The possibly apocryphal story goes that when Sam Phillips of Sun Records asked a young walk-in named Elvis Presley who he sounded like, the kid answered, “I don’t sound like nobody.”
For most singers, that would have been a lie. For Elvis, it wasn’t. In the radio biz, it wouldn’t have been a lie for Bob Fass.
Fass, who died Saturday of Covid-19 complications at the age of 87, was for decades the host of an overnight show called Radio Unnameable on WBAI (99.5 FM) in New York. It aired nightly until 1977, then after he returned in 1982 it ran weekly almost until his death.
As the title telegraphed, it was freeform radio in the purest sense, a show about whatever Fass and listeners on the midnight shift felt like getting into.
You might hear an Allen Ginsberg interview. You might hear an unknown musician. You might hear the regular caller with the name Sixth and Houston. You might hear reps from the Heritage Foundation and American Century, segments Fass called “terrifying.”
It was the kind of show that gave cult programming a good name, and not just because Fass was among the first radio hosts to interview a young Bob Dylan. Dylan would spin yarns about his childhood and then might break out his guitar and a new tune called “Blowin’ In the Wind.”
Fass was a smart host and an even smarter listener, which is probably why he was also joined over the years by the likes of Joni Mitchell, the great pioneer bluesman Skip James, Arlo Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, Richie Havens and Tiny Tim.
Then, no sooner would the echoes of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” fade than Fass might be getting an update from Abbie Hoffman on how the Chicago Seven trial went that day.
While “Radio Unnameable” was less a political than a cultural show, Fass was a lefty and often brought in guests he felt could provide perspectives the mainstream media was ignoring.
“I’m very proud that we had a role in helping show the American people what was really happening in Vietnam,” he said in a 2005 interview.
But when he talked about the legacy of the show, which he felt was well served by the 2012 film also titled Radio Unnameable, he didn’t start by listing guests who became famous or political flashpoints like his 1977 campaign to unionize the WBAI staff, which is what got him kicked off the station for five years.
His favorite moments, he said, came when he felt his show was achieving the highest goal of radio: catching the pulse of the city it served.
“I used to put six or seven people on the phone to just talk,” he says. “The guy from Bronx would say it was starting to rain. The guy in Brooklyn said the skies were clear. Then the Bronx would say, ‘Listen to that thunderclap,’ and Brooklyn would say, ‘Oh, yeah, I could feel that down here.’ You got the feeling of a network of the whole city.”
He’d felt that possibility and that power since his young days in Brooklyn, he said, when “I used to pretend I was on the radio, broadcasting from a studio I built with my Erector Set.”
As a grownup, he said, “When I get to a strange city, I start tuning in radio stations. It’s the fastest and best way to get the pulse of where you were.”
Or at least it used to be. “Radio has become non-spontaneous,” he said in 2012. “It’s narrowcasting. It assumes its audience is only interested in one thing.”
Not even talk radio, he said, embraced any breadth.
“It all feels artificial,” he said. “Programmers used to say Jean Shepherd was a problem because he couldn’t sell soap. Rush [Limbaugh] sells soap. That’s what he does.
“There’s also a lot of hate radio. I mean the bitterness and the anxiety you hear constantly about the new people moving in on the block.”
What he still liked in popular culture, he said in 2005, was hip-hop, which he called “an extension of what Woody Guthrie and the folk troubadours did. That’s why it’s so powerful and so important.”
WBAI today, wounded by years of infighting and financial brinkmanship, has a marginal though still loyal audience. But back in the 1960s, Fass noted, when the much of the media covered the counterculture with either trepidation or a condescending chuckle, WBAI treated it seriously and at times was the most listened-to FM station in the city.
While Fass didn’t invent either WBAI or freeform radio, he embodied what they could become when executed well.
“If you just listen to your callers, you find out what people are really thinking about,” he said. “I had many conversations with callers that kept going after we were off the air. That’s how you connect.”
He noted that the late Paul Krasner, editor of the counterculture publication The Realist, called Fass an early version of Twitter.
No, Fass wasn’t a 280-character kind of guy. But in the years before social media, Radio Unnameable became a place where ordinary people from anywhere could post a thought, and also hear what Bob Dylan or Abbie Hoffman might have to say on the same subject.
Or they might hear Bob Fass read from Ulysses.
As a bonus, Fass taped almost all of his shows. So more than 10,000 hours are now preserved at Columbia, which recognizes Radio Unnameable as a snapshot of the last half century that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
He didn’t sound like nobody.