Radio Unnameable follows Bob Fass, a radio personality who revolutionized free-form radio on WBAI, a listener supported and non-commercial radio station. From the first airing of Fass’s program in 1963 to his current time block on WBAI, Radio Unnameable follows the journey that Fass took and the community of New Yorkers that was brought out by this revolutionary program.
In 1957, extravagant philanthropist Louis Schweitzer purchased U.S. radio station WBAI and ran it as a personal hobby. Schweitzer viewed radio as an art form, and broadcasted the newest ideas, music and politics on WBAI until he donated it to Pacifica Radio in 1960.
In 1963, after Pacifica Radio had had a hold on WBAI for three years, Bob Fass, a thirty-year-old native New Yorker from Brooklyn was given the timeslot from midnight to 5:30 AM. He justified his desire for this timeslot by bringing to light the number of people who are awake and by themselves during this time. Whether they are working or simply insomniacs, Bob remarked, there are people out there who need company in the early hours of the morning when there is really no one to talk to. And so, Radio Unnameable was born.
Radio Unnameable was broadcast with the same tools that all other radio programs were broadcast with, but it did something vastly different. Radio Unnameable spoke to the listeners at these delicate hours of the morning in a way that was real. Radio Unnameable felt personal. Radio Unnameable was the people’s program; it was the cabal’s program. And that’s how Bob Fass began every show: “Good morning, cabal”.
Cabal comes from “horse” and refers to people who, with their identities concealed, congregate on horseback each night to strategize. This is what Radio Unnameable did; it spoke to those who were unseen; those who were awake for some reason or another in the early hours of each morning in New York City. Fass had musicians and singers of all sorts visit the show. Anyone who had access to a telephone could call into the station and say anything they wanted. Callers criticized the government, discussed the war, and had extensive conversations about their drug experiences. It was a station for anyone and everyone, for anything and everything. Sometimes, Fass would play the same song on repeat all night long, simply because he wanted to. Sometimes, Fass would layer multiple sounds, and they would all come together in an enthralling way.
One night in 1966, Fass invited listeners to participate in the “Fly-In” at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where “the Cabal” could gather and meet one another as their friends as well as Bob Fass and his friends. On February 11, 1967, 3000 people gathered at JFK’s International Terminal. This was the first proof that Fass had of the influence of his program.
On April 8, 1967, for the second time, “the Cabal” gathered. This time, however, Fass instructed them to go downtown to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to clean up trash. Over night, New York’s Sanitation Department heard about the movement and did the dirty work before the hippies could. This didn’t stop the listeners though—they simply moved down to 3rd street and began to clean there.
It wasn’t long before the movement went national and the Yippies (Youth International Party) were born. The Yippies, started by Abbie Hoffman, Fass, and others, was a movement that brought flower children and acidheads together to change the course of American society. It wasn’t long after protests organized by Fass and the Yippies in Chicago and Washington, DC that they decided to hold a Yip In at Grand Central Terminal. In March of 1968, the Yippies gathered to party and reunite at Grand Central, and Fass was on the radio reporting the whole thing. Unfortunately, however, things took a violent twist after hippies decided to rip the hands of the clock in the station in a “rape of time”. The NYPD showed up and began smashing heads, throwing people through glass, dragging people out of the building, and arresting many of the party-goers. During the entire fiasco, Fass was broadcasting live news on what was occurring in the station. It was up-to-date, it was accurate, and it was unfiltered. It was news like there had never been before.
Throughout the 70s, WBAI endured drastic changes. Eventually, Radio Unnameable was taken off air, and Fass was forced to leave WBAI and for years was left with no voice on the air. Radio Unnameable explores the revolutionary path that Fass paved for the hippies and Yippies in the 60s and 70s, all the way through the downfall of his program, and with unfortunate details of the aftermath.
To me, Radio Unnameable seems like a gem. After seeing it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard it before. The fact that a media outlet could not only bring people together, but bring about a change in society and bring to light revolutionary ideas seemed like a miracle to me. This radio station changed people’s lives. It changed New York, it changed our nation, and it changed two whole decades of the 20th Century. For these reasons, Radio Unnameable is a must-see, especially in a time like this when media is so central to our lives. This kind of documentary helps us see and appreciate the important ways in which media outlets bring people together in times of uncertainty, in this case during the Vietnam War.