Fass’s Program, Radio Unnameable, which airs Thursday evenings shortly after midnight on WBAI, and is also available in streaming format, was a creative and influential performance venue, beginning in the 1960s, when it aired Monday through Friday from midnight until 5 am, broadcasting amongst others Bob Dylan, and the original performance(s) of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant".
For the next five hours, Fass steered his iconic free-form show through the night. There were no scheduled stops and you never knew who he’d pick up before dawn; Bob Dylan stopping by to joke with listeners, investigative reporter May Brussel offering up the latest dish on the secret army at the White House, Arlo Guthrie debuting a song he’d just finished, called “Alice’s Restaurant”, Abbie Hoffman sharing his first impression of prospective jurors at the Chicago Seven trial (“they sure as hell aren’t hippies, I’ll tell you that much!”). One night, you’d catch a planning session for the Central Park Be-In, on another, an unknown named Phoebe Snow would step up to the mic and sing her heart out. Sometimes, a suicidal listener, reaching for a lifeline, called in. Everyone was welcome on board.
To call Bob Fass a radio DJ doesn’t begin to describe his life and work on the air, beginning in 1963 and continuing to the present day.
For Neil Fabricant, Legislative Director of New York’s ACLU during the 1960’s, Bob Fass was “a midwife at the birth of the counter culture.”
He “had a more intimate and lasting relationship with his audience than any performer in any medium I had ever encountered” says his former colleague, Steve Post.
In his book, Public Radio & TV in America: A Political History, Ralph Engleman (who as chairman of WBAI’s Board would fire Fass from the station for insurrection in 1977) cites Fass as “the father of freeform radio.”
He also plays a major role in Marc Fisher’s book, Something In The Air, which covers radio’s impact in the post TV years. The Washington Post columnist describes how the “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” scene in the film, Network, grew out of an actual incident when WOR’s Jean Shepherd exhorted his listeners to throw open their windows, stick out their heads, and shout, “Excelsior!", then he goes on to write:
“Shepherd took the unseen audience and let them see each other, but it’s Bob Fass who took that to the next level, giving it social and political meaning. Fass really opened the door and summoned the audience into the action. He used the mass media to amass a very real movement.”
Bob Fass was born June 29, 1933 and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with, he says, “my ear buried in a radio. It was part of my world since I was in grammar school.” (He is still a little ashamed of the terrible fight he had with his Grandma over control of the radio dial when she wanted to hear Our Gal Sunday and he insisted on Red River Dave, the cowboy singer.)
But his first big love was acting. In his early 20s, Fass received a scholarship to study with Sandy Meisner and Sidney Pollack at the Neighborhood Playhouse and was also a member of Stella Adler’s workshop. He appeared on stage in Brendan Behan’s The Hostage at Circle in the Square, The Education of Private Slovic with Dustin Hoffman, and The Man with the Golden Arm at the Cherry Lane, among other New York productions. When he went into the army in 1956, he started the theater at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (which continues half a century later as a community theater).
Fass remembers his big break came one day in Washington Square Park when someone he knew from Adler’s Workshop approached him at the fountain, looked him up and down, and announced, “You’ll fit the costume!” In 1960, he took over the role of the warden in the now legendary off Broadway production of Threepenny Opera with Lotte Lenya. Over the next two years, he played a variety of roles in the show, also acting as assistant stage manager, when he wasn’t piercing ears at Conrad Gersuny’s shop on McDougal Street. “I was living in the Village, appearing in a long-running play ---part of hip, intellectual New York life. It wasn’t a destination I was seeking, so much as a route I wanted to follow.”
In 1963, that route led him to WBAI, one of the nation’s first listener-sponsored, non-commercial stations. Operated by the Pacifica Foundation, WBAI’s aim was to use radio to improve society, not just to sell to it. Novelist and poet Richard Elman, a friend of Fass’s from high school, was already producing programs for the station’s Drama & Literature Department. He helped Bob land a gig as an announcer. “I saw it as my bread job. There wasn’t much to it besides, “you are about to hears and you have been listening tos…”, but it was steady work and before long, management handed Fass the five hours between midnight and dawn to make of what he could. “He had the same supplies as any other broadcaster---two turntables, a microphone, a stack of records, perhaps a guest in the studio, a friend on the phone,” Jay Sand writes in The Radio Waves Unnameable. “The radio program he created however transcended those common wares.”
The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett, which Fass was reading at the time, gave the show its’ title. His signature greeting, “Good morning, cabal,” came from a listener. “I wanted a sign-on line, like William B. Williams “Good morning, world,” says Fass. “Someone sent in a postcard suggesting, “Good morning, cabal.” I looked it up in the dictionary and discovered that the word, cabal, comes from “horse.” Originally, people met on horseback at night with their identities concealed-even from each other—to plot or plan something subversive. And I thought, that’s it: “Good morning, cabal.”
Fass brought perhaps his greatest gift as an actor to the radio --- his voice. It was a deep, warm, dramatic instrument that he could modulate from a whisper that made it seem like he was talking just to you, to a bellow when he laughed in response to a caller’s remark. It was a voice you would struggle to stay awake for, a voice it was comforting to fall asleep to … Fass had a voice that could fill your dreams.
Filmmaker Susan Lazarus recalls listening to Bob’s show as a teenager. She drifted off to sleep and woke some hours later to hear Tom Rush singing a beautiful song live in BAI’s studio. It was called Urge For Going, by a new Canadian songwriter named Joni Mitchell (who would also go on to sing and play the piano on Radio Unnameable). Lazarus remembers the sense of discovering something with Fass at the very instant of transmission. “It was like magic.”
Nowhere else, Jay Sand writes, could you hear a DJ “playing two records at the same time or backwards, or the same song over and over and over again, simply because he liked its message. Nowhere else in the early 60s could you hear callers and host alike criticize LBJ for escalating the war in Vietnam, encourage men to burn their draft cards, or talk in glowing terms about their drug experiences. Radio Unnameable was a counterculture radio show before anyone ever applied the term to America’s drop out youth. Bob Fass was a hippie before there were hippies.”
From the earliest days of Radio Unnameable, Fass experimented with sound, inspired by the audio art he’d heard by John Cage and Bill Butler. He collaborated with Gerd Stern and Michael Callahan’s media collective, USCO, which had produced sound fields for Timothy Leary’s Fillmore East shows, then dove in and began creating dense mixes on the air.
On the spur of the moment, Fass would layer four or five sources of sound; an instructional typing record… a Hopi Indian ceremony…an anti-war song…cannons firing…an excerpt from a play. He would weave the sources in and out; make them louder, then softer, introducing new voices and noises that would comment on the state of the nation or just create a mood. When everything came together in a moment of perfect timing, the effect was mesmerizing.
Watching the production of these mixes behind the scenes was sometimes just as entertaining as listening to them on the air. Fass would get a brainstorm only seconds before a cut would run out and fly into the record library in search of the perfect segue. “He existed on a slightly different plain than the rest of us,” Steve Post recalled in his memoir of life at WBAI, Playing in the FM Band. “He was more spontaneous. We all copied him, but he was the best.”
Fass always pressed to expand the boundaries of radio communication. In the mid 70’s, he asked the station’s Chief Engineer and resident technical guru, Mike Edl, if there was any way to rig up a contraption that would allow him to put as many as ten phone calls on the air at the same time. The system Edl built became a centerpiece of Fass’s show, allowing more of his listeners to connect with him, and with each other. Fass never humiliates or judges his callers, never rushes them off the phone. Community organizers know they can always count on Fass for airtime to spread word of current crises or upcoming events. He is an ongoing outlet for the unsung, unspun, ignored and unknown.
Throughout it’s 40 year-plus run, Fass’s show has been a way station for traveling troubadours, still jazzed from a gig in New York City and ready to jam all night long.
A steady stream of incredible musicians has made Radio Unnameable a home away from home--Townes Van Zandt, David Peel, Richie Havens, Jose Feliciano, Patti Smith and Phil Ochs (parodying Positively 4th Street; half pretending a comic competition with Bob Dylan, but later telling disapproving callers that it was Dylan’s right to play with an electric guitar and a band behind him). Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg introduced the immortal tune, Mr. Bojangles on the show, The Incredible String Band came over from England with their manager, Joe Boyd, Happy and Artie Traum often stopped by before heading back to Woodstock.
After Arlo Guthrie debuted his classic, Alice’s Restaurant on Radio Unnameable in 1966, hundreds of people called asking where they could buy the record. Arlo didn’t even have a recording contract yet. Bob knew Dave Van Ronk, the doyen of the Village folk scene, from Conrad’s shop. (They shared a birthday and Fass remembers they once celebrated by sneaking into the Carmine Street Pool after dark.) Garland Jeffreys, Buzzy Linhardt and Moogy Klingman are hometown guys who still make repeat visits.
Others who have made the scene over the decades include Taj Mahal, Paul Siebel, Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Skip James, Rosalie Sorrels, Tiny Tim with his ukulele, Jake & the Family Jewels, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, Melanie, Penny Arcade, Rambling Jack Elliot, Tom Rapp and Pearls before Swine, Frank Zappa, flute virtuoso Jeremy Steig, The Holy Modal Rounders, Sis Cunningham, and on and on and on.
Many who play Radio Unnameable go on to major mainstream success; other’s private concerts remain a cherished secret between Bob and his listeners.
Hovering above all of them is Bob Dylan. Fass met Dylan even before he began his radio career, double dating with Karla Rotolo, one time stage manager of The Hostage, and her sister, Suze, who was Dylan’s girlfriend. “We went out to dinner in the Village and played poker at Dylan’s apartment over The Music Inn on 4th Street,” Fass remembers. “When I started the show, he listened and occasionally I could squeeze a suggestion out of him. He turned me on to Lightnin' Hopkins.”
Dylan first appeared on Bob’s show doing comic improvs with Suze Rotolo and John Herald in 1963. Listeners also got a preview of his forthcoming album, Freewheelin'. In 1966, in the midst of recording Blonde on Blonde, he returned to Radio Unnameable, taking phone calls from listeners. When Dylan’s crusading anthem, Hurricane, came out in the mid 70’s, Fass played it all night for five nights in a row and in 1986, when Dylan turned 45; he organized a 45-hour marathon of his music for WBAI.
Fass explained the connection to NPR reporter (and former WBAI news reporter) Jon Kalish, this way: “Bob Dylan is the leading bard of our age. I feel grateful to have been alive while he's been writing. In a way, it’s like having known Shakespeare.”
Fass remembers his very first guest on the air was Paul Krassner, editor of The Realist, soon followed by Zen poet D.A. Levy, who spoke about legalizing marijuana. Krassner became a regular, along with Timothy Leary, Wavy Gravy, (AKA Hugh Romney, the “radical clown” who started the Hog Farm commune and maintained crowd control at Woodstock by tossing crème pies and spritzing the unruly with seltzer bottles), filmmaker Robert Downey, (years later, Robert Downey Jr., the actor, sang on Radio Unnameable) jazz musician David Amram, comic actor and writer, Marshall Efron, the bizarre but memorable club performer, Brother Theodore, and the quirky Texan “Jewboy”, Kinky Friedman (years before he began writing mystery stories and took up politics).
Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso, today studied and taught in English classes around the globe, turned up multiple times on Radio Unnameable. Over the course of many years, activist attorney Flo Kennedy kept listeners abreast of the latest injustices in America’s court system. Steve Ben Israel and Judith Malina of the Living Theater, actor Rip Torn (and more recently his son, director Tony Torn) and Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, and the rest of The Fugs, all made themselves comfortable on Fass’s show. And then, there was Abbie Hoffman. The former civil rights organizer turned political provocateur appeared constantly during the tumultuous years from 1968-1973. “We’d have a phone near the bed and call in,” Anita Hoffman, told Jay Sand. “It was an incredible feeling of a small intimate community.”
Listening to Bob Fass’s programs from the 1960’s and 70’s is like time traveling through the jubilant birth and rocky growth of that community of idealistic and irreverent Americans, which dared to challenge the status quo.
Some believe it began one night on the air in 1966, when Fass invited “the Cabal” to join him for the Fly-In; a get together at JFK airport where he and his friends could meet and party with Radio Unnameable listeners and their friends, while the planes took off and landed in the background. (“My vision was like the Hawaiians who greet you when you get off the plane with leis, a kiss, and song,” Fass says.)
About a month later, on Saturday, February 11, 1967, 3000 people showed up at midnight “on the coldest day of the year”, to play guitar and hang out at the International Arrivals Terminal underneath Alexander Calder’s monumental mobile. Fass told author Jay Sand, “that was the first inkling I had that there were so many people and that they wanted so much to get together.” “Something about this electronic thing - this radio station - makes it possible to listen to other people like themselves and they get the idea they aren’t alone.”
Excited by the response to the Fly In, Fass and his friends looked for another opportunity to gather the tribe. Emmett Grogan (who worked with the anarchist collective, The Diggers and at The Free Store -“the trip without a ticket”, providing food and services to runaways and other needy citizens on New York’s Lower East Side) suggested the next get together should put all that positive energy towards a good purpose, “like cleaning up the junk on the Lower East Side.” That was all the encouragement Fass and Paul Krassner needed.
They announced plans for a Sweep In which would be held on April 8, 1967 and invited the audience to join them in cleaning up Krassner’s garbage-strewn block; 7th Street between Avenue D and 3rd Avenue. Word of the upcoming spring-cleaning eventually reached New York’s Sanitation Department. Apparently embarrassed by the idea of dirty hippies doing their work for them, city trucks were dispatched in the wee hours to clean the block, from top to bottom, a hitherto unprecedented occurrence.
That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Fass’s listeners. When they arrived armed with brooms, mops, sponges and cleaning solutions and discovered the original mission had been accomplished; they simply moved down to 3rd Street and started scrubbing there. The New York Times reported a sizeable group of participants were kids who came in from Westchester County and Long Island. The community was growing.
It wasn’t long before the movement nurtured in NYC went national. Abbie Hoffman became a household name in August 1967, after he led an anti-capitalist demonstration at the New York Stock Exchange, showering the traders with dollar bills. Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable became the communications hub of The Yippees!, the Youth International Party, started by Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Fass, Krassner, and a few others, to bring flower children, acidheads and old lefties together into one group that could change the course of American society.
The Yippees! got worldwide attention that October when they applied for permission to levitate the Pentagon during a massive anti-Vietnam War demonstration that attracted 50, 000 to Washington D.C. Fass can be heard on tapes of the event (along with Ed Sanders of the rock group, The Fugs, and a woman named Mountain Girl) chanting, “out demons, out!” as they attempt to exorcize the evil spirits at the War Department. But not every one appreciated the Yippees’ sense of humor and it proved hard to keep things light in 1968. Fass and his friends spent months on the air plotting a march on Chicago to coincide with the Democratic National Convention that August. They dubbed it the “Festival of Life”, in contrast to the “Festival of Death,” they felt the political power brokers were advancing in Vietnam. As a kind of a practice run for the big event, the Yippees decided to hold a Yip In at Grand Central Terminal in New York in March 1968.
It began as a happy go lucky party; a reunion of people who’d met at the Fly In and the Easter Be-In in Central Park the previous year. WBAI had reporters on the scene and Bob Fass was broadcasting phone calls from Paul Krassner and others at Grand Central, describing the good vibes and great turn out. Then suddenly, things turned violent. Several hippies from the commune, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, decided it would be a great symbolic gesture to rip the hands off the clock at the train station in “a rape of time.” A couple others set off firecrackers and the NYPD began cracking heads and smashing cameras. As the panicked crowd streamed for the exits, over 200 cops cornered them, throwing individuals like Village Voice reporter, Don McNeil, through glass doors, and dragging others out and arresting them.
Decades before CNN or the World Wide Web existed to transmit news in “real time”, Radio Unnameable was there providing a link between people inside the terminal and the audience listening at home. (Fass even called the police precinct to let the cops know that the station was monitoring the attack live on the air). He broadcast eyewitness accounts from the scene and spoke to Abbie Hoffman, who was getting his wounds patched up at Bellevue Hospital. Washington Post reporter, Nicholas Von Hoffman, came directly from Grand Central to join Fass on the air. “As a member of the establishment press, he opined, “I d have to say the police used excessive force.
It was a brutal initiation for the Yippees but it was also the moment that solidified Bob Fass’s place in the city’s information network. He was providing up to the second, unfiltered news that citizens wary of mainstream press coverage could trust. As Jay Sand points out in the Radio Waves Unnameable— “Bob Fass did not just report the news, he helped mold the events of the time.“
The next month, when Columbia students occupied school buildings to protest the University’s stance on the war and a plan to evict Harlem residents in order to build a gymnasium, WBAI, with Fass’s show in the lead, “acted as a nerve center for the demonstrators.” After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (both in 1968), Fass provided in depth, ongoing alternative coverage, giving listeners and independent investigators a chance to grieve, discuss theories, express opinions and trade information considered too controversial for the major media to touch.
In the weeks leading up to the Democratic Convention in August 1968, callers and guests on Radio Unnameable debated the wisdom of marching directly into the path of Mayor Daley’s troops. Fass cautioned listeners “to know what they were getting into should they choose to go. They don’t mess around in Chicago.” Vin Scelsa, later a major NYC radio broadcaster in his own right, then a WBAI listener, told Jay Sand, “We all should have been indicted as co-conspirators, not just the Chicago Seven. We were all in on it. That whole thing was planned on Bob’s show.”
Fass rarely left his command center in WBAI’s Master Control but at the very last minute, he flew to Chicago and recorded everything he saw and heard…and not just from The Yippees’ point of view. After reporting a noise that sounded like “ an M1 cracking against someone’s head,” Fass noticed that some of the national guardsmen “look very frightened. They are putting on their gas masks. They aren’t very experienced with them.”
The ensuing attack, roughing up hippies and network news reporters alike, was broadcast live on television. When the dust settled, several of Fass’s comrades were arrested for conspiracy and inciting to riot. Fass escaped indictment and returned to WBAI where over the next decade, his show became a kind of an alternative Town Hall; Abbie Hoffman called virtually every night with an update from the show trial of the Chicago Seven, which lasted for months. Anti-draft protestors would phone from the courthouse after being arrested to ask Bob’s audience for help in raising bail. A woman called to say her landlord had set fire to her building and she had no other place to go --- were there any carpenters listening who might help her rebuild? Over the long years of Rubin Carter’s incarceration for a murder he did not commit, attorney Flo Kennedy called Radio Unnameable regularly “to keep the case in the consciousness of at least listeners to late night radio,” says Fass. He remembers visiting Woodstock during the early 70’s and telling Bob Dylan “Carter was being railroaded for being “an uppity nigger.” Several years later, Dylan produced his epic song telling the story of the unjust conviction (“Hurricane”) and formed his Rolling Thunder Review specifically to raise funds for Carter’s defense. Fass calls the subsequent retrial and vindication of Carter “one of the great cooperative efforts where hippies and blacks united to achieve change before Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.”
Even in the years after Abbie Hoffman’s 1973 arrest for intent to sell cocaine (Fass believes he was set up), when he changed his name and appearance and went underground, he still surfaced occasionally on Radio Unnameable--- an old friend whose calls were always welcome.
Bob Fass continued to do his show as New York City and WBAI itself went through radical changes. In the 1970’s, the Movement split into factions and new program directors and station managers brought into revision the station attempted to portion out blocks of airtime to feminists, gay rights activists, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and other interest groups. Fass and many others felt this approach was the very antithesis of the personal character of WBAI. In 1977, The Radio Unnameable host found himself at the forefront of a power struggle for the future of the station. He participated in a staff attempt to form a union. Management accused him of “living in the past” and ordered him not to discuss the station’s internal business on the air. That was a request he found impossible to adhere to because he felt strongly that listeners paying to support non-commercial radio deserved to know and have a voice in what was being planned. The stand off ended with some staff members seizing control of WBAI’s transmitter at the Empire State Building, while others (including Fass) remained barricaded in the studios, broadcasting until the phone lines were cut and the police arrived to haul them away.
It was definitely the end of an era. New York City’s free speech station padlocked the front door and suspended broadcasting altogether for 35 days. Fass was banned for five long years, during which he returned to stage acting, did a guest residency at WFMU in New Jersey, and campaigned to return to his rightful throne at WBAI.
Since his reinstatement in 1982, Fass has picked up right off where he left off, offering old friends and new talent a platform on the air. Singers like Jeffrey Lewis, Roy Zimmerman, Debby Dalton and Rav Shmuel, blues guitarists Toby Walker and Guy Davis, radical environmentalist Keith Lampke (AKA Ponderosa Pine) and visual artists like Keith Haring, Art Spiegelman and McArthur Fellow Ben Katchor, are just a few who have joined the roster of Radio Unnameable guests. Fass reassembled the members of The Lovin' Spoonful on the air, emceed the Phil Ochs Memorial, (a tribute to the life and music of the folksinger broadcast live from the Lower East Side in December 2005) and flew to Houston to celebrate Jerry Jeff Walker’s birthday, which he taped and played on the radio.
Fass has been a fierce and consistent critic of “Bush’s war for oil” and continues to speak out against capital punishment, often putting prisoners who call from jail on the air. He has returned to the issue of homelessness in New York numerous times, raising awareness about the dangerous city shelters, reporting on the gentrification of many of the city’s neighborhoods which traditionally had offered affordable housing, and slamming the city’s “ assault on rent control.” In the mid 1980’s, Fass made remote recordings at the tent city the homeless had erected in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side. He went on to work with the Living Theater and members of that community to produce a piece of theater based on their experiences (which included both professional actors and homeless people), called The Hands of God. On the air, he continues welcoming voices you’d never hear anywhere else, but within the station itself, he feels increasingly marginalized. By 2006, Fass’s time on WBAI had been reduced to just one night a week (Thursdays, from midnight to 3:30AM). He compares the atmosphere to “walking on eggshells” and says, “I feel like an intruder.”
In his book about life at WBAI, Playing In The FM Band, Steve Post describes Bob Fass as: “a gigantic man with receding blond hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, with hands so huge they appeared to dominate his enormous frame. His voice, soft & gentle, which I heard coming from the office monitors seemed somehow detached from his body.” Post, who began as WBAI’s bookkeeper before hosting a wonderful program of his own, called “The Outside,” describes how Fass took him under “his ample wing” and allowed him to watch him at work, teaching him what he knew, demystifying the whole process.
Indeed, Fass creates such a magical atmosphere and makes it all seem so easy, he has encouraged dozens of wanna be DJs. His continuing impact is clear, according to Marc Fisher, author of Something in the Air (Random House, 2007), who says Fass has inspired countless other personalities like Sirius shock jock Howard Stern (who listened to Bob a lot as a kid) Tom Leykis in L.A, and Vin Scelsa, to ride the radio waves.
“I like the idea of sharing, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need,” says Fass. “I want to connect people in one city with people in another. I think information can cure almost anything.”
As previously noted, Fass has always been ready to lend an ear and share the air with absolutely anyone who felt they had something to say. This largesse often leads to endless, boring mouthing off that only a mother could love, but equally often leads to dynamic, intimate flurries of insight, energy, humor and understanding.
Unlike almost any other radio or television personality one can think of, silence never scares Bob Fass. Seconds pass as he seemingly ponders the thoughts of his guests, leaving them or you, the listener, a large space to fill in the blanks. In addition, to being a congenial master of ceremonies, Bob Fass is a good listener.
Fass has never been a brilliant monologist like Jean Shepherd who preceded him on WOR in the late 50s, nor a star interviewer. His style is to make a few gentle stabs at drawing his guest out, and then he’s content to go with the flow. His singular talent, as Jay Sand notes in The Radio Waves Unnameable, is for orchestrating the great mix; “For Fass, beauty exists in the way events intertwine… the art came in the complete presentation.. and for better or worse, the divergent strands of life which Fass presented would have fused to form a lucid whole by the time he said, “”BYE BYE.”
Looking back at the great “audio bazaar” he’s presided over for more than forty years, Fass says it’s the little moments that stand out for him. “Once at 3AM, a guy called from the Lower East Side and was talking about something, then said, “”Whoa! do you hear that thunder?”” A woman in the Bronx who was also on the line, paused and then said, “”Wow! Look at the lightening!”” You could hear the thunder claps moving up town and you got the feeling of a network of the whole city."
Remembering the appearance of the Brooklyn Black Panthers on Radio Unnameable back in the day, Fass says, “I kind of like it when people come up a little hostile and suspicious and I and the audience warm them up and win them over by the end of the show.”
In 1971, a man called in about 2:45 in the morning and announced that he had taken pills and was going to commit suicide. He asked Fass to promise not to call authorities, but the Radio Unnameable host refused.” I didn’t want to lie to him,” Fass explained to a reporter the next day. “If the last thing someone says to you is a lie, that kind of cheapens life.” Fass spent the next two hours talking to the soul-weary caller live on the air about film, politics, life and love, as other WBAI workers contacted the police and the phone company attempted to trace the call. It was a riveting night on Radio Unnameable.
Later that morning, the police finally found the caller lying unconscious on his bedroom floor. His telephone was off the hook, the radio tuned to WBAI. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition but survived. Fass says he later got in touch and thanked him for being there. The press tried to turn Fass into a hero but he demurred. Typical of his self effacing, sly sense of humor, when a Daily News reporter arrived at his home, wanting to take his picture, Fass passed him a photo of his colleague, Larry Josephson, through a crack in the door. Josephson made the front page, identified prominently as Bob Fass, WBAI’s heroic DJ. Fass later commented that he thought, “Larry would enjoy having his picture in the paper.”
Many wonder why Fass hasn’t simply moved on as so many of his colleagues did, to National Public Radio or commercial media. (NPR, he told David Hinkley of the NY Daily News, “gets on my nerves because it's so unspontaneous. You have the feeling if someone giggles, there's a management conference on whether to edit it out.")
Perhaps it’s as Julius Lester said, “WBAI is not simply a radio station, it’s a way of life.” Fass’s talent was too unconventional and sprawling to be contained or formatted. He grew accustomed to the utter freedom, power and pleasure of a way of life that didn’t exist outside of RADIO UNNAMEABLE, his wonderful creation where for five hours every weeknight, he was master of his universe.
Fass himself doesn’t entirely buy this analysis. He says he made a few job outreaches and there were nibbles of interest but when people called the station for his references they were told, “Bob flipped out… went crazy …had burned out.”
Bob Fass did not burn out. A steady glow emits from 99.5 FM whenever he is on the air and listeners seem to emerge from wherever they’ve been hiding to gravitate to radio you still can’t find anywhere else. Perhaps with new venues like AIR AMERICA, Sirius and XM fast emerging, some farsighted entrepreneur will "discover" Fass and give this one of a kind performance artist some new room on the air to decorate in his inimitable fashion.
Columnist Jimmy Breslin observed Fass on the job in 1985: “a large man in a tie dyed T-shirt, Fass had two or three callers on the air at once. They spoke about battered wife syndrome and low income mortgages. One caller arguing with another said, “Pathetic left wing drivel!” Someone threw the door open and said, we have food!” As Breslin left, he passed Melanie on her way in, just arriving to sing on Radio Unnameable. In the mid-1980's Fass was down on his luck and practically homeless. AJ Weberman rented a truck for Fass and a large storage area paid in advance for many years. If not for Weberman Fass would have lost his entire Archives.
Washington Post columnist, Marc Fisher, remembers spending a night at WBAI in 2005, watching Bob do his thing. “A caller phoned in to say that kids were being roughed up by cops in Brooklyn. Bob effortlessly went to the phones and the show became an open forum where listeners offered almost play-by-play accounts of the encounter from their different perspectives. It was an amazing mix of old counter culture stalwarts and a new BAI audience of west Indians and African Americans. Bob Fass was the circuit that linked them.”
74 years old at this writing (July 2007), Fass can now be heard around the world via the internet, as well as on the radio. Asked whether his long ride on the air has been rewarding, he is quick to say, “certainly not financially!” Last paid in 1977, the Pacifica Foundation has no provisions in place for people like Fass who have devoted a lifetime of service. He does however take heart from the fact that numerous friends have rallied to his side. Grateful musicians like Dave Bromberg turn up at tributes to thank Bob “for giving us our careers.” Admiring protégées turned colleagues, like Steve Post, Larry Josephson, and Vin Scelsa, haven’t forgotten his uncommon generosity. Listeners speak of his show with fierce affection and have made personal donations to his retirement fund. “It’s better than BAI paying me that people remember me, I guess,” Fass says wistfully.
In 2005, attorney Neil Fabricant (President Emeritus of the School of Social Policy at GWU) organized a rent party for Bob at Yaffa’s Restaurant in New York City. He feels Radio Unnameable is a gold mine that remains untapped. “The right wing has spent billions of dollars to revise the history of an era and to distort the collective memory,” Fabricant says. He suggests that restoring and properly archiving the 45 years of Bob Fass’s program “would be a giant first step in reclaiming that history.”
80 hours of Radio Unnameable have been acquired and are currently available at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. The rest sits in unlabeled boxes, scattered around the Staten Island house Fass shares with his four cats and his wife Lynnie who has been by his side for 38 years. More than 40 years of American social and political history… thousands of hours of great music….miles of reel-to-reel audio tape containing untold treasures of an amazing time.
“Like many others, Bob wanted to change the world. Unlike many others, he had access to the airwaves and therefore a very real opportunity to do so.” says Jay Sand. When he was given free rein, Bob Fass produced more than a radio talk show. He seized the moment and became a broadcast pioneer.
When speaking today to those who listened to Bob Fass regularly throughout the '60s, one can sense an almost spiritual reverence that they still hold for Radio Unnameable. Before the cultural explosion of the mid-1960s- before listening to Radio Unnameable became a ritual shared by the city's counterculture community – those who discovered Fass felt as if they had untapped a passageway into a magical world, and many instantaneously became religious Radio Unnameable devotees.
Platzer, David "Some Radio Unnameable Nights with Bob Dylan", The London Magazine December 2004/January 2005