Radio pioneer Bob Fass has died at aged 87. Fass’s “Radio Unnameable” show on BAI evolved coevally with the 60s counterculture. If there was an important demonstration or new musical act, Radio Unnameable was the place people in the New York are tuned in to get the information.
The show was an environment where Bob Dylan might drop in unannounced, or where Abbie Hoffman would call in to brief listeners on the Chicago 7 Conspiracy Trial. Fass pioneered a free-form type of radio that he managed to keep going for over 50 years.
There isn’t much we can add about Fass that won’t have appeared elsewhere already. Instead, we are republishing a 1977 article written by Fass for the Yipster Times in the wake of a lockout of WBAI staff by station management. This short piece is a bit rambling, but it captures Fass’s speaking style pretty well, and includes some valuable tidbits of his own and his show’s history. The original Yipster Times introduction could be describing any of WBAI’s internal tumult, which still continues.
Here’s a text-only version for those of you who don’t like reading yellowed newsprint:
To people outside the New York area, the story of the struggle at New York’s Pacifica Radio Station. WBAI—replete with worker’s takeovers. management lock-outs, charges of racism, counter-charges of corporate mendacity-seems almost impossible to unravel. Even New Yorkers who’ve followed things minutely have by now become immensely weary of recounting the story in depth. Frankly, we deferred treatment of the WBAI story until now because even as you read this, there may be some new wrinkle, a new development requiring yet another update.
Don’t be fooled.
As we go to press, news-feeds are being censored and the community bulletin board—a listing of events indispensable for community organizers—has been dropped. Obscured by the staff union’s thrust for self-management and management counter claims of staff “white skin privilege,” the fact remains that radio WBAI, once a subscriber-supported force to mobilize people, is losing out to a new, more commercialized approach.
Some say it comes from secretly taking foundation grants.
To give you some insight, then, we decided to run the following by Bob Fass. one of the original YIP collective, and an innovator of free form radio.
It was inevitable that Bob Fass be at the station, on the air, the day the management told the staff to go home, and then pulled the plug. He was also amongst those arrested when a court finally succeeded in ending that staff union’s occupation of the station.
For a month after WBAI came back on the air. under new and firmer management, they played cat and mouse with Bob. implying but not really confirming that he was suspended. Now they want him back, to do the marathon and to raise money.
That’s the problem. The way of the new, Carter-style liberalism is not to fire you if you ‘re too popular. But are the Bob Fasses and other dissidents slated to wind up like Winston Smith, in 1984. their intellectual labor completely alienated in service of Big Brother?
When I first came to work at WBAI I was 29 years old.
A dropout from the Class of 1955 at Syracuse University, I was a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse School where Sanford Meisner (Guro-OM) gave me instruction in the art of telling lies from truth. (It strikes me that T.L.F.T. could also mean to make theatrical art from truthful feeling.)
I filled my time with as much nervetingle as I could. In New York of the 1960’s, that meant acting classes and love and shared meals in the back of my friend Conrad’s jewelry shop on MacDougal Street where 1 learned to pierce ears and argue anarcho-communism with Terri and Dave Van Ronk, and Phil Ochs. 1 worked one night as a waiter at Jon Mitchell’s Gaslight and nine night-time months in misery in a paper cup factory in College Point. I travelled three hours a day and worked nine. I climbed five flights to my East 5th Street pad, where I turned on the radio, fed my cat Charlie Parker, and fell asleep and dreamt of Angels and Lorelei.
One Sunday, my only day off, my friend Angelica introduced me to Wendell who was living with two women. When Angelica’s mother, a hard-working sewing machine operator asked in her sweet rippling Greek accent what it was like, he said, “Great!”
Wendell and Ojos-De-Viecha (Eyes of Glass), who was later to be the hero of a movie called “Don Peyote in New York” tried to turn me on to grass but I was too frightened and decided to bide my time. I took a seed and planted it.
I read the Realist and the Village Voice and wrote Angry Alienated Poetry between naps on the 3 hour subway ride. One of Wendell’s roommates sublet me her W. Broadway pad and while my brother Dick and a strong, young French visitor, Jacqueline were helping me move my possessions, the nicest and heaviest of which was Nancy Fish’s yellow and pink chest of steel drawers, we rested in Washington Square Park and listened to the folk singers. Two enormous hands slipped under my armpits, lifted me from the edge of the circle where I sat, and dribbled me like a basketball. Steve Pearlman, tall as Dr. J, an aspiring Chialiapin and a student of Stella Adler, basso-profundo-ed “You fit the costume! I knew it!” We had met a year before in a Stella Adler Orestian Trilogy and he was a working actor in a hit off-Broadway show. Three Penny Opera. I did fit the warden’s costume and so for two years I was immersed in Bertolt Brecht as I worked as Actor General Understudy and Assistant Stage Manager. I can still recite most of the songs and give the light cues.
In my free time I volunteered as an actor and reader on WBAI. When Three Penny closed, I collected all my fellow actors’ signatures on my unemployment insurance booklet as a memento and applied for the first open announcing job at WBAI.
When I first began to send messages over WBAI in New York, and I began to get them back, I felt like a radio-astronomer discovering a periodicity in a distant star that spelled out “Come here Mr. Watson, I need you.” People in the audience, the body of supposedly passive listeners, became my informants, my confidants, my friends, and my lovers. I would have long conversations off the air as well as on. They read me their poetry and taught me about music. And I tried to encourage them to dig on each other.
“Good Morning Cabal”—those were my first words four out of seven days a week. Why? Because the Cabal voted on it, that’s why. “Good Morning” because it was a beginning, a new Fresh Start, Cabal because we were a group of secret Plotters getting together in the mid-night, our faces unknown even to each other. “Come on People, Now Get Together” was our unofficial theme song. Collective efforts have been the Cabal’s beauty part. The Cabal named itself, deemed the radio unnameable, insisted on its form and called itself Free. Free Form radio meant collective consciousness and collective efforts from the beginning.
The Cabal has saved lives, given milk to babies, acted as a lynch mob to Presidents and Tyrants, ransomed Prisoners, conspired to foment music and peace. It harbors chetnicks, and fugitives from money, tolerates and tries to educate racists and other fools. It sees itself as an electronic community of Prisoners and Poets and Prophets and lovers and mystic mothers, bakers and growers out on a spree. It is one of the few gangs on earth that have never shed blood. Its own has been spilled, but mostly at parties: Chicago and Grand Central to name only two.
In 1967 the Cabal saw the arrival of 1984, in what the New York Times called “A Club Swinging Melee”, as thousands of Cabalists, Hippies, Witches, Night Workers and day-time bankers gathered at midnight in Grand Central Station to have themselves a mingle and see themselves smile, the smile of a job or two of work and play they could be proud of.
The first physical manifestation of the Cabal was at New York’s Kennedy Airport at Midnight on April 7, 1967. Five thousand people gathered to celebrate the architecture, breathe the Calder into motion, welcome international arrivals and exchange grins. It slowed traffic to a smile and said welcome to this beautiful midnight city. 5,000 Grover Whalens wailin’ in the midnight, in Kennedy Airport, so beautiful and gentle even the Daily News didn’t get uptight. There was only one arrest, and that one was a false arrest, by two plainclothes narcs wearing leis around their necks who would have felt themselves in a way of being charged with malfeasance if they hadn’t ruined someone’s party!
Bemused and excited by the power of touching hands, we decided next to put our hands and backs to work picking up the garbage. We picked East 7th Street, the slum block that bisected that part of the Lower East Side that was beginning to be called, by journalists and real estate brokers, “New York’s East ‘Village.” It contained St. Mark’s Place and the theatre that became the Filmore East, the Gem Spa, and the B&H, and Ratner’s and the Paradox and the Electric Lotus and the Peace Eye and the Balloon-farm and Cooper Union, a great free art school—where Lincoln had spoken and years later the Butcher of Attica, the Successor of Agnew, was prevented from speaking, in part by the Cabal.
When the Public Relations arm of the Sanitation Department heard that the Cabal planned to clean up after them, they asked us to come to a meeting, requesting us to desist from besmirching their image and then tried to cut us off at the pass by getting the automatic sweepers there before us. When the Cabal arrived and found 7th Street clean they smiled because they knew it would be, and went to work on 6th, 5th, 4th and 3rd. Rock bands played. Banners of welcome were hung out and the commissioner of sanitation, the first of the Lindsay Administration to go to jail, came down to pose for the press. And that night Paul Krassner, who had been part of the “Hasn’t Scratched Yet Scouring Powder Committee,” gave a free show at the Filmore for the Cabal and the community.
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