[Marxism] Digitizing ‘Radio Unnameable,’ a Free-Form 1960s Crossroads

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 4 09:28:24 MST 2017

NY Times, Jan. 4 2017
Digitizing ‘Radio Unnameable,’ a Free-Form 1960s Crossroads

When the counterculture swept through America in the 1960s, few places 
were closer to the action than the studios of WBAI in Manhattan, where 
Bob Fass manned the microphone at midnight for his show, “Radio Unnameable.”

Bob Dylan discussed music there. Abbie Hoffman spoke about “the politics 
of confrontation.” Hunter S. Thompson described introducing Ken Kesey to 
the Hells Angels.

Now Columbia University is preparing to inventory some 10,000 hours of 
recordings from the show that it bought earlier this year to preserve a 
record of what such musicians, political firebrands and freethinkers 
were saying at formative points in their careers.

“We have taken on a major audio archive of an outsider figure who was 
positioned uniquely at a critical moment in American history,” said Sean 
M. Quimby, the director of Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 
“At the end of the day, this is a huge corpus of data that will used by 

Most of the recordings purchased from Mr. Fass are on fragile 
quarter-inch acetate or mylar tape that is already deteriorating. 
Curators at Columbia are planning to transfer the broadcasts to digital 
files and have started a crowdfunding page to defray that cost.

Mr. Quimby said the show had functioned as “a sort of crossroads” of 
ideas that anticipated the unscripted communication and immediacy of 
contemporary social media. Indeed, Mr. Fass’s listeners sometimes turned 
to the show to spread word of events they had just witnessed or which 
were about to unfold.

In 1968 callers recounted how police officers swung batons at 
participants in a springtime celebration organized by the Youth 
International Party inside Grand Central Terminal. Twenty years later 
callers described officers assembling at Tompkins Square Park just 
before a melee with people protesting a curfew there.

Mr. Fass is the longest-serving host on WBAI, which for decades has been 
known as an outpost for leftist politics as well as a home for a variety 
of arts programming. His improvisational approach is credited with 
helping to create free-form radio, and he has said that feeling a 
connection with his unseen listeners was always important to him.

Each night a steady stream of voices called into the WBAI phone lines 
from across a largely silent city to ask questions, offer opinions and 
bear witness to life in New York City. People phoned in to discuss a 
surprise snowfall or the resignation of Richard M. Nixon. One man called 
from his apartment to say that he had swallowed pills and was killing 
himself. Two New York City firefighters, strangely antagonistic fans of 
the show, called anonymously for years, telling Mr. Fass and his guests 
to “go back to Cuba.”

Mr. Fass sometimes used the airwaves to rally his listeners to action. 
One event he organized was a “sweep in” in 1967 to clean trash on the 
Lower East Side. “Amid chants of ‘Love,’ the clash of cymbals and the 
throb of bongo drums, about 200 young people plied brooms, mops, dust 
cloths and shovels yesterday,” The New York Times reported, adding, “One 
group attacked a large mound of broken wood and plaster in front of a 
tenement house while astounded men watched from windows of the 
Department of Welfare shelter across the street.”

Many of the recordings, including one that described the cleanup, were 
thrown out by WBAI in 1977 after Mr. Fass was banned from the air for 
five years as a result of an internal dispute of the sort that has 
periodically convulsed the station. Mr. Fass recovered the recordings 
from the trash, then stored them in the attic of his house on Staten 
Island. Later, a friend, Caryl Ratner, arranged for them to be placed in 
a climate-controlled warehouse. Several years ago two filmmakers, 
Jessica Wolfson and Paul Lovelace, along with Mitch Blank, a longtime 
music cataloger, transferred some tapes to a digital format for use in a 
documentary about Mr. Fass.

That material turned over to Columbia offers a preview of the wider 
trove. It includes performances by musicians like Muddy Waters and Phil 
Ochs. There are also conversations with the poet Allen Ginsberg and the 
boxer Rubin Carter. Some tapes contain Mr. Fass’s reports from the 1968 
Democratic National Convention, in which he narrated turbulent conflicts 
between the police, National Guard troops and protesters in Chicago. 
“You can hear them — you can hear the reports of the gas grenades all up 
and down the streets,” he says at one point as booms and shouts echo in 
the background. “The crowd is being pushed back, and the gas is coming.”

Mr. Fass, 83, has not been inside the WBAI studio recently and now 
broadcasts the show over the telephone or from a studio inside his home. 
He still draws callers, though perhaps not at the volume he did several 
decades ago.

In a phone interview, he said the tapes that went to Columbia included 
recordings describing the takeover in 1968 of buildings there by 
students protesting the construction of a school gymnasium in a public 
park and the school’s affiliation with military researchers. Perhaps, he 
suggested, those recordings would resonate with contemporary students.

“When history is recovered it has a way of influencing the present,” Mr. 
Fass said. “I hope students at Columbia are informed by the compassion 
of what came before them.”

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