Undoubtedly, somebody had to invent free-form radio—turns out it was Bob Fass. The 79-year-old host of WBAI’s long-running Radio Unnameable and subject of a striking new documentary of the same name by Jessica Wolfson and Paul Lovelace, Brooklyn-born Fass started his career as an actor. He first secured an all-night radio slot in 1963, not long after completing a stint in the same influential production of The Threepenny Opera that inspired Bob Dylan to write “When the Ship Comes In.” The spontaneous sound collages started almost instantly.
“I listened to The Threepenny Opera music for two and a half hours a night for years, and walking through the Village with those tunes in my head, I would see so many repetitions of ordinary human alienation, or otherness, colliding with and rubbing up against what was thought of as the progressive, contemporary world,” Fass says recently over the phone from his home on Staten Island, his voice as low and honey mellow as it has sounded over WBAI for decades. “I think a mix is a very natural thing.”
But Fass had other input, too. He engineered for fellow station DJ—and third-stream music pioneer—Gunther Schuller. “He would say: ‘Play a few bars of this bit on the Moog, and then play someone singing. Play bird songs slowed down,'” Fass recalls. On air, with two turntables, a microphone, and the occasional parakeet-training record, Fass refined the power of the station’s mixing console as an instrument in itself.
Blending guests, callers, and free-form eruptions, he became one of the decade’s underrecognized musical and social-organizing geniuses, on par with (and, in his own way, as influential as) guests like Bob Dylan and Abbie Hoffman. Eventually, he had his ax tricked out, commissioning a friend to build a device so WBAI’s switchboard could handle 10 calls at once, which Fass often put on simultaneously. The city was his song.
There were radio-organized human fly-ins, nude-ins, sweep-ins, and the disastrous yip-in at Grand Central Station, which turned into an NYPD battering when members of the anarchist group Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers removed the hands from the clock atop the information booth. If the Beatles came from Liverpool, the Chicago Seven came from Radio Unnameable, Hoffman and Paul Krassner using it as a switchboard to plan actions before the 1968 Democratic Convention.
The show might also deteriorate into chaos. “Really late, after a full night of radio and doing whatever they were doing in the studio, it could get a little weird,” says Lovelace, who spent five years working on the Radio Unnameable film with his wife and creative partner, Wolfson. “We found something recently where it’s just Bob and José Feliciano making noises. . . . You’re in the middle of FM dial in New York City, and José Feliciano is making funny fart noises on the radio.”
Fass’s subsequent body of work, preserved on around 5,000 air-check reels, is the ethereal basis for Lovelace and Wolfson’s equally ethereal film, which bottles Fass’s spark perfectly. “When you listen to the radio, it’s a very personal experience, especially at night,” Wolfson says. “Often people are alone in the dark, or at work, or driving in their car. We wanted to have a really ambient feel to it, so you could really pay attention to the audio.”
“You see a lot of the same footage, particularly in films about the ’60s, and we were really committed to finding material that was totally unique,” says Lovelace of the film’s handmade strategy for reanimating the radio star. “We knew the only way to do that would be to find individuals—street photographers, amateurs, people who went out shooting stuff at night.”
Over and over, what comes across is the force of Fass himself, and the tangible warmth and presence created by his on-air self. Both Wolfson and Lovelace observe how agile Fass remains when working the WBAI console. “When it’s working, it feels great,” he says of the radio’s place in the media scape. “Other times, it feels like the technology has slowed down a bit.”
If it is a perilous age for institutions, especially New York ones, it is a boundless one for free form. Although a movement might emerge around a hashtag, no matter how inclusive, it’s hard to imagine a social-organizing mechanism as big-hearted as Fass himself. In interview, the radio host remains open and inquisitive. He wonders aloud about the implications of Twitter turning over account information to courts. For #Occupiers looking for a new back channel, they might try tuning in to WBAI on Thursdays at midnight. The party line will be open.
Radio Unnameable plays at Film Forum through October 2.