KCRW remembers radio artist Joe Frank

Joe Frank, influential radio artist and a longtime voice at KCRW, died Monday at age 79 from complications after surgery for colon cancer. Frank produced more than 230 hours of programming for the station, beginning in 1986 with his long-running one-hour program “Joe Frank: Work In Progress.”

Frank’s “radio noir” style included lengthy, dreamlike monologues delivered over looping ambient or electronic music, and actor improvisations recorded over the phone. His programs were deeply moving, often surreal, and delved into existential and spiritual themes with a wry humor.

In an interview with Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air, Frank offered one reason for his philosophical explorations.

“Whatever tragedies might befall you, you can always right away think, well, that would make a great story for radio so that it was easier to experience whatever suffering that came my way,” Frank said.

Michal Story, Frank’s wife, chronicled Frank’s illness on a GoFundMe page that raised more than $124,000 for his medical expenses since December 2015.

Harry Shearer, another KCRW pioneer, wrote on Twitter that “You will never hear anybody smarter, darker, funnier than Joe Frank.”

A Peabody Award and Emmy Award winner, Frank earned a reputation as a visionary audio producer who pushed the medium beyond traditional boundaries. He also inspired younger radio broadcasters, including Ira Glass, Jad Abumrad, Jonathan Goldstein and many others, to experiment with storytelling formats.

Glass, creator and host of “This American Life,” worked as a production assistant for Frank early in his career, and recalled how Frank would create improvised scenes.

“He would give the actors plot points and then they would perform it over and over with him directing them,” Glass said. “And then he himself would sit in the edit room and edit the reel-to-reel tape… and what came out of it was something that didn’t feel like radio drama but felt way more cinematic and way more alive.”

Frank continued to work at KCRW until 2002, producing the shows “In The Dark,” “Somewhere out There” and “The Other Side.” His programs aired on stations around the country, including in Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and San Francisco. He returned to KCRW in 2012 and created new shows for KCRW’s “UnFictional” until soon before his death.

Frank was born Joseph Langermann in Strasbourg, France on August 19, 1938. His father was Polish and his mother Austrian. Both Jewish, they managed to flee Nazi Germany before Hitler annexed the region. They moved to New York City in 1939. Joe’s father Meier Langermann died when Joe was five, and the next year his mother Frederica married Teddy Frank and changed Joe’s last name.

Frank had a fraught relationship with his mother, which he sometimes referenced in his programs. He also struggled with health problems beginning in childhood. He was born with clubbed feet and underwent several operations when he was young to correct for them, culminating in his wearing leg braces when he was six.

“There are some themes that I heard in his work that came from this notion of inadequacy and anxiety. Those were things that came from his childhood and he carried throughout his life,” said KCRW president Jennifer Ferro, who for several years transcribed interviews for Frank.

“The thing that was the greatest about him was the demons that made him search for perfection in whatever ways he was after with audio,” Ferro said. “He was just so consumed with the way his work sounded.”

Frank studied at Hofstra University in New York and later at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Shortly thereafter, he taught literature and philosophy at Dalton, a Manhattan private high school. Later he became interested in radio as a storytelling medium.

“I talked a lot about relationships and obsessions of mine which had to do with death, alienation and ambivalence,” he once told a Wall Street Journal reporter.

He began his radio career at Pacifica’s WBAI in New York in 1976 with the show “In the Dark.” In 1978, he was hired to co-anchor “Weekend All Things Considered” on National Public Radio.

“Joe Frank was a powerful influence on all of us who worked with him at NPR. We’d all gather to listen to his latest stories as they came out back in the late 70s,” recalled veteran NPR producer Art Silverman.

Frank would often include short fiction segments in his news program, but as NPR moved towards an all news format, Frank left his co-anchor job and began producing shows for NPR Playhouse.

“The human condition was the thing that Joe was really interested in. He was not so interested in the outside as he was on the inside of what happened to a person,” recalls Ariana Morgenstern, a longtime KCRW staffer who had a close relationship with Frank.

In 1986, KCRW’s then-general manager Ruth Seymour offered him a time slot, and he moved to Los Angeles.

An ad for Joe Frank’s radio show after he moved to Los Angeles.

Bob Carlson, host of KCRW’s “Unfictional,” worked as the station’s production director in the early ‘90s and recalled Frank’s style of recording monologues.

“He would literally do it line by line, where he would do every line sometimes five times, like crazy Stanley Kubrick-style way of recording his monologues,” Carlson said. “It’s one of the reasons why his voice on his show sounds so weirdly, alluringly monotone. He kept his voice really moderated like that so he’d be easier to edit.”

Carlson also recalled Frank’s unusual method of creating his signature repetitive music beds.

“We had a long piece of reel-to-reel tape that came off of the tape machine and then wound around the studio, going around mic stands we would set up, and then come back into the studio. And it would keep playing through the same thing for hours and hours.”

The music murmured underneath Frank’s voice, providing a hypnotic momentum to his long narratives.

“He was really good at finding riffs that you could stand to listen to 100 times in a row. He was able to find music that served the emotional needs of the piece without getting in the way,” said Kristine McKenna, a former KCRW DJ and longtime friend of Frank’s.

“Joe was very interested in how people feel to an unusual degree, and that’s at the heart of his work. He was a compassionate person.”

Studio 1 at KCRW became Frank’s home for much of the week, where he worked for hours on end to record and edit segments of the show.

“We started around 9 a.m. on Friday and we’d go until 3 a.m. on Saturday,” recalled J.C. Swiatek, another engineer who worked with Frank from 1996 to 2002. “It was an intense process working with him, but the end product was intense.”

When his weekly program coincided with a KCRW pledge drive, Frank resorted to some unusual methods of soliciting funds. In one now-legendary moment, he threatened to kill a puppy if people didn’t call in to donate money. He used sound effects to make it seem real, and the phone banks quickly lit up.

“His shows during the pledge drive were the most popular. It was always, ‘what’s Joe going to do?’ He was like the little madman,” Swiatek recalled. “A lot of people would come to the station on Saturday night to watch him live.”

Frank’s radio programs inspired a cult following. He received letters and packages at the station, and his fans would sometimes make pilgrimages to KCRW in the hopes of meeting him.

“There was a kind of fanaticism that he inspired in other people,” recalled Sarah Spitz, a former producer and publicity director at KCRW.

“Joe was a real perfectionist and liked working with people who were willing to be there all night and treat it like an art project,” recalled independent producer Gideon Brower, a friend and collaborator of Frank’s. “He had an eye and an ear for what was interesting and what worked, and he had a tremendous interest in other people. It was fascinating to see how he worked different elements into pieces.”

During long brunches at Fromin’s Deli in Santa Monica, Brower watched Frank douse his pancakes and Matzoh brie with maple syrup while they had darkly comic conversations about life and death.

“We’d laugh a lot,” Brower said. “He had a morbid and dark sense of humor.”

Frank was first diagnosed with cancer when he was 21 years old, and had two more bouts with cancer. Kidney dialysis treatments required a transplant, and he suffered from severe scoliosis. He spent much of his life in and out of surgeries and emergency rooms.

Those medical issues drove Frank to immerse himself in his work, Morgenstern said.

“It made him more ferocious to get his work done. Joe wouldn’t eat for hours and hours. He’d be in Studio 1, working like a fiend. He’d be there as long as he needed to. His body didn’t matter to him. It was his mind that was really important to him.”

He is survived by his wife, Michal Story.

(Photos: Michal Story)