Radio Unnameable, the new documentary by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson, explores the career of Bob Fass, the legendary DJ who pioneered late-night radio in the 1960s. Fass, whose radio show still airs every week, participated in and helped organize some of the most famous moments in 1960s counterculture, including the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film, which combines never-before-seen amateur footage, original interviews, and choice selections from Fass’s archives, finally tells a story that desperately needed to be told.
In 1963, Fass created “Radio Unnameable,” his radio show that reflected the rapidly shifting atmosphere of New York City in the 1960s. The show which was free form and unscripted, frequently featured spacey remixes of records, and allowed several night owls to call in to chat all at once about whatever topic struck Fass’s fancy at the moment. It wasn’t perfect (try envisioning a 10 person public conference call at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night in 1967) — but perfection wasn’t the point. Fass was taking radio to where it had never gone before, and doing so in a completely ingratiating way.
“The thing about Bob’s show that strikes me is the kind of bungled human element to it,” musician Jeffrey Lewis told me over the phone. Lewis, who has appeared on Fass’s show several times, provided music for the film. “Bob is not some kind of expert at what he does. He’s always accidentally hanging up on people, or you’ll play guitar and it’s not coming through [in the mix]. He’s sort of charmingly unconcerned with perfectionism, and that has a certain appeal. There are no other radios shows that I’ve done that are so charmingly careless.”
The roster of his guests reads as a who’s who of the times: Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell were just a few of the celebrities who swung by unexpectedly. Arlo Guthrie premiered “Alice’s Restaurant” on the program. Abbie Hoffman and several other prominent Yippies often dropped in to drop out. It was with the Yippies that Fass organized a series of “happenings,” including the ill-fated “Yippie-In” at Grand Central Terminal that resulted in horrendous police brutality. Listeners of the show called in on payphones as the event unfolded, a phenomenon that one interviewee in the documentary likens to how news spreads on Twitter today. Fass was there throughout the madness, providing updates to his devoted fan base.
Eventually, the 1960s ended, and the-times-that-were a-changin’ became the much less radical 1970s. The political situation at WBAI became insane and for a number of reasons, Fass was dismissed from the station until the early 80s. However, Fass persevered and remains a relevant radio personality to this day. He still provides an outlet for New Yorkers up in the wee hours of the night. Most importantly, according to one of his listeners, Fass “fill[s] up an emptiness where you don't feel like you're alone." And that always has a place on the radio.
“Radio Unnameable” airs on WBAI from Midnight to 3am on Thursday nights/Friday mornings. You can stream the show through WBAI’s website, or New Yorkers can tune their dial to 99.5 FM. The film is currently being screened throughout the country.