It was fifty years ago that the freeform-radio pioneer Bob Fass, now 79, began his overnight radio show, “Radio Unnameable,” on New York’s WBAI. There’s a new documentary out about Bob, which has inspired a lot of chatter about his remarkable groundbreaking show and the community that it created. I was moved by the documentary also, and by the chance to meet Bob at a recent screening. But, to me, the important lesson of Bob Fass and Radio Unnameable is how one person’s gleeful and unflagging delight in humanity can create change.
But, to come to that end, you’ve got to start at the beginning.
In 1963, Bob Fass was an working actor. Radio programming at the time was mostly limited to news reports and Top 40 hit songs. Bob was able to wrangle an announcer’s job at WBAI, which had recently been donated to Pacific Radio with the mission of creating less-commercial programming. Bob asked to take over the empty hours between midnight and dawn, and his overnight show ran on BAI through the tumult of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The phrase “freeform radio” doesn’t begin to describe Bob Fass’s show. Like other radio announcers, he’d play music. But, he’d use that music as an ingredient in his own sonic creations: sometimes playing two songs at the same time, sometimes playing them backwards, often creating portraits with sound effects, spoken word, and music. If he liked a song, he might play it over and over again for an entire night. Like other radio announcers, he’d interview guests. But, these guests often simply showed up at the station, creating a 20th Century version of a literary salon. Dylan, Paul Krasner, Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, and scores more would drop by and become a part of the conversation.
Most of all, like other radio hosts, Bob Fass took listener calls. But, he did not use those calls as a jumping-off point for his own rants. He did not cut off callers who disagreed with him. Instead, he acted as the hub – the “neuron,” in his words – for the kibbitzing, the passions, the fears, and the gossip of thousands of sleepless New Yorkers. He would take long calls, letting his callers have their full say while often bantering with them in a teasing, curious, and warm-hearted way. Often, he would put several callers on the air at the same time, and let them create their own discussion, either with one another or with the guests who were congregated in the studio.
This is the remarkable part of Radio Unnameable, and of its host. The soul of Radio Unnameable was Bob Fass’s big-hearted delight in his fellow humans. To trot out a much-abused but very meaningful term, Bob Fass was and is a humanitarian.
It’s no surprise that Bob Fass’ humanitarianism translated into social activism. If you truly love people, you don’t want them to suffer. When thousands of people packed Kennedy Airport to attend a 1966 “fly in” that he orchestrated on his show, Bob realized that he had built a community. The next year, during the notorious summer garbage workers’ strike, he organized a “sweep in” to clean up one block in the West Village. When regular guests Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Paul Krassner formed the Yippies, the show became their communications hub, eventually transmitting real-time accounts of the beatings that Yippies suffered during their 1968 “Yip In” at Grand Central Station.
It was natural that Bob Fass’s good will for what he called his “cabal” of listeners would inspire social change. The Yippies themselves, anarchic and mischievous, created theater more than they created community. Wavy Gravy (another regular on the show) relished being the court jester. Jerry Rubin had not an ounce of authenticity, not when he was a Yippie, not when he took EST, and not when he discovered the upside of pyramid schemes.
Although he was the guy on the air, Bob Fass never seemed to want a spotlight. He never seemed to yearn to hear his own voice. When the newspapers wanted his picture, the day after he’d saved a caller who was trying to commit suicide, Bob tried to turn one reporter away, finally passing the reporter a photo of his producer through a crack in the door. (The picture ran the next day as “Bob Fass, WBAI’s heroic deejay”…Bob told us at the screening that the suicidal caller now is employed answering sex-advice letters for Hustler Magazine).
Soon enough, in the mid-1970’s, WBAI decided that its mission would be to give air time to a wide range of identity-politics programs, ranging from Native American to feminist, gay, and African American niches. Bob was told that he was “living in the past,” and lost his program. I listen to some of these programs, and I would be surprised if their strident narrow-casting wins many hearts or loyalties.
Today, we are bombarded by people’s opinions, by skillful attention-grabs and partisan bickering. We generally are so jaded that no amount of hectoring can persuade us. But, the message of Bob Fass and Radio Unnameable is that simple humanitarianism – a delight in others and a true concern about their well-being – can be the soul of change.