Home Video Hovel: Radio Unnameable, by Mat Bradley-Tschirgi
Before there was NPR, there was WBAI 99.5 FM. Funded by millionaire Louis Schweitzer and donated to the Pacifica Foundation in 1960, WBAI was a non-commercial, listener supported radio station whose primary mission was to promote peace. Many eccentric talk radio shows got their start on WBAI, but perhaps the most notable was Radio Unnameable, hosted by Bob Fass. His show is the subject of a documentary of the same name co-directed by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson.
Radio Unnameable is an intoxicating mix of vintage audio clips of the show’s nearly 50 year history of being on the air (it debuted in 1963 and still airs to this day, but was off the air from 1977 to 1983) and vintage film clips of Manhattan throughout the decades. Intertwined around show clips are talking head interviews, some of which are live video recordings of past episodes of the show. Despite having a lot of ground to cover, Lovelace and Wolfson keep things moving while mixing the political narrative of the United States with the personal narrative of Bob Fass himself.
Radio Unnameable was one of the first radio shows to take calls from listeners live on the air without any editing. Their discussions ranged from the political to the personal. Musicians were also guests in the studio. The classic clips of Arlo Guthrie playing Alice’s Restaurant or Jerry Jeff Walker playing Mr. Bojangles for the first time live are riveting. Even with the top musicians of their time in the studio, Fass always spoke his mind. There’s an all to brief snippet of Fass telling Bob Dylan that he “should sing a little better.”
The topics shift from the musical to the political fairly early on in the film. One of his closest friends was Abby Hoffman. A decent chunk of time is spent on how Fass could rally his listeners into having a variety of social gatherings in public spaces long before the age of cell phones, personal computers, or social media apps. There was a human fly-in in which listeners of the show met up at a concourse at the Kennedy International Airport. After a particularly bad snowstorm one year in which the streets of Manhattan were littered with trash, Fass started a sweep-in where his fans literally took to the streets to sweep up the dirty debris. Of all these gatherings promoted on Radio Unnameable, the most tragic was a yip-in at Grand Central Station for members of the Youth International Party where things changed from a celebration of love to an unannounced outbreak of police brutality.
Sadly, not much of Radio Unnameable covers the show’s influence from the 1980s to the present. Part of this is due to a shutdown of WBAI in 1977. Although Fass has a run doing a show at WFMU afterwards, he eventually returned as an unpaid volunteer at WBAI to host Radio Unnameable again in 1983. He has been unpaid as a radio host for WBAI since then, which is appalling to say the least. As the documentary closes with volunteers trying to organize Fass’ massive archive of shows he stored in his garage, it takes on a wistful tone. Without a pension in sight, Fass wonders how he can subside on his wife’s income. Radio Unnameable is clearly a show he does out of love for both the show itself and the listeners. It can still be listened to live on the air and on the Internet from 12:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. at WBAI’s website at http://www.wbai.org/listen.php
Radio Unnameable does such a great job at covering so much ground so effortlessly that it had me disappointed it was over. It’s worth your time even if you’re not interested in the politics or the music of the 1960s and 1970s. Special features on the DVD include some extended vintage clips from Radio Unnameable and Night People, a short documentary also co-directed by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson about Bobb Fass talking to a listener of his show.