[Marxism] Digitizing ‘Radio Unnameable,’ a Free-Form 1960s Crossroads
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Wed Jan 4 09:28:24 MST 2017
NY Times, Jan. 4 2017
Digitizing ‘Radio Unnameable,’ a Free-Form 1960s Crossroads
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
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
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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