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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 48
'Good morning, Cabal...'
Arts & Entertainment
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'Good morning, Cabal...'

New documentary profiles a free-form radio pioneer

by C.J. Bille - Special to the SGN

RADIO UNNAMEABLE: BOB FASS AND THE RISE OF FREE EXPRESSION ON THE AIRWAVES
NORTHWEST FILM FORUM
November 30 - December 6


Talk radio as we know it today is a very standardized - indeed, regimented - format. Regardless of the host, station, or topic, each hour is typically divided into four or five segments averaging about 10 minutes each, punctuated with breaks for news, traffic, weather, and (on commercial stations) advertising. Callers are usually given barely a minute or two to ask a question or state their opinion before being abruptly thanked and disconnected (even less, if they try to start a serious argument with the host). But it wasn't always this way - and on at least one station, during one three-hour period each week, it still isn't.

Radio Unnameable, a documentary co-directed by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson, takes its title from the nearly 50-year-old program hosted on New York noncommercial station WBAI-FM by Bob Fass, who may well be the inventor of 'free-form' radio. The film details how Fass began his show in 1963 by proposing to fill the midnight-to-sunrise hours, during which the station had up until then been off the air. An eclectic mix of music, rambling commentary, guest interviews, and listener calls that often lasted an hour or more and involved multiple participants, 'Radio Unnameable' steadily built not just an audience, but a virtual community of night-owl listeners (many of whom were graveyard-shift workers).

Just how large this community had grown by 1967 became evident with the success of an all-night listener party, the 'Human Fly-In,' held in February of that year at the JFK Airport terminal. Thousands of people attended and the event went off with no major problems - inspiring an ill-fated attempt to replicate it a month later at Grand Central Station. This time, a small group of radicalized Vietnam War protesters engaged in some mild vandalism, provoking a violent police reaction to clear the building. But the ensuing riot gave rise to an entirely new phenomenon: listeners at the scene called in to Fass's show with real-time reports of what was happening, which were immediately heard - and acted upon - by other attendees (many of whom had brought portable radios with them). Recalling this development, Paul Krassner in the film describes 'Radio Unnameable' as the 'forerunner of Twitter.'

Major changes took place at WBAI in the 1970s, and Fass was banned from the airwaves for several years after taking part in a staff rebellion against a program director who tried unsuccessfully to institute an all-Salsa music format - an internal conflict that caused the station to go silent for 51 days in 1977. Since returning to the air in 1983, Fass has broadcast one night per week and his now-classic opening line, 'Good morning, Cabal,' can still be heard each Friday at midnight (9 p.m. Thursday, Pacific time). The station streams online at www.wbai.org.

Lovelace and Wolfson do a good job of evoking the early years of Fass's program, thanks largely to an extensive tape archive that the filmmakers note is still looking for a permanent home. It did leave me wanting to hear much more, especially from musical guests such as Phil Ochs and Joni Mitchell, each of whom gets only a brief snippet in the film - a regrettable necessity, I suppose, to keep its running time within a reasonable 90 minutes. But this inestimably historic material cries out for release online and/or on a multi-CD set - something I hope Fass and his archivists will seriously consider.

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