Countercultural Cabal Lends a Hand to Radio Legend
For more than 40 years, Bob Fass has presided over a program called “Radio Unnameable” on listener-sponsored WBAI-FM in New York. It’s an apt name for the show, which features a genre-defying mix of talk, recorded music, live performance and just about anything else that Fass can patch into a mixing console. Asked to describe what he does on the air, the 71-year-old late-night legend replied: “What I do is entertain and spread compassion. I sit in a room and have great thinkers, musicians and comedians talk to me. It’s been great.”
Despite his longevity, however, Fass has not traveled an easy road. At the height of his career, he was on the air five hours a day, five days a week. These days, “Radio Unnameable” airs one night a week, for three-and-a-half hours. Fass feels increasingly marginalized.
Fass also has had a tough time financially. Something of a star in the city’s countercultural scene during the late 1960s, he has not drawn a paycheck from the left-wing radio station since 1977. After his wife, Lynnie, the station’s former record librarian, lost her most recent job as a law librarian last year, the couple found themselves in dire economic straits. So a group of WBAI alumni and listeners gathered last month in a Manhattan restaurant — Yaffa’s, in Tribeca — to raise funds for Fass.
About 50 people turned out at the informal gathering, emceed by former WBAI host and station manager Larry Josephson. Fass, balding and standing 6 feet 2 inches, wore a corduroy sports jacket with a button reading, “The airwaves belong to the listeners.” While digital cameras snapped away, a cake celebrating Fass’s career was served, and Fass was presented with a poster acknowledging “43 years of world-changing freeform radio.”
Fass was clearly touched by the outpouring of support, which raised several thousand dollars. For the past year, he and his wife have been living off his Social Security benefits and Lynnie’s occasional temp jobs; the money raised at Yaffa’s will help Fass pay off creditors.
Fass always begins “Radio Unnameable” slightly past midnight Thursday with the greeting, “Good morning, cabal.” And the crowd on hand at Yaffa’s could aptly be described as a countercultural cabal. The gathering included Aaron Kay, the rotund yippie who gained 15 minutes of fame in the 1970s for throwing pies at conservative political figures (he wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and a large Star of David around his neck), and A.J. Weberman, who was famous for going through Bob Dylan’s garbage and analyzing its contents.
“Fass never sold out,” said Josephson, the bad boy of morning radio at WBAI in the 1960s and ’70s, now an independent producer working on a radio documentary about Jews in America. “He never compromised his politics.”
Fass might be described as one of the many Jewish troublemakers who founded the yippies — antiwar radicals intent on making a cultural revolution by using comedy and guerrilla theater — in the late 1960s. His program featured regular appearances by fellow yippies Abbie Hoffman (the self-described “Jewish road warrior”) and “investigative satirist” Paul Krassner.
Krassner, widely credited as the father of the underground press, recalled the role that Fass’s show played “in the days before blogs.”
“Whenever there was a demonstration, people would call in their reports to his show.” Krassner said. “It illustrated the difference between what people experienced on the street and how it was reported in the mainstream media.”
Before he hit the big time, Dylan used to drop in on “Radio Unnameable” from time to time. (On one occasion, a listener called in and told him that he wrote nice songs, but added, “You don’t sing very well.”) Other prominent musicians who have ventured up to Fass’s show to play live include guitarist David Bromberg and folk singer Arlo Guthrie.
Bromberg credits Fass with the discovery of Jerry Jeff Walker and his hit, “Mr. Bojangles.” “Bob Fass was single-handedly responsible for giving that man and me a career,” said Bromberg, who abandoned full-time performing in the 1980s and is now a violin dealer in Wilmington, Del.
Fass’s show was where Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” had its first radio broadcast in 1966. Guthrie sang it live in WBAI’s master control room before he recorded it for an L.P. That broadcast is in the “Radio Unnameable” archive, much of which consists of reel-to-reel tapes piled from floor to ceiling in the house on Staten Island that Fass shares with his wife and nine cats. Authorities on the counterculture consider the show’s archive a treasure trove of cultural and political history — and a possible source of income for Fass. Josephson is trying to find a university or other institution to acquire the recordings.
“I would like to see the archive mined and extracted,” Fass told the Forward. “It should be taken seriously.”
Fass also yearns to be heard nationally, beyond WBAI’s listening area. He has had discussions with a consultant for Sirius, the satellite radio company. And Danny Goldberg, CEO of the liberal Air America network, is well aware of Fass’s work.
“I believe there are listeners out there who hunger for radio that engages their intellect, compassion and sense of humor,” Fass said. “Whether or not anyone wants to pay for that is another story.”