Film

'Radio Unnameable' Looks Back on Free Form

The film's visuals emulate the free form styling of the talk show -- with illustrative archival images mixed with shots of the studio and interviews.


Radio Unnameable

Director: Paul Lovelace, Jessica Wolfson
Cast: Bob Fass, Lynnie Fass, Paul Krassner, Steve Post, Judy Collins, Vin Scelsa
Rated: NR
Studio: Kino Lorber
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-19 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

"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.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image