Radio Unnameable, and an interview with co-director Paul Lovelace

It's the middle of the night and you're alone with your thoughts. You may or may not be lonely, but there's still the ache for companionship, that warmth in the chest that comes with being understood. Or perhaps you're at work while the city around you sleeps, and want someone to regale you with sounds, thoughts or words that otherwise wouldn't cross your busy mind. For many years, New Yorkers have known how to fill this need, and thanks to the web, many more around the world do too. His name is Bob Fass.


A forging of whim and need, WBAI was purchased by millionaire Lou Schweitzer in 1957 so that he could have something to listen to on his swanky radio. But when a newspaper strike crippled New York City, the admen took to the airwaves, and Schweitzer couldn't stand the racket. So he donated the station to the progressive Pacifica Radio. Bob Fass was an actor with an unmistakable voice, who, after auditioning to work at BAI, proposed an all-night radio program to fill in the notoriously dead night air. There was nothing on the radio past midnight, and Bob knew there was a huge array of night-shift workers, insomniacs, and tense consciences who needed not just someone to listen to, but someone to interact with. And so, "Radio Unnameable" was born, listed in the program directory as "Robert Fass, friend of the friendless, champion of the abandoned, and advocate of the alienated."

Touted as the father of free-form radio, Bob's program was never the same twice. Countless writers, artists and musicians came on the air with Bob, but the true stars of the show were the callers. Some called with questions, some with requests, others with "something to say" and no one else to say it to. Sometimes Bob would just sit with silence, others he would play mish-mashes random things like bombs dropping to the invisible beat of classical music. When the social fevers of the 1960s and 1970s reached their peak, Bob and BAI were there with their public, who together comprised a community of people dedicated to bettering their lives through creativity and social awareness.

Despite the impact the station had, and the wonderful name Bob had made for himself, BAI's future was full of tumult and uncertainty. The archive of his storied show languished in boxes, and Bob was cut from the air until 1983, when he returned as a volunteer two nights a week. Although he's been cut back further, to one night a week for three hours, Bob remains an invaluable staple to New York radio.

Watching the Radio Unnameable documentary made me homesick. I was spellbound by this well-researched, intelligently paced film, and found myself reading long into the night about many of the events and people I learned about while watching it. While I was finally back home in New York earlier this month, I got to chat with the wonderful Paul Lovelace about the making of the film and the future of WBAI.

Miriam Lee: What has the audience reaction to the film been like?

Paul Lovelace: It's been great. The fun part has been having him at the screenings and people come out. They've listened to him all these years but have no idea what he looks like. So he's face to face with this audience that's never had the chance to get to know him. Younger people come who've never heard of him before, and they've really been inspired by it. On the whole it's been as good as we could have hoped for. Screening it in places where most people don't know who he is, and seeing them being taken with the film and the story and what he's done -- we couldn't be happier. And Bob as well. He loves the movie and he's been a joy to work with and a big support. The attention is great, but he also just loves the people coming out, reconnecting with listeners and finding new ones.

ML: How did you approach Bob with the idea to make the film?

PL: The project began somewhere around 2007. Myself and co-director Jessica Wolfson made a cold call to Bob. I first heard about him through this movie I did called The Holy Modal Rounders Bound to Lose. The Holy Modal Rounders were a psychedelic folk band from Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and they were regulars on Radio Unnameable. They reunited when we made the film [about them], and went up on Bob's show and that's how we met. He saw the film and really liked it, and at that point I'd heard Radio Unnameable and learned a bit about it, and I thought it was really interesting. So that was the genesis of wanting to approach him.Then we approached him, and it took about a year to get to know Bob, and then we worked on the film for about four or five years. On and off for long stretches, we'd run out of money, then we'd go back to it. We loved the idea of this radio program where everything goes, and it brings up so much creativity. We found that inspiring and really fascinating.

ML: The contrast between now and the time of BAI's heyday for lack of a better term is so stark. Creativity in the music industry and of course on radio is now just about imitating the other person, but in the beginnings of Radio Unnameable it was clear that there was something going on. Something truly fresh, unique and new. Did you and Bob discuss the differences between old and the new radio?

PL: We didn't get into it much in the film, but Bob is really open to how radio has changed. There's still a lot of great radio out there, but the main difference is that until the early eighties, radio was Bob's career. WBAI is in the middle of the dial in New York City, and nowadays doing what he does to reach the same amount of people as he did before is really hard to do for a living. Old models evolve and things have changed, and while people are doing really interesting things it's not necessarily on the commercial end of the FM dial. When Bob started, his show was really unique -- there was nothing on after midnight in New York. It was just dead air. So he opened up the airwaves for that kind of programming. He was influenced by people who were doing sort of what he eventually did, so he too was pulling from different places himself as his show evolved.

ML: There's a great quote from the film where Bob says, "people alone in their rooms with their radios make you feel like you're needed, like you're their only friend." It felt like there was a responsibility Bob was assuming to his listeners, the night-shift workers, the friendless, the people who couldn't sleep for all the wild ideas on their minds. Did you feel the same responsibility when it came to making a film that could introduce Bob to a new audience?

PL: Sure, I mean it's always appealing to turn people on to something new and something they'd never heard of. But that wasn't why we made the movie; we'd made the movie because we found him and his story inspiring. Because we responded to it that strongly, we felt that others would. If a younger generation can see this and understand how things got to how they are today, or even just some of the history of how media and counter-culture evolves, then that's great.

ML: What was the mood like at the station when you were there filming?

PL: Despite it's valuable spot on the FM dial, BAI feels like a low-budget radio station that's doing a lot of terrific work. A lot of really committed, talented programmers are there. Some of the programming there from our perspective is not good. I don't think many people listen, which is a problem. But by and large the staff that we got to know through Bob were fine, fine people, and we made a lot of friends there. They've been really supportive of the movie, and the Pacifica Foundation as well. Everyone definitely helped in getting this movie made.

ML: It was so surprising that someone like Bob got cut to one night a week, unpaid, and has had to work so hard for grants or any kind of financial remuneration.

PL: Hardly anyone at BAI gets paid. At this point in time they had to lay off the entire news department and daytime staff. I think they only have six or seven paid employees. It's really bare bones, and the vast majority of programmers don't get paid. Bob is a volunteer there like most everyone else is, with the only difference being that he's been there since 1962, and one of the pioneers behind the station. We hope that he gets better recognition that would make his life a little bit more comfortable. I think it would come from an archive that he's setting up, and finding some monetary value in that. Either by selling it through a university or arts institution, or putting together a box set because so much music had been played on his program over the years. So it's not like there's a lot of money at WBAI and they're deciding not to give it to Bob, there's just little to give to anyone right now. There's new management coming in that plans to change things up, so for now let's hope it works.

ML: What's next for you and Jessica?

PL: Jessica has a couple of films that she's produced that are out. One is called A Girl and a Gun, about the gun world and the gun industry from a female's perspective. It's out digitally and on DVD. There's also a new movie called Revenge of the Mekons, about the legendary English punk rock band The Mekons, that's out next year. As for me, I'm editing and working on a film with Albert Maysles about Iris Apfel, the fashion icon and entrepreneur.

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For more on the fantastic Radio Unnameable, check out the film's page on Kino Lorber, or visit the website for Radio Unnameable. And of course, tune in to Bob's show on WBAI Fridays from midnight to 3 a.m. on 99.5 FM in New York or on BAI's Listen Live page. My thanks again to Paul!

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