What’s freshest about Radio Unnameable is how it links the birth of free-form broadcasting with the zeitgeist of 1960s counterculture while remaining clear-eyed about the limitations, and mysteries, of both. Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson’s documentary about New York radio host Bob Fass, talking and programming spontaneously in the wee hours on non-commercial WBAI for nearly 50 years, can’t replicate the effects of a conspiratorial, personal spell cast over the airwaves by this idiosyncratic artist behind the microphone, but both the show excerpts (from the subject’s reel-to-reel archive) and other archival clips confirm that Fass helped build a community in his audience out of both political anguish and an innate, goofy humanism. A couple of listener interviewees can’t quite explain the grip Fass has on their psyches, but they don’t need to; the evidence is on film, of a “human fly-in” the host hastily organized at Kennedy Airport in 1967, his neo-hippie acolytes packing the international terminal in a proto-flash mob that baffled arriving passengers, and other projects ranging from a Lower East Side sweep-up in the wake of a garbage strike to a nightly platform for Yippie rebel Abbie Hoffman during his Chicago conspiracy trial.
“I wanna be a neuron, I don’t wanna be the brain,” Fass is heard pleading during his Vietnam-era heyday of fighting the New Left’s fight, and if Radio Unnameable doesn’t convincingly argue that he stayed as relevant while WBAI and its parent company, the Pacifica Foundation, nearly tore themselves apart through infighting over the ascendance of identity politics, it does make clear that he and his colleagues remained passionate about defending their concept of community radio. (Whether that was always on behalf of the loyal “cabal” Fass addressed in monologues, or occasionally to satisfy the more egocentric motives of territoriality and “boys’ club” entitlement is more debatable; Lynnie Fass describes how her charismatic future husband’s sex life was a hot topic among the station’s female staff, who were often relegated to gofer status before the mid ‘70s.) That the mythical “purity” of both the antiwar movement and independent radio were bound to get messy and hypocritical, from a violent police dispersal of a Grand Central Station peace-in to a WBAI staff revolt that cost Fass his air slot for several years, is a sober given of the doc, but it doesn’t negate the significant cultural awakening produced by these vibrations from the FM dial. “My crime is that I insist on using my tongue!” was Fass’s purplish cry when hauled away in cuffs at the end of a BAI insurrection, but the subsequent squelching of alternative media by the snowballing conglomeratization of the communications spectrum makes it harder to hear that yell as hyperbole.