Radio Unnameable

The docu draws on the high drama of the times it covers.

With: Bob Fass, Larry Josephson, Ed Sanders, Steve Post, Judy Collins, Paul Krassner, Bridget Potter, Vin Scelsa, Arlo Guthrie.

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.

Popular on Variety

Radio Unnameable


Production: A Twelve O'Clock Films presentation in association with Lost Footage Films. Produced, directed by Paul Lovelace, Jessica Wolfson.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), John Pirozzi; editor, Gregory Wright; music, Jeffrey Lewis; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Benny Mouthon; associate producers, Stephanie Bencin, Ben Wolf. Reviewed on DVD, New York, July 14, 2012. (In BAM Cinema Fest; SilverDocs Film Festival.) Running time: 87 MIN.

Cast: With: Bob Fass, Larry Josephson, Ed Sanders, Steve Post, Judy Collins, Paul Krassner, Bridget Potter, Vin Scelsa, Arlo Guthrie.

More Scene

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Keke Palmer BlogHer19 Summit

    Keke Palmer Brought to Tears Accepting Truth Teller Award at #BlogHer19 Creators Summit

    Keke Palmer stood surprised and wide-mouthed on the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit stage as she was presented with the Truth Teller Award for her recent acting work — and her viral “sorry to this man” clip. “This means so much,” the multi-hyphenated star softly whispered as she got teary-eyed upon accepting the award. Last week, the [...]


    Emmys 2019: Inside All the Hottest Pre-Parties

    It’s (Emmys) party time! Before the 71st annual Emmys go live on Sunday, stars and execs are keeping busy by party-hopping in the days leading up to the big show. Here, Variety gives you the inside details on who was where and what they were doing. Keep checking back right here throughout the weekend for [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Green Dress

    Jennifer Lopez Closes Out Versace Show in Famous Green Grammys Dress

    Jennifer Lopez has found her way back into the Versace dress that broke the internet in 2000. The “Hustlers” star closed out Versace’s Spring 2020 show in a re-worked version of the revealing, bright green silk chiffon dress that she wore to the Grammy Awards 20 years ago. The dress quickly became a pop-culture phenomenon, [...]

  • 10 Storytellers to Watch

    Variety Celebrates Inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch Event

    Storytellers from across the spectrum of entertainment — film, literature, podcasting and play writing — were honored Thursday at Variety’s inaugural 10 Storytellers to Watch luncheon at Gramercy Park Hotel, hosted with partner the Independent Filmmaker Project and presented by Audible. Honorees Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of “Friday Black”; “Limetown” podcasters Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie; [...]

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

  • Connie Britton BlogHer Summit

    Connie Britton on ‘Friday Night Lights’ Remake: ‘You Need to Let it Go’

    Connie Britton opened up at a fireside chat Wednesday at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn by talking about one of her most beloved roles — Tami Taylor in the fan favorite series “Friday Night Lights.” When asked if a remake of the sports cult film and Emmy-winning TV show is in the works she [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content