Last week, Mark Fisher wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine about WBAI Radio host, Bob Fass, and his legendary show, Radio Unnameable. The piece, called “Voice of the Cabal,” showcased the worst of the New Yorker – the facile, elitist gloss, and the unthinking, casual racism.
The premise of the piece is that Bob Fass, who has been the host of the on-again, off-again Radio Unnameable since the 1960s, has been slighted by the new regime at the station. Radio Unnameable came on the air in 1962, broadcasting on the overnights 5 days a week with an eclectic freeform mix of talk, sound clips, music, callers, and ramblings. As the article notes, Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan were regulars on Fass’s show for years, and Fass attracted a loyal following of listeners and callers, known as the cabal (hence the article’s title).
Now Fass is on one night a week. And Fisher insinuates, although doesn’t quite have the balls to come out and say, is that the “balkanized schedule” of shows now on the station has forced him out. Fisher cites, as proof of this balkanization, the names of several shows on WBAI: First Voices Indigenous Radio, Out-FM, Joy of Resistance (“multi-cultural feminist radio), Beyond the Pale (“progressive Jewish politics”), The Largest Minority (“issues affecting people with disabilities”), Afrikalidoscope, and Asia Pacific Forum. He then says “Fass’s show is one of the few on the station seeking a broad audience.”
Fisher’s snarky parentheticals suggest that he didn’t take the time to listen to any of the programs he names, but chose to read their titles and one sentence descriptions and decide that those programs are narrowly targeted, not seeking a broad audience. Had he taken the time to listen, Fisher would have learned that those shows seek to educate people inside and outside of the communities that produce the shows (women, First Nations people, or people with disabilities, for example) about the issues in those communities. That’s not narrow targeting, it’s education. Also, the Asia-Pacifica region is certainly not small, nor is the entire continent of Africa. And unfortunately we still need to remind people like Fisher that women are not a narrowly focused balkanized audience, even if a feminist radio show were only trying to address that half of the population.
Therein lies the racism of the article. Fisher assumes that a show by a white man tied to the Greenwich Village community was a show with a broad appeal, while the shows he names are “factionalized” and esoteric. It’s as if whiteness, white maleness, is the blank slate on which all other identities can be grafted. Fass with, without a doubt, an innovator and a pioneer. Much of the rambling talk radio now on all the airwaves can be traced back to Fass (but don’t blame him, it’s really not his fault). But not everyone wants to listen to “experiments with noise and silence,” “an improvised melange of live music, speeches, and random phone calls.”
Fisher writes that “much of the station’s white, liberal audience has drifted away,” while “managers and program hosts went at one another with lawsuits, personnel purges, and fights over race, ideology, and how to appeal to the city’s growing Black, Latino, and Asian populations.”
It’s true that there have been years of infighting at WBAI, and the Pacifica Network overall. I should know, I’ve been an unpaid producer at the station since 2000, six years that sometimes elicit a laugh from the people who’ve been in those trenches since the sixties. And it’s great to see the station featured so prominently in a magazine that I love despite myself. It’s certainly never been known for its down to earth sensibility. I love it because the New Yorker regularly features some of the country’s best narrative non fiction from people like Katherine Boo, the grim environmental reporting of Elizabeth Kolbert, and yes, the investigative work of the irascible Sy Hersh.
This piece by Fisher, however, will not be entering my personal pantheon. To conflate WBAI’s broadening of its content and the diversity of its producers with its downturn from its 60s heyday is outrageous. WBAI isn’t the only place that’s changed since the 1960s. The politics of the country have changed just a little too. Many devotees of Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan now listen to NPR, where, incidentally, Bob Dylan’s recent album has featured prominently in recent fund drives. And a lot of them probably don’t want to listen to freeform sound collages.
Meanwhile, the media hasn’t changed enough. Although you might not know it from most of the mainstream media, there are thousands of serious, hardworking, creative and dedicated journalists and broadcasters of color out there. In 1962, there were few on them on WBAI. 44 years later, there are many. WBAI should be commended for doing what almost no other broadcast outlets does: truly representing the city whose airwaves it uses, at least demographically. Radio newsrooms are just 6% people of color nationwide. There’s a story.
Radio is an amazing, creative and stimulating thing. It’s one of the greatest joys in my life, to listen to and to create. I am truly appreciative of people like Bob Fass who might have made radio that doesn’t appeal to everyone, but who made radio that was weird and different and and not like anything else. And I’m appreciative of all the people past and present working their asses off for no pay to keep community media outlets like WBAI alive and kicking. Just think of all the untapped ideas out there, all the freeform crazy creative innovations that the women and people of color out there will bring to the airwaves when we finally bust those doors down.
When I was out working on a story today, the woman I was interviewing was asking what WBAI is like now, and said she listens to NPR these days. And she mentioned Radio Unnameable, and how it was just IT. I hope that someone’s reminiscing about Wakeup Call 40 years from now. I hope that I can contribute to something that’s as incredibly indelible as Radio Unnameable. But I hope that person is still listening to WBAI, and I hope some young person is in master control, making a kind of radio that never, ever crossed my mind.