Radio City in the sense of a place, is not merely incidental as the name of that iconic NYC Music Hall landmark, likewise dubbed Showplace of the Nation. Radio as the reigning mass media once dominated the airwaves across the nation through much of the last century, but is now relegated more as afterthought to television and the Internet in any communications conversation.
But the prominent place radio once held, at least in its alternative, somewhat subversive incarnation, is now the subject of the documentary Radio Unnameable. Which happens to be the legendary overnight show that the film examines, embraced by NYC insomniacs for decades, and celebrating its half century on the air next year. And still helmed by its charismatic and passionately anti-establishment host, Bob Fass.
Bob who? Okay, the name may not exactly ring a bell. But the countless names he was instrumental in bringing to legendary prominence when first appearing on his show – and often turning up unannounced just to drop by – cannot be mistaken. Including Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Arlo Guthrie, Kinky Friedman, Alan Ginsberg, and sixties agitator extraordinaire, Abbie Hoffman.
And just as extraordinary at the time, was Fass as political magnet for mass movement protests. And much like the Internet today engages in spontaneously summoning activists and flash mobs to gatherings, Fass as precursor to what was later to emerge as the tremendous powers of the digital revolution, would announce a happening or vigil on the air. And eager human throngs would instantly materialize, no matter where.
Which is not to say that the radio icon’s popularity and massive audience building skills for a small community entity like WBAI Radio received his station’s blessings. A troubling irony – or more to the point disturbing elephant in the room as peripherally depicted in this documentary – was that Fass was often in furious battle with his own undemocratically structured, split personality radio station. Where humane treatment of the hosts, basic union rights, free speech and all the other ideals passionately advocated on the air for everyone else, have been in woefully short supply.
And with Fass personally embroiled in lockouts, sit-ins and banishment for many years, before a triumphant return. And I say this by way of disclaimer, as a radio host there as well struggling through persistently turbulent times.
Directed by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson, Radio Unnameable if nothing else, is a richly conceived archival tribute to the very miracle of Bob Fass’ survival despite it all. While prevailing and presiding in the present over a significantly more subdued show, though one evidently a reflection of less tumultuous political times today. But lending optimism to a future time when who knows, a new Bob Fass may emerge at some point to fill those inventive, formidable shoes, and inspired by Radio Unnameable, the show and the movie.
Kino Lorber Films