On the evening of Feb. 11, 1967, several thousand people suddenly appeared inside the arrivals building at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, where they danced, sang, smoked marijuana, handed out flowers and simply gawked at one another.
It was the Fly-In, the first in a series of mass events that Bob Fass organized on his all-night radio show on New York’s WBAI. They were celebrations of what Fass called “a colossal amount of human connection.” They had purpose and no purpose. No one was in charge.
Fass summoned his listeners to a Be-In in Central Park, where they flew kites, chanted “Love” and just were. A Sweep-In on the Lower East Side rallied listeners to clean up a litter-sodden street. A Milk-In raised money for a Visiting Mothers day-care service.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Fass was a constant presence on WBAI. Listeners fell asleep to his narration of the night and woke at dawn to hear his gentle alluring voice still going. The noncommercial station had in those years an anarchic pulse, promoting left-wing causes, obscure music and identity politics long before the term had been coined. Fass’ show, “Radio Unnameable,” remained on the air in more limited form until he fell ill a few months ago.
Fass, a pioneer of free-form radio, was 87 when he died April 24 at his home in Monroe, North Carolina. His wife, Lynnie Tofte, said he had congestive heart failure and the COVID-19 virus.
His style was an outgrowth of experimental theater in which every minute was improvised, from phone calls with listeners who might hang on for hours, making only occasional comments, to musicians who walked in off the street to play tunes that no one at WBAI had vetted.
Fass’ signature sound was the layering of voices and music atop one another — a folk song and sound effects overlapping, even as the host, a guest and a caller chatted, often without any linear thread. He would put several callers on the air at the same time, urging them to “Speak among yourselves.”
“When two pieces of information bump up against each other, something else occurs,” Fass said in an interview for this reporter’s book “Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution that Shaped a Generation.” “Dylan sings, ‘While riding on a train goin’ west,’ and I juxtapose sounds of war and battle, and it creates a third thing, one commenting on the other.”
In the late 1960s, Fass turned his audience into a street phenomenon. Originally meant as a way to make visible the emerging counterculture, public events organized by “Radio Unnameable” became a political force, too.
Abbie Hoffman, a regular guest on the program from 1963 until his suicide in 1989, used his appearances to build the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Yippies — the Youth International Party, which announced its formation on “Radio Unnameable” and organized its first big event, the Yip-In at Grand Central Terminal, on the show.
“Good morning, cabal,” Fass greeted his listeners each weeknight at midnight, his thick fingers skating over the broadcast console. He usually wore Oshkosh overalls atop a denim shirt and a string of beads around his neck.
Robert Morton Fass, whose father was an accountant, was born in Brooklyn on June 29, 1933. He grew up pretending to be an announcer on a microphone he built with his Erector set. He was the morning announcer over his high school intercom system. But after a stint in the Army and his graduation in 1955 from Syracuse University, he studied acting and won parts in off-Broadway productions.
He had a small role in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” starring Lotte Lenya when he started volunteering at WBAI, reading stories on the literary programs of the FM station, which featured programs such as “Existentialism for Young People.”
In 1963, Fass earned a staff announcer job for $80 a week, which was more than his acting and backstage roles paid. He sought permission to keep the station on after its usual 1 a.m. sign-off, and “Radio Unnameable” was born.
Early on, Fass allowed a puckish young folk singer from Minnesota to appear as the creator of a business that made clothes specially designed for folk singers.
The prankster, Bob Dylan, became a regular on “Radio Unnameable,” performing as outlandish characters, singing his own songs and taking listener calls, including one from a fanboy high school student who wanted his hero to endorse his decision to violate his school’s rules and grow his hair long.
Dylan wasn’t having it and told the kid to follow the rules. Then the singer resumed taking calls.
Fass opened his show to established talents such as Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa but also to newcomers like Jerry Jeff Walker, a singer who was living in Greenwich Village in 1967 when he wandered into the “Radio Unnameable” studio and sang his new number, “Mr. Bojangles.” Fass’ constant promotion of the song led to Walker receiving a recording contract.
Arlo Guthrie appeared numerous times, offering versions of his works in progress, including what became “Alice’s Restaurant.” Poets, playwrights and novelists, including Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, used the program to showcase their latest pieces.
Drugs were a constant in the studio and on the show — a then-rare openness about drug use that made Fass a trusted source among listeners who were experimenting with psychedelics. He passed along warnings about bad acid being sold on the street and connected listeners having bad trips with an on-air psychiatrist who helped calm them.
The show and the station thrived through the Nixon years, winning listeners young and old through the nation’s struggles over Vietnam and Watergate. But by the late 1970s, the station had hit hard times.
In 1977, when station managers moved to switch to a format with more shows aimed at building a Black and Hispanic audience, WBAI staffers took over the station’s transmitter controls atop the Empire Station Building, locked themselves in and started broadcasting protest songs and speeches opposing the shift in programming.
Fass and other staff members occupied the station studios in a former church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Later, when he refused to sign a statement apologizing for the revolt, Fass was banned from the station and was largely unemployed for five years. For a time, he hosted a public-access cable TV show called “If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution.” He worked in a call center, selling tickets to shows at Lincoln Center.
“Radio Unnameable” returned to WBAI in 1982, but Fass was never again an every-night presence, was no longer paid and was viewed by a series of station managers as a relic of a vanished time. He lived for many years on Social Security and his wife Lynnie’s salary as a research librarian at a law firm. Devoted listeners also raised money to support him.
Fass’ first marriage, to Bridget Potter, ended in divorce. He married Tofte in 1997; they had lived together for more than a decade before that.
Tofte, Fass’s only immediate survivor, said she started listening to “Radio Unnameable” when she was a seventh-grader on Staten Island, “wasting away, looking for folk music on the radio, and I found Bob. He told me the Vietnam War was wrong, which nobody on Staten Island was saying. He was my friend when I had no friends. . . . It was like they were planning a revolution and I heard it all.”