RADIO'S LAST RADICAL
By David Hinckley for The New York Daily News
When he walks into a room, the first thing Bob Fass does is turn on the radio.
"And the second thing I do," he says, "is change the station. Then I change it again, and again, until I admit that nothing I find does it for me."
Bob Fass is 72, an age at which many people feel their radio has abandoned them. But Fass' case is different. He has been on radio himself for more than 40 years and still is, midnight to 3:30 a.m. Thursday on WBAI (99.5 FM). His "Radio Unnameable" is just that, a show on music and politics and whatever is on his mind.
"Radio at its best," he muses, "takes you from the known to the unknown. It incorporates a part of someone else's experience into your life. It's like the way Bob Dylan takes an experience everyone is having but not understanding and puts it into a context where it makes sense."
The Dylan reference isn't random. Forty-odd years ago, Fass was one of the first hosts to interview Dylan. But he doesn't define his show by its celebrities.
"I used to put six or seven people on the phone," he says. "The guy from the 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, 'Yeah, I felt it here.' You got the feeling of a network of the whole city."
Radio alone among media can create that immediacy, Fass says, but radio seems increasingly to value it less - even WBAI. "There are still some great shows on 'BAI, like Ibrahim Gonzalez, the computer show and Jay Smooth," he says. "WBAI's news is still the best, because it has maintained its independence. The women's shows are quite good. But some of the programming has narrowed."
As an unreconstructed progressive, Fass is happy to hail the good old days at WBAI, when it mobilized opposition to the Vietnam War and introduced music later scooped up by stations like WPLJ for great commercial success.
But he's not living in those days. He sounds more outraged over lawyer Lynne Stewart being convicted of abetting terrorism last month than over LBJ.
"Bob is still the real deal," says his friend and colleague Mike Feder, now on Sirius radio. "His energy, intellect and dramatic passion for things alternative and political are undimmed by the years and the mileage."
Fass' broader lament about radio now is that it has lost the droll, understated wit of Bob and Ray or the elegance of Henry Morgan and Jean Shepherd.
"Shepherd used to have trouble with the suits because they said he couldn't sell soap," Fass muses. "Today, Rush, Drudge and all of them, that's what they do. They sell soap. Air America wants to sell soap."
He decries modern radio's "artificial excitement."
"You tell someone to s-w in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Okay. But does that tell us anything about the human condition? Al Lewis used to sell medicine for traveling carnivals. When they got to a town, he'd burn a log on Main St. Everyone came to look. But all he was doing was selling them medicine. That's radio today."
He also hears a hardening of the national spirit.
"There's a lot of hate radio," he says. "I mean the bitterness and the anxiety you hear constantly about the new people moving in on the block - or toward anyone who doesn't fit into what the Bush people present as the norm."
NPR, he says, is better, to a point. "But it gets on my nerves because it's so unspontaneous. You have the feeling if someone giggles, there's a management conference on whether to edit it out. It has to be so polished. It condescends to the listener."
He's happier with WFUV, WFMU and college stations that don't sell soap. He also finds rap encouraging. "It's an extension of what Woody Guthrie and the folk troubadours did," he says. "You can see why it's so powerful and so important."
Holding to this perspective rarely makes anyone rich, Fass included. Last month, his friends held a kind of rent party for him, and he talks about the cost of living in the city as one who could be torpedoed by it.
But he doesn't regret hitching his ride on radio. "When I was 11, I used to pretend I was on the air," he says. "I don't know if I thought it could ever be a job. But the notion of sharing an idea with unseen people was a magnificent thing."
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