September 18th, 2012
New Documentary on The Sixties, WBAI Radio and Bob Fass
I recently went to a press screening of a new documentary–currently playing for two weeks at New York City’s Film Forum…
Nice to go to press screenings—which I am invited to from time to time because I’m on the air. I don’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as I should because the subway is dark and scary, and a person could get lost and wind up in the bushes at the end of Brooklyn. But, when I do get out, it’s a great experience. Even if the film is not great, you’re usually in a small theatre or screening room with only 10 to 20 other people… You can settle in on your dark little island and watch the screen without being attacked by the noise of rustling pop-corn bags, old farts like me stumbling along the aisle in the dark cause they have to release some pressure on their bladders, and other, indefinable emotional twitches and subconscious communications from your fellow communicants…
So, this here particular movie…
I’m guessing a good number of you know, perhaps know very well, of Bob Fass and his doings on the radio. Others of you know about WBAI in New York. And for sure, almost all of you either lived through the Sixties or grew up dealing with your baby boomer parents who flourished then.
If you are an old Sixties type, this movie has the ability to evoke either fond or melancholy memories—probably both at once. The movie focuses on the period of the mid-Sixties through the early Seventies—the very height of the creative yeast and liberating insanity that was snapping and boiling then. If you were a teenager or in your twenties, this was both a time of Revolution in every way (see the history books or call your parents); a time when American young people were opening up like flowers in the sun (except for the other kind, like Mitt Romney, who were wearing white socks and loafers and protesting the protesters).
We were bursting out of the tight-laced political and cultural corset of the Fifties. It was a time of inner and outer explosions and massive reactions against conformity; Sex and drugs; loud, electric Rock-and-Roll, and massive (I’m not talking aimless hundreds of people like Occupy, but hundreds of thousands) demonstrations for Civil Rights (which set the template for all other protests).
There was Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation—and, central to all of these, the great, absorbing issue of that entire generation: The Vietnam war, the Draft, and the reactions against to those great beasts.
There was fighting and there was loving—all at once and together. The “stars” were all in the right place—it all seemed to flow together in a kind of rising, soul-stirring harmony; sex, music, art, politics, philosophy.. everything. And right smack in the middle of it all, like a central, celestial switchboard, were Bob Fass and WBAI.
Now we have the internet and a thousand cable channels; Apps, Dapps, Bapps, ad nausuem… In those days you got your information, especially about anything off the usual, dreary radar, from radio. TV was (until Channel Thirteen in New York and later PBS) a “vast wasteland” of idiot commercialized Fifties conformism (some things never change).
Now you can get texted, instantly e-mailed—or updated about a thousand things an hour. Back in the day, if you wanted to know about a movement, a demonstration, or the latest in counter-culture “trends” or music, you called in to or tuned in to WBAI.
Bob Fass was the founder, the father of all that. And, by extension, he was really one of the founders and fathers—for better and for worse—of the audio and social media we have now. You can hear anybody say anything on the air now, or on a website or blog. Bob’s brilliant creativity and revolutionary use of the radio as a people’s gathering place and alternative fount of information is something vastly under-recognized. He was followed on WBAI by several other innovative artists and personalities—Steve Post, Larry Josephson, to name just a couple. I would never have been able to tell my stories or free-associate on the air any place but WBAI.
But, eventually, especially after an internal dispute took the station off the air for two months in 1977, WBAI thinned; became shrill, strident, and turned on itself.
Maybe that was inevitable. The war ended, the draft ended; Civil rights laws were passed, Feminism was on its way and Gay Liberation had established itself as something to be reckoned with. There was still much work to be done—and still is. Indeed, we seem to be going backwards these days and things we thought were established rights are being attacked all over again.
We still need to fight and always will—the psychopaths, idiots and bigots are always with us. But back in the Seventies times were changing—the larger society was absorbing and incorporating some of those revolutionary changes—for better and for worse.
WBAI and its personalities were still there in the late Seventies—putting out some creative and brilliant work, but the old, rigid wall they had attacked with their special brand of alternative art and politics had either been breached or cracked so badly it wasn’t such a fearsome monster anymore.
People got older; they had to deal with families, money, jobs, careers… It was a combination of external reality and internal growth. To remain in a permanent state of revolution is impossible, for a generation or an individual.
Imagine being at Woodstock for years, not just a couple of days. It would turn into cannabalistic madhouse instead of a celebration of love and harmony…
As I said, there are certainly left-over and new monsters to attack (usually the new ones are just refinements on the old—look at Romney and crew). We have wars, Presidential “kill lists”, the out-of-control depredations of the rich; suppression of free expression and voting rights, new attacks on women, etc. etc. And WBAI is attacking these pernicious threats—but, unfortunately, with a grade B, or even grade C, group of personalities. There are still wonderful shows on WBAI but they are few and far between. There is no coherent, exhilirating ethos there—and hasn’t been for thirty years.
Also, WBAI, once the super-nova of the counter-culture, is partially a victim of the internet, with it’s hundreds of thousands of news sites, culture sources and blogs.
Same as independent businesses (and soon colleges); the Net is eating them all, like The Blob of Fifties science fiction fame, growing larger and more impossible to control with each new mouthful of independent entities it consumes as it eats the entire world.
There’s a big difference between walking into a dusty old, used book store, handling the books, reading them—each like its own special time machine—speaking to other customers or the odd-ball owner; a big difference between that experience and clicking your mouse on Amazon and waiting for a package to come in the mail. Not too long before we’re all well-supplied and well-informed socially retarded hermits.
Anyway.. just wanted to let you all know about this film, Radio Unameable. It’s pretty well done—the producer-directors have other, impressive credits under their belts and it’s very watchable; a good mix and flow of sight and sound. The film is flawed here and there—you can’t cover such monumental topics as the art of radio or The Sixties in an hour-and-a-half… But all-in-all this is a great visit to fascinating time in America’s strange history.
Bob Fass (and the WBAI he created) changed my life—probably even saved it, and my sanity as well—a couple of times. I flourished on WBAI and owe it more than I can ever say… So, a salute to a radio genius and innovator and to a once beautiful place in time and space… Radio Unameable.
If you can’t find this movie or it doesn’t show up in your city for a brief stay, maybe we can persuade Netflix or some other movie-distribution medium to make it available.
Here’s the place to check it out: http://www.radiounnameablemovie.com/