Beginning in 1963, Bob Fass’ freeform radio show, “Radio Unnameable” aired in the anything-goes nocturne of midnight to 5 a.m. on New York’s WBAI FM, taking calls from lonelyhearts and conspiracy theorists, showcasing music from up-and-coming artists and experimental soundscapers, and generally defying anything resembling a standard radio format. The last of his kind if there was ever a second, Fass still operates today—albeit reduced to three hours on Thursdays, and without pay—and his voice, then and now, is gentle and curious, with a willingness to indulge callers and give listeners a companion through the night. Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson’s documentary Radio Unnameable is at its best when it tries to find some visual analog to Fass’ vibe, courtesy of cinematographer John Pirozzi, who takes beautiful snapshots of a sleepless city. It also, in the Fass way, does a little meandering.
Called a “midwife to the counterculture,” Fass was a key part of WBAI’s mission as a listener-supported station with a strong leftist identification. During the ’60s, he was a kind of unofficial point man for the “Yip-In” at Grand Central Station, reluctantly documented the happenings at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and played host to the biggest names in folk music and activism, including Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Kinky Friedman, and Arlo Guthrie, who introduced the song “Alice’s Restaurant” on his show. Just as Fass and WBAI reflected the anti-war left, the fracturing of the movement in the ’70s also took its toll on the station, as identity politics led to a schizophrenic, borderline-unlistenable array of programs that led to his exit in 1977. He returned in 1983, sans salary or pension, but with an impulse to keep going.
Lovelace and Wolfson spend curiously little time on Fass in the present day—just enough to get a feel for his habits and living situation, and some continuity between the past and the present, where he’s shown expressing some optimism over the Occupy Wall Street movement. They’re more interested in trolling the archives for special guests and various inflection points in counterculture history, which marry Fass’ broadcasts to more standard black-and-white newsreel footage of the late ’60s. They do find some gems, however, including a night where Fass talked a man through a suicide attempt, persisting for two or three hours as a cocktail of pills began to take hold. At times like those, Fass’ “Radio Unnameable” sounds like nothing else—among other things he praises silence as an on-air virtue. His show created a new form that will die with its creator.