If you're of a certain age, you have this memory. We all do. You're sitting in the car, perhaps riding with your parents or yourself and some friends as you're now old enough to drive. It's late at night and the AM stations are pumping out the same three pop songs that you've been obsessing on all day. You're tired and impressionable and perhaps not ready to make wholly cognizant decisions. So you fiddle with the radio knob, feeling both lucky and punchy, and then it happens. You stumble across something sublime. For me, it was The CBS Radio Mystery Theater. Or maybe it was Larry King and his follow-up act, Jim Bohanan. There are even those of us who remember coming across a non-politicized Glenn Beck, or perhaps most intriguingly, Art Bell and his endless stream of conspiracy theorists, alien abductees, and Bigfoot enthusiasts. Now, thanks to the terrific documentary Radio Unnameable, we can add Bob Fass to the list. A fixture at WBAI in New York City for over 50 years, his free form FM "experience" came to complement the Peace movement, define the start of the '70s, and showcase the radical changes facing the format through the '80s and '90s.
As we learn from Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson's fascinating film, Fass started out as a self-described companion of the "night people," since NYC is truly the city that never sleeps. He loved the Greenwich Village scene and, initially, he used his overnight showcase as a way to introduce the talent and the times to those who would never ever dream of venturing that far downtown. He also tried to inspire a kind of social activism with his various movements, including such oddly named events as a "Yip-In" (a gathering of Yippies - members of the Youth International Party) and a "Sweep-In" (in honor of the horrible NYC garbage strike at the time). In fact, the film focuses quite a bit on the aforementioned gathering of young people at Grand Central Station, explaining how it turned from a well intentioned assembly into a bloody catastrophe, police using undeniably brute force on the supposedly peaceful throng. When Fass opened the lines to let those in attendance do some reporting, the result is one of the earliest examples of "social media" on record. Fass was Twitter before we knew how to tweet.
Elsewhere, we marvel at the talent the man presented (including an early Bob Dylan and appearances from many classic musicians and newsmakers) and we also sit and wonder at how much radio has changed since then. One of the things the film fails to capture is how someone like its subject becomes a cultural lynchpin, how the discovery of his muse and his free form antics drew a decidedly different crowd to the FM airwaves and how Fass manipulated the medium to his own ends. There will be some who see the man and dismiss him as a kook who got lucky (his radio station was privately held and commercial free, meaning there were no sponsors to cater to or consider) while others will be immediately enthralled by what Fass has to say and, perhaps more importantly, how he said it. This was a time when TV meant three or four stations (and various UHF alternatives) that clocked out after The Late Late Show, so for those night owls on the prowl, Radio Unnameable was an oasis, a companion when the city or its people weren't providing any friendship or hospitality.
This building of community, this acknowledgement of a decided "us vs. them" mentality may make Radio Unnameable a hard pill for today's modern Neo-Con to truly embrace. Fass was a vocal member of the people's revolution and was accused of everything from inciting riots to aiding and abetting the Chicago Seven. In fact, Abby Hoffman used to call the radio host daily from this trial revolving around the 1968 Democratic Convention, with the program acting as a kind of alternative news source. Over the course of time, the '60s slipped into the '70s and Fass became antithetical to the very movements - gender, race, sexual orientation - that he was, at one time, the bellwether for. There's also some less than savory details about the man himself from those in his inner circle (family, friends, ex-wives) and the portrait they paint is both compelling and completely off putting. No one should know their heroes this well, and for many, learning the backstage stories that hounded Fass might be too much too bear. Still, for those outside NYC and unable to experience his wireless antics firsthand, the combination of talking heads and archival material might be just as good. Radio Unnameable may now only exist in the mythos of radio history (Fass still broadcasts one night a week), but this film finds an engaging way to keep its memory alive.