|Late-night radio revolutionary Bob Fass, left, and filmmaker Paul Lovelace.|
“I wanna be a neuron — I don’t wanna be the brain. We’re all the brain.” — Bob Fass to his radio audience in the 1960s.
By Thorne Dreyer | The Rag Blog | May 9, 2013
Bob Fass is an American broadcast legend who was a pioneer of free-form radio and who has been on the air at New York’s WBAI for almost 50 years. Fass’s show, Radio Unnameable, provided an early forum for counterculture figures like Paul Krassner, Bob Dylan, and Abbie Hoffman, and helped spawn the Yippies.
Paul Lovelace is the producer and co-director of Radio Unnameable, a remarkable documentary about Fass and his singular legacy.
Bob Fass and Paul Lovelace were our guests on Rag Radio, Friday, May 3, 2013. Rag Radio is a syndicated radio program produced at the studios of KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas.
Listen to or download our interview with Bob Fass and Paul Lovelace here:
Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable — he appropriated the moniker from Samuel Beckett — is credited with revolutionizing late-night radio. The show was first broadcast in 1963 on listener-sponsored Pacifica radio station WBAI-FM in New York City.
Pacifica, founded in 1946, pioneered listener-sponsored radio in this country and WBAI became a Pacifica station in 1960. But they signed off at midnight and, Fass told us, “I knew that there was a world of people who would listen to the radio late at night — for companionship, for education” — so he coaxed management into letting him do an all-night shift.
From the beginning the show featured regular appearances by counterculture figures such as Paul Krassner, Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Phil Ochs, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Kinky Friedman, and Wavy Gravy, and broadcast the first performances of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” and Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”
Fass’s on-air calls-to-action brought thousands into the streets for countercultural happenings including a Human Fly-In at JFK Airport, a Sweep-In to clean up New York streets, and a Yip-In at Grand Central Station that turned into a police riot. Fass was called a “midwife” to the birth of the ’60s counterculture and his show helped to incubate the theatrical New Left activist group, the Yippies.
Fass told the Rag Radio audience that there was “a whole cultural revolution in New York City,” and “I had the good fortune to be able to put it on the air.” “There was no other place doing what I was doing,” he told us. “If something was gonna happen, [Radio Unnameable] was where it was gonna happen.”
“We were kind of demystifying radio,” he said, “making it somehow less austere and didactic.”
Fass also experimented with form; he might play a record backwards or play two records at once or play the same song multiple times. And he would put as many as 10 callers on the air simultaneously. Jay Sand wrote that Fass “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… [but] the radio program he created… transcended those common wares.”
Fass developed a very special relationship with his listeners, even giving his loyal audience a name: “Cabal.” He would open the show with the greeting: “Good morning, Cabal.” “I wanna be a neuron,” he once told his audience. “I don’t wanna be the brain. We’re all the brain.”
Fass, who was born June 29, 1933, can still be heard every Thursday night from midnight-3 a.m. on WBAI 99.5-FM in New York.
|Good morning, Cabal.|
Paul Lovelace is a documentary filmmaker who produced and co-directed (with Jessica Wolfson) Radio Unnameable, a feature-length documentary about Fass and his amazing story.
The film, which was screened in December 2012 by the Austin Film Society — where it was introduced to the audience by songster and former Fass regular Jerry Jeff Walker — is currently showing around the country and the DVD will be released in September. It will also be available on Netflix, YouTube, and other outlets, Lovelace said. Radio Unnameable has screened to widespread kudos and Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 100 percent positive rating among critics.
As Rag Blog editor and Rag Radio host, I was honored to participate in a panel with the filmmakers after the Austin screening. I spent time in New York in the ’60s and worked with Houston’s Pacifica station, KPFT, in the ’70s — and I can offer personal witness to Bob Fass’s incredible contribution to progressive radio in this country.
The film features new interviews with Paul Krassner, Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins, Wavy Gravy, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ed Sanders, David Amram, and others, as well as the insightful and edifying reflections of Fass himself. And, as John Anderson of Variety points out, Fass’s “legacy, and his archives, are as epic as the medium gets,” adding that the film includes “extraordinary archival material and some sparkling footage of New York.”
Lovelace told the Rag Radio audience that more than 60 people worked on cataloging and organizing the archival material which was in a range of media formats including “5,000 or more reel-to-reel audio tapes, just from 1962-1977.” “We immersed ourselves in the material,” he said. “It was a treasure trove.”
Michael Simmons wrote at The Rag Blog that “Fass and ‘Cabal’ changed history and deserve the credit, and Lovelace and Wolfson have provided the first in-depth cinematic look. It resonates like an epic tale with the hero emerging as a long-shot survivor.”
In his review at The New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote that Lovelace and his co-director Jessica Wolfson “pay tribute both to an influential voice in broadcasting and to the times whose ideals and follies he helped articulate,” identifying Bob Fass as “a gentle, soulful voice” who “kept [New Yorkers] from loneliness.”
Paul Lovelace has previously won film festival acclaim for his short films, Robert Christgau: Rock N’ Roll Animal, about the esteemed Village Voice music journalist, and for the 35mm narrative short, The Sonnets. His first documentary feature was The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose, a portrait of the psychedelic folk duo. Paul also wrote, produced, and edited the PBS documentary, American Roots Music: Chicago.
Michael Simmons sums it all up beautifully:
Radio Unnameable is a roadmap for rebels, those who believe — as the saying goes — that another world is possible. Fass and Lovelace and Wolfson show that political and cultural transformation are often generated in the wee small hours of the morning — that perfect time when the moon shines, the squares sleep, and dreamers share dreams while wide awake.
The show has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, an all-volunteer cooperatively-run community radio station in Austin, Texas. Rag Radio is broadcast live every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP and is rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EDT) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.
Rag Radio is produced in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive Internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Tracey Schulz is the show’s engineer and co-producer.
Rag Radio can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coming up on Rag Radio:
THIS FRIDAY, May 10, 2013: Journalism professor and activist Robert Jensen, author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog.
Friday, May 17, 2013: Political economist Gar Alperovitz, author of What Then Must We Do?
Friday, May 24, 2013 (RESCHEDULED): Amsterdam-based poet John Sinclair, legendary founder of the White Panther Party and former manager of the MC5.