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Bob Fass, Free-Form Radio Pioneer, Dies At 87

Bob Fass, longtime radio host for WBAI, died Saturday. His show, <em>Radio Unnameable</em>, aired for more than 50 years.
Jon Kalish
Bob Fass, longtime radio host for WBAI, died Saturday. His show, Radio Unnameable, aired for more than 50 years.

Bob Fass, who hosted the influential New York City radio show Radio Unnameable for more than 50 years, died on Saturday in North Carolina at age 87. His death was confirmed by his wife Lynn.

His late night show introduced dozens of major folk artists and served as a megaphone for the emerging 1960s counterculture.

At the height of its popularity, Radio Unnameable ran five hours and aired five nights a week. Fass left New York in 2019 and continued to do the show from his home in North Carolina, though it was on just one night a week for three hours. But Fass continued to begin each broadcast with his signature greeting, "Good morning, cabal!"

The cabal, as he called it, was comprised of his countercultural "conspirators" who opposed the Vietnam War and marched for civil rights. And his show on WBAI-FM, the listener-supported Pacifica Radio station in New York, served as their broadcast meetinghouse.

"Bob Fass more or less invented what we call live radio," said Larry Josephson, one of the other WBAI live radio personalities who followed in Fass' footsteps. "No structure, no script, all improvised. And there was nothing like Bob's program on the radio at the time."

Fass' genius was mixing records, tapes, live musicians and phone callers. He pioneered the art of putting several callers on the air at the same time.

Often his programs spilled into in-person events.

In 1967, he directed his late-night listeners to go to New York's Kennedy Airport for a "fly-in," an airport party that drew 3,000 people.

"I didn't quite grasp the fact that a community was forming at the fly-in," Fass told filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson for their 2012 documentary Radio Unnameable. "It was then that the light bulb appeared over my head."

Fass and the cabal also helped organize a Central Park version of the 1967 "Human Be-In" hippie gathering in San Francisco. He also got his listeners to do a "sweep-in," cleaning up blocks on the Lower East Side during a city sanitation strike.

Among the great folk and blues artists to play live on Fass' radio show were Joni Mitchell, Odetta, Carly Simon, Taj Mahal, The Incredible String Band, Moondog, The Holy Modal Rounders, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan, who joked around and took listener calls on one show in 1966.

One caller praised Dylan's writing and guitar playing but urged him to "sing a little better."

"I appreciate that," Dylan responded. "Good, solid, rock-bottom, foundational criticism."

Later that year on Radio Unnameable, Arlo Guthrie appeared live on the broadcast and sang what would become a classic song of draft resistance, "Alice's Restaurant." Strumming along were David Bromberg, Jerry Jeff Walker and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.

"By the time we got invited up to Bob Fass' radio station, it had never been recorded certainly, it had never been heard on the radio certainly, because what radio is going to let you sing a half-hour song on the air?" Guthrie told me in a 1987 interview.

The "Alice's Restaurant" recording is among the thousands of hours in Bob Fass' archive, which Columbia University acquired in 2016. The archive, of course, includes calls from Columbia students in 1968 who took over university offices to protest a proposed university gym building in a city park as well as the Vietnam War.

WBAI host Josephson says the 1960s and early '70s were a "golden age" for Fass and the station, "which has not been repeated since. Anything went. And there was some brilliant stuff, brilliant stuff."

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Jon Kalish