Monday, May 21, 2012

Radio Unnamable

Free Form radio didn't happen in just one place, on one station or in one city. It had no single progenitor, or single origin. Despite that, Bob Fass deserves a lot of credit as an early DJ in the earliest days of the format. Giving a DJ total control was madness and it often sounded that way. There were other prototypical DJs who were on air at the same time such as John Leonard at KPFA and Clyde Clifford on KAAY-AM. The prototype for it all was probably Henry Jacobs but he was pursuing another idea entirely. I could write for a week on the origins of free form FM. But tonight let's focus on Fass. More here.

Fass, a native New Yorker was working in theater in the 1950s so it isn't surprising that a friend from high school, the novelist and poet Richard Elman got him in the door. Elman was producing drama programs for WBAI at the time. Fass started as an announcer, with a midnight to 6:00 AM shift, and he brought a sense of drama with him. He opened each show with the line “Good morning, cabal.”  He had live guest performances, you should know a lot of the names: Townes Van Zandt, Jose Feliciano, Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie, The Fugs, Patti Smith... the list is endless. He also did interviews with people we now consider iconic: Paul Krassner, Kinky Friedman, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, even beats like Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso. I'll just stop there abruptly.
He sometimes played records of course. He played them forwards, backwards, and on top of each other.  Inspired by John Cage he would sometimes layer multiple records and tapes into a cacophonous medly. Did I mention the drugs?  I'll say no more.  He named his program after a work by Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable.  It's no Malone Dies but it was pretty good. His show grew in influence, he covered the police riots at the DNC in 1968. Abbie Hoffman called him daily with updates from court. Anti-draft protesters would call his program from the court house to try to raise bail from his audience. Fass had become an icon himself. More here.

But in the 1970s a change in management routed him out. After management tried to parse out chunks of his program to various advocacy groups Fass joined a group of DJs trying to unionize. Management forbid him to speak on the air about the dispute. Fass did it anyway. The event ended with some staff barricaded in the studios live on the air, until the phone lines were cut and the police dragged them out. Fass was banned from the station for 5 years. Fass defiantly spent the duration at WFMU. He was reinstated at WBAI in 1982, but with a show just once a week, Midnight to 3:00 AM Thursdays. He is still alive and show is still on the air; the music is a bit dated, but his politics certainly are not.  

Bob Fass is to be the subject of a documentary film out later this year. See trailer below: