Radio as Art
“We have this electronic nerve ending connection,” says Bob Fass, “Even right now, you and I, over the telephone and over the radio. We’re tied together by wires right now, you and me.” Fass’ voice is a radio voice, maybe the radio voice, simultaneously grainy and smooth, soothing and rousing, even as the connection he describes is specific and general, an idea and a feeling, a fiction and also, real enough.
This is the peculiarity and the magic of Radio Unnameable, the late night talk show Fass conjured during the 1960s. As his voice drifts over the New York City night, you might imagine him sitting in his WBAI-FM (99.5) studio. And in the documentary Radio Unnameable, you see what you might have imagined, Fass in his headphones and leaning into his mic, surrounded by shelves cluttered with books and records, speaking and also listening, to the many people who called in, seeking some version of this electronic nerve ending connection.
It’s a connection—or more likely, a set of connections—that Fass and his colleagues built over time at the listener-sponsored station WBAI. As free form radio evolved, it engendered a sense of community, an awareness of shared interests and shared stakes. Fass’ program in particular, says former host Steve Post, “became more than a radio program. It was something that people who were up all night clung to.” While he and Fass and listeners describe their experience of Radio Unnameable, the film offers impressions of that community, neon signage and sidewalks, traffic and subway stations. Advertised himself as “Friend f the friendless, champion of the abandoned, and advocate of the alienated,” Fass invited all callers to share their stories and concerns, their hopes and jokes.
Some of these stories are harrowing. The documentary—now screening at New York’s Film Forum—includes a call from a would-be suicide whose life was saved by paramedics dispatched while Fass kept him on the phone for eight hours. Another woman calls in to report her building has burned down, on the very February 1967 night that Fass and his colleagues had—somewhat inadvertently—initiated what they call a Human Fly-In. as the film recounts, Fass invites his listeners to gather at Kennedy International Airport, where they party late into the night. “The place is packed,” reports Les Chandler over the phone, “Jammed on both sides, like Mardi Gras or something.”
The party and the reporting on this night opens up other possibilities. As Fass and his colleagues saw it, the radio was a way to reach thousands of people at once, to provide information, to agitate, and to work. And so, troubled by the call from the woman whose building burned (“To go and take calls about how some people had this wonderful time while other people in the city were suffering,” he tells his audience, “It can make what we had the other night seem kind of trivial”), he decides to incite his listeners to other sorts of gatherings, street clean-ups and food drives, rallies and demonstrations.
During one of these, a Yip-In at Grand Central Station (Fass was a great admirer of the Yippies’ mixing of art, theater, and protest), Abbie Hoffman calls in to describe police assaults on individuals (he would, during the following year, call in from Chicago during the trial after the Democratic Convention, reporting each night on the days’ increasingly nutty proceedings). During Hoffman’s call from Grand Central, other people called in too, and for a few hours, Radio Unnameable turned into a prototype of twitter, a collection of voices—citizen reporters, Fass calls them—with a range of perspectives and a shared determination to communicate what they were seeing. Under these voices, the film here shows deeply shadowed black and white footage of the chaos, cops in uniforms moving toward a crowd and people scrambling to escape.
Such reporting made WBAI rather notorious, and increasingly popular. All the while, Radio Unnameable also played music and brought in live performers, from Arlo Guthrie to Judy Collins and Jerry Jeff Walker to Buffy Sainte Marie. Fass’ eclectic taste, it appears, was framed by a desire to showcase music that served as reportage and also dissent. As the film shows repeatedly, he and his colleagues at WBAI shaped the show into a forum for self-expression and also, most importantly, community-building.
That the film does so while emulating the free form styling of the talk show—with illustrative archival images mixed with shots of the studio and interviews—you might appreciate the jazzy brilliance of the concept and the execution. It’s not pontification or argument, it’s not talk radio the way you hear it so often now. It’s radio as art, but also communication as action. It’s a faith and trust that seems almost lost now, until you see it here recalled.