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Monday, June 25, 2012

Q&A with Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson (directors of Radio Unnameable)

Beginning in 1962, native Brooklynite Bob Fass has been at the forefront of broadening the political and cultural role of the late-night FM airwaves with his WBAI show Radio Unnameable. With its title alluding to a plotless, disjointed Samuel Beckett novel, the broadcast evolved into a showcase for random, unplanned content that captured the social chaos of New York in the 60s. Fass, who would come to be known as the "father of free-form radio," improvised much of his nightly show, throwing together music, live arguments among multiple callers, and interviews with leftist figures like Abbie Hoffman, Ed Sanders, and Allen Ginsburg and musicians like Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. As the show drew more listeners, it became a forum for a wide range of political reportage, community organizing, and eyewitness accounts of urban conflict.

With unprecedented access to Fass' personal archives, BAMcinemaFest alums Jessica Wolfson and Paul Lovelace have crafted a compelling portrait of a pioneer and the era he helped to document. As a New Yorker profile of Fass in 2006 points out, much has changed about radio and WBAI over the past few decades, as audiences have splintered and the spirit of the 60s has faded. But the 78-year-old legend has lasted on WBAI for almost 50 years, bringing a tireless energy and political engagement to his broadcast, and giving the spotlight to a broad spectrum of voices that often go unheard in our community.

Photograph by Robin Holland
Radio Unnameable screens at BAMcinemaFest on Tuesday, June 26 at 7pm. Lovelace, Wolfson, and Fass will be in attendance for a Q&A.

Wolfson and Lovelace have kindly made some sample audio from Fass' radio show available for streaming. You can find the clips at the bottom of the Q&A.

What drives you to make films?
It’s hard for either one of us to imagine doing anything else. One aspect we both love is the collaborative process. For this film there were countless individuals who helped along the way. But our cinematographer John Pirozzi and editor Greg Wright both had a large hand in shaping the film. Nothing beats the feeling on a shoot or in the edit room when you are brainstorming, disagreeing, agreeing, disagreeing more, trying things out, and all of a sudden you’re exactly where you need to be. Another fun part of making a documentary such as Radio Unnameable is the copious amount of research involved. We got to meet a plethora of fascinating characters and dug into some tasty archives, first and foremost the collection belonging to our subject, Bob Fass.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?
New York City in the late night hours serves as a backdrop for much of our film, so visually we were inspired by classic film noir (The Naked City and Where the Sidewalk Ends, to name two favorites). Alphaville is another film that has its own distinct cinematic universe. Amos Poe’s The Foreigner also. Other filmmakers we admire that have used New York City as a canvas to great effect are Jem Cohen, Shirley Clarke, Ken Jacobs, Martin Scorsese, among many others. And of course classic character study documentaries from filmmakers like the Maysles.

What are some of the challenges you faced while making Radio Unnameable?
Radio is an aural medium so the biggest challenge was how to make it visually interesting. For the most part, our goal was not to take a literal approach. Sometimes the visuals match with the audio, but more often it is a visceral feeling we are trying to get across. We were very fortunate to have the run of Bob Fass’ incredible photographs. He was on the scene at every happening and anti-war demonstration with camera in hand, in addition to holding a portable tape recorder. And in those days the equipment was rather bulky. He jokes about it, saying he felt like “the Hunchback of Mixed Media.” Additionally, we did a lot of outreach and were able to locate and integrate some amazing material from a plethora of filmmakers and photographers, many who were listeners of Radio Unnameable and participated in the events Bob helped organize.

How did you become interested in Bob Fass’ show as the subject of a documentary, and how did you get access to his archives? How long did it take to sift through all that material?
Paul’s previous film was The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose (co-directed with Sam Wainwright Douglas) about the psychedelic folk duo from New York City. They were on Radio Unnameable many times in the 60s and 70s, especially co-founder Peter Stampfel, who is still sort of a regular. Peter would talk about this crazy and great radio program that was unlike anything on the air, then and now. We also heard that Bob Fass had in his possession an unprecedented audio archive, so we were curious.

As far as the archive goes, Bob has a massive collection of still photographs, video, ephemera and a ton of audio. He has been on WBAI since 1962 and for the first 15 years, Radio Unnameable was on five nights a week, six hours at a time, so that’s a lot of live radio! Neither one of us had worked with open reel audio before, which is how all of the shows pre-1977 were recorded. In 2008, a small army of volunteers gathered to help us organize the materials that had been sitting in Bob’s home for many years. Slowly we began transferring these reels to a more accessible digital format. We listened to hundreds of Radio Unnameable recordings and were surprised how great and fresh the show still sounded. For the film, we were pulling from thousands of hours of audio, choosing the best moments, editing it down to just a few minutes. It was a lot of work! There is still a lot of material not in the film that we hope will see the light of day and become accessible when the film is released. Some of it can already be heard on our website.

A playlist of clips from Radio Unnameable, including discussions with callers, an interview with Paul Krassner, and reportage from Abbie Hoffman:

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