.

Fass’s golden era at WBAI ran from 1963, when he began broadcasting, into the early 1970s. When the general liberation movement of the 1960s began to split into the more fragmented feminist/gay/ethnic identity movements of the 1970s, he found himself on the wrong side of history, as well as the wrong side of political movements within the station. Radio Unnameable is less interested in looking closely at his later years (Fass currently broadcasts only one night a week, on a volunteer basis) and that’s understandable: Nothing good lasts forever, and it makes more sense to celebrate the show’s great years than to focus on its current decline.

It’s worth mentioning in this regard that the reason WBAI exists in its current, non-commercial form, is because the philanthropist Louis Schweitzer bought it in 1960 and donated it to Pacifica. Freedom really isn’t free, in other words, and it never has been. | Sarah Boslaugh

Radio Unnameable will be screened in the Winifred Moore Auditorium on October at 9:30 p.m. (with filmmaker), October 6 at 7:30 p.m. (with filmmaker), and October 7 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Webster University Film Series. Tickets are $6 for the general public; $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools; $4 for Webster University staff and faculty; and free for Webster students with proper I.D.

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