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‘Radio Unnameable’: The New York Voice of the Sixties - Leonard Quart

‘Radio Unnameable’: The New York Voice of the Sixties

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I have fond memories of WBAI, the non-commercial listener-supported New
Bob Fass in WBAI's Master Control (Photograph ...

Bob Fass in WBAI's Master Control (Photograph by Bernie Samuels). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

York radio station — having listened to it in the 60s and 70s, and briefly co-hosted an interview show with film directors in the late 70s. But over the last thirty years, when I want news and analysis of a variety of political and social issues or probing interviews with writers and artists, I listen to the more professional, less polemical and sectarian WNYC. That may say as much about my no longer being politically reflexive and becoming more balanced politically and psychically than about the nature of WBAI. The station clearly has less political and cultural resonance today and whenever I dip into its programming, most of it seems hectoring in style and devoid of nuance.

The documentary film “Radio Unnameable” doesn't try to cover all the internecine conflicts and ideological shifts the station has gone through over the years. It centers on Bob Fass, an engaging-voiced disc jockey, who hosted a “free form” midnight show where spontaneity was the rule, and on any given night totally unpredictable things could and would occur. Fass began at the station in the 60s, and at 79 still does a show a week. He is unpaid, and struggles financially, but it's a calling that he loves and can't give up. Fass is a low-key thoughtful figure respected by most of his radio colleagues like Steve Post and Larry Josephson, though the film's directors, Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson never attempt to get to the heart of who he is. In its heyday Fass' program discussed international, national, and local issues with listeners, giving every voice — especially insomniacs, night workers, and people with idiosyncratic theories — an opportunity to be heard. Fass had on-air conversations with Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Yoko Ono, and Timothy Leary among others. Arlo Guthrie sang “Alice's Restaurant” for the first time on his program. Fass also organized peaceful be-ins at JFK Airport and Grand Central Station (which turned into a riot when the police brutally attacked the participants) and an East Village street “sweep-in” during a garbage strike.

The film vividly depicts WBAI's role as the movement's voice in New York (e.g., Fass reporting from Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention police riot). It was an unabashedly left-wing station — supporting anti-war demonstrations and other political causes — but it never felt solemn or dogmatic. It wasn't solely dedicated to political and social programming, but also produced original radio dramas and a critically applauded four and a half-day round-the-clock reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace. And a bit later became one of the voices of New York's avant-garde arts scene.

The film uses a mix of interviews and vivid WBAI archival material. At times the images are directly related to the voices, but at other times the images are more abstract or unrelated. The film is far from the last word on WBAI. But it strikingly conjures up a time when there was a critical mass of people who rebelled against the political and cultural status quo with a mixture of idealism, wit, and inchoate — and often infantile — passion. In 60s New York, WBAI was the station we turned to, to convey that welter of beliefs and emotions.
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