An election-year natural, “Radio Unnameable” is ostensibly about Bob Fass, one of the more famous/notorious personalities in New York media and an icon of free-speech radio. But helmers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson also put the Occupy movement, Twitter and flash mobs in a proper historical context while drawing a needed parallel between noncommercial ’60s radio and an open Internet. Occasionally as laconic as its subject, the docu also draws on the high drama of the times it covers, and should appeal to auds interested in the evolution of media and the First Amendment.
Described in an early radio program as “friend of the friendless, champion of the abandoned and advocate of the alienated,” Fass has been doing his free-form “Radio Unnameable” for nearly 50 years. He was exiled for several of those years (approximately 1977-83) during a politicized overhaul at his longtime home, the Pacifica Foundation’s WBAI noncommercial station in Manhattan.
But his legacy, and his archives, are as epic as the medium gets. During his tenure in the ’60s, he hosted a catalogue of notable musicians and songs: Arlo Guthrie introduced “Alice’s Restaurant” on Fass’ show in 1967, while Jerry Jeff Walker used it to publicly debut “Mr. Bojangles.” Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Fahey, Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell (“Do you prefer Joan or Joni,” Fass is heard asking) are among the stars-to-be Fass more or less introduced to middle-of-the-night New York. He also provided bountiful airtime to the era’s leading countercultural luminaries: Realist magazine editor Paul Krassner, Allen Ginsberg, conspiracy theorist Mae Brussell and Abbie Hoffman, who would report in from the Chicago Seven trial.
Fass was equally influential in using public radio and his show — which gradually grew away from music and more firmly into politics — to organize and effect events outside the studio: a “fly-in” at JFK Airport’s Intl. Arrivals Building, attended by 3,000 people; a “sweep-in” on the then-garbage-strewn Lower East Side; and a “Yip-in” at Grand Central Terminal, instigated by the Youth Intl. Party (Yippies), which turned into a police riot. “Radio Unnameable” treats these events with righteous indignation, but without brandishing any burning torches, and Lovelace and Wolfson provide rare footage that must have been shot by news crews on the ground.
Fass provided what would now be the Twitter feed for all these events, fielding calls from pay phones (you can hear the coins dropping) and keeping his constituency apprised of what was going on. For all his occasional on-air crankiness, he made public radio a public forum, or public square, in which events of the day were given the kind of an airing profoundly absent from mainstream media.
The docu has a worshipful tone that suggests the filmmakers feel they need to sell their subject, which perhaps they do, given that Fass has been reduced, by age and by the corporatization of public radio, to a one-night-a-week gig on WBAI, while Pacifica, with its hotpot of political programming, doesn’t have much of an identity anymore. But the closing scenes of Fass and friends trying to organize his vast archive of open-reel tapes, as wild and messy as the ’60s themselves, provides a bittersweet note to a story that’s not quite over. (Although Pacifica seems to wish it were; the current online programming guide for “Radio Unnameable” lists the host as “Bob Frass.”)
Tech credits are tops, including extraordinary archival material and some sparkling footage of New York by d.p. John Pirozzi.