Bob Fass and Revolutionary Radio: the Man and the Medium

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The death of Bob Fass, the longtime host of “Radio Unnameable,” and a crucial member of the counterculture of the Sixties, has understandably led to recollections of him and tributes to his many talents. What his death hasn’t yet prompted as far as I know is a discussion of the role of radio as a unique medium and a political force. Granted, obituary writers have mentioned his memorable voice and his innovative style on the air, but there has not been an in-depth look at the medium of radio at a time when television seemed to be all-powerful. Fass showed that radio wasn’t obsolete as so many claimed.

Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner emphasized the importance of images that carried messages without recourse to words. Throwing money on the N.Y. Stock Exchange, levitating the Pentagon, wearing a shirt made from an American flag to a hearing of HUAC and running a pig for president are examples of using images and guerrilla theater to reach and involve mass audiences. Abbie insisted that organizers shouldn’t go to factories to organize workers, but to Hollywood to make movies that he sometimes called “agit-pop.” Ed Sanders once called Abbie “the Tom Paine of electronic media.”

I never listened to a radio show with Abbie or Jerry, but I watched the TV news with them and listened to them dissect the images on the screen. They emphasized visual rather than acoustic storytelling, and of course they also wrote books, though they created books that broke away from linear communication. Abbie turned to Marshall McLuhan to buttress his arguments. For McLuhan, TV was the medium that most of all had to be understood and appreciated. In his view TV, unlike radio, invited audience participation and involvement.

For a time in the Sixties, radio seemed to belong to the past, while TV appealed to the future. One of the main Yippie ideas was not to appear on a radio show, but rather to produce images that would make the TV news. Bob Fass belonged to a generation that was in large part raised on the radio. He was a pre-boomer, born in 1933 when radio was still king. He seemed to recognize that radio, especially the listener-sponsored variety, had the potential to be innately subversive. He took the medium and expanded it, reinvented it for the late-night audience and lent it a certain conspiratorial feel. Because it wasn’t TV and not dependent on advertising, formats and formulas, listener-sponsored radio was radical, especially during the Vietnam Era.

Bob Fass was able to reach thousands of listeners and persuade them to go into the streets and protest. There was no one on network TV who had that reach or that potential. The powers that be at CBS, NBC and ABC, along with the advertisers, never would have allowed TV programming to be used by the likes of Bob Fass, who had one foot in the counterculture and another in the world of technology. What made “Radio Unnamable” possible was Fass’ individual genius as well as the fact that radio seemed to have lost its preeminence as a means of communication in the Sixties, and was not worth fighting over, or enlisting the big guns at the Federal Communications Commission, who cracked down during the Reagan administration when the Fairness Doctrine was abolished. That was a sad day for freedom of speech.

I grew up with WBAI when I was a teenager on Long Island, New York. WBAI brought the culture of the city and the world to suburbia. Several decades later, in California, I subscribed to KPFA which once played great music, including jazz and the blues. I remember a sense of intimacy on the air waves. I knew that thousands of others were listening, but I could also feel that the radio host or the DJ was talking to me personally and for me. That’s the power and the paradox of mass media.

Bob Fass knew how to exploit it better than anyone else in his generation. What he did probably can’t be duplicated today if for no other reason than that many citizens have become to a large extent slaves to the Internet. Fass understood that real bodies in the street matter. Forget about virtual protest. He put radio in the service of the people.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.