the smooth, dark voice of late-night public radio has signed off forever
January 15, 2018 8:45 PM   Subscribe

According to his Facebook page, public radio personality Joe Frank passed away this morning. posted by Rash (58 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
posted by drowsy at 8:47 PM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's always in the back of mind to go listen to more of his shows but I never get around to it. I'm going to go do that now.
posted by bendy at 8:53 PM on January 15, 2018

posted by oneswellfoop at 9:07 PM on January 15, 2018

posted by notyou at 9:08 PM on January 15, 2018

posted by dogstoevski at 9:21 PM on January 15, 2018

I first found Joe Frank on a collection of cassettes that one of my coworkers at a magazine had dubbed. He was one of the graphic designers and was a freeform DJ at a community station after hours. Those surreal vignettes played behind me as I burnished paste-ups and attached folios.

Later on, wanting to find them again but without a working tape deck (I still have most of his tapes), I got on Soulseek and found a huge collection of Joe Frank programs — some finished, some not. Some were sketches, some were rough cuts. I assume they came from his website, though when I checked nothing was up there (around the time he feuded with the then-new station manager at KCRW, IIRC).

Getting all of them took months of leaving the computer connected to a dodgy network, but I finally pulled them all down. It's nowhere near a full collection of his programs, but honestly it's more than I'll likely ever listen to—at least a couple hundred hours.

I hear so much of his style in the This American Life and RadioLab, especially in the use of music. Frank was a master storyteller, and I'm glad to have the reminder to go back and enjoy his work again.
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 PM on January 15, 2018 [8 favorites]


posted by edeezy at 9:47 PM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Damn it.

posted by whir at 9:49 PM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

I first heard him in 1979. Somebody at All Things Considered made the inspired choice to conclude their Halloween show with one of his earliest dramas, a story known as The Night Watchman (which you can hear in the middle of Lies). If there was any explanation given, I didn't catch it -- but I was ready with my tape deck 90 minutes later, when the other DC public radio station broadcast ATC. Several years later, shortly after I moved to LA, I heard the familiar voice of the Night Watchman on KCRW, where to my delight I learned that he did a new show every week! I taped them all, for decades, even after he started repeating himself. A few years back I pared the collection back to just his very best, and even those I never listen to anymore. But his early programs sure were impressive productions -- amusing and thought provoking.
posted by Rash at 9:51 PM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by benzenedream at 10:27 PM on January 15, 2018

I've been dreading this day for months as I've been following his partner Michal's posts on their GoFundMe page. Joe had been quite ill for some time and it has been heartbreaking reading about his physical struggles and of Michal as his care giver and tireless advocate through seemingly endless trips to hospitals.

I consider Joe Frank an artist who was elevated to a true genius when he found the medium he was meant for. I think his influence on radio, and by extension, podcasting, is profound. He's like the VU of narrative radio.

He had one of those voices where he could read a restaurant menu on the air and make it sound like a poem, a sermon. He seemed to love the sound of language, the over abundance of it. I could go on, but I think I just need to stop typing and start listening again.

Not sure where to even begin to recommend where to start for those who don't know his work, his catalog is so vast. Here's one from his later work though: Dreamers.

Thank you Joe, you've kept me company a lot of late nights. The stars won't be the same.

posted by gwint at 10:38 PM on January 15, 2018 [11 favorites]

posted by inpHilltr8r at 10:55 PM on January 15, 2018

posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:26 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by From Bklyn at 3:03 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by Gelatin at 3:32 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by fitnr at 3:59 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by mondo dentro at 4:30 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by maggiemaggie at 5:10 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by filtergik at 5:13 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by armacy at 5:18 AM on January 16, 2018

I’ll never forget the first show I heard, ‘Across the River.’ I came home after a late night in the lab, was eating ice cream from the carton, and caught the end of the show, a panel discussion about alternative energy taken to an absurd extreme. It involved a complicated system of pulleys attached to everyone at all times, and the panel was very seriously discussing implications. I was sucked in immediately.

A friend sent me some shows including ‘In the Middle of Nowhere’ and ‘Rent a Family.’ In ‘Rent a Family,’ Grace Zabriskie was amazing in her portrayal, and the way Joe was able to weave the different narratives together made the sum feel like more than the parts, which were already powerful.

I remember working on projects around the house while listening to The Other Side. Joe introduced me to Jack Kornfield, which led to my later interest in meditation and mindfulness. His conversations with Larry and Debi Mae West were often really thought provoking.

I subscribed to for a while, and worked my way through the entire catalog during my daily commute. I remember sittting in my car, long after having arrived, still listening to a show until the good part had ended.

Over the years, Joe Frank’s shows were a part of my life, and they were so intimate at times, I felt like he was part of my life, like I knew him. I’m grateful for his work, the impact it had on my life, and the influence he had on other radio producers. I’ll miss him.

Thanks, Joe.
posted by Otherwise at 5:35 AM on January 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Like many other people, I discovered Joe Frank late at night and became enthralled and obsessed, trying hard to never miss one of his shows. For awhile in the late 80s, when I lived in LA, I had a late night story-oriented radio show too and his work was among my biggest influences, to the point where I stopped listening for awhile because I needed to nurture my own voice and his overwhelmed mine in my head. I had a huge professional crush on him that had personal dimensions too, though I knew he was gay, because his voice just slayed me.

Once during a live show I sat in the front row, like the fan girl I am, and he chose me as the object of a long obsessive love monologue. He kneeled down in front of me and gazed at me and just went on and on and on until everyone in the audience grew extremely uncomfortable: maybe five minutes. His eyes were kind and he was checking to make sure I was ok with it. Then he grabbed my hand, held it next to the mic and kissed it in this overwrought noisy way that also went on forever, but got really funny. Gradually the audience started laughing. He had swung people around through a huge array of emotions completely effectively.

The music kicked in and I guess the sound guy turned off Joe's mic because he put his head close to mine and thanked me for making the segment the best it had ever been by hanging in with him so long. Maybe he said that at each performance, but all the same, it's a cherished memory.

posted by carmicha at 6:54 AM on January 16, 2018 [13 favorites]

posted by dagosto at 7:27 AM on January 16, 2018

He'll never climb K2 now; but in his own way -- a deeper way -- he already did.
posted by beerperson at 7:32 AM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Joe Frank has long been an idol of mine. I love how accessible his writing is. I love the way he puts together the audio for a show. My only gripe is that I can't access his entire catalog without paying more than I my budget would allow.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:32 AM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by werkzeuger at 9:04 AM on January 16, 2018

I first heard Joe Frank’s broadcasts in the early 90s. He was a weaver of compelling stories and told them with a golden voice.
posted by zippy at 9:20 AM on January 16, 2018

posted by runehog at 9:53 AM on January 16, 2018

I am gutted. I don't have heroes; I'm not a starstruck person and I generally hold individuals in esteem for qualities, but I've never really been able to point at somebody and say "That person. There. That's who I'd aspire to be, if I were better."

I aspired to be Joe Frank. Right down to trying to make my own Joe Frankesque radio show in the very early 2000s, and getting as far as doing some interviews and cutting a demo and even having a couple of conversations with somebody at the Quebec arm of the CBC about how I'd go about packaging and pitching it.

I don't even know how I started listening to Joe Frank. It just became part of my life at some point; it must have been post-Internet because I never would have been in a place where I could hear him on the air.

Like gwint, I donated to his GoFundMe and have been following his ill health with periodic hope and sporadic unease.

Joe Frank is sui generis. It's hard to convey how much he meant to me because his unique talent has been borrowed and diluted by any number of people who have somehow managed to glom onto more renown than Joe ever got.

I was just listening to Dictator maybe two weeks ago and hoping he'd get better.

God damn it. God damn it. Joe Frank.
posted by Shepherd at 9:59 AM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I discovered Joe Frank as a high school kid in Los Angeles in the mid 90s. I spent 50 minutes sitting in a sweltering car in a musical instrument shop parking lot listening to Three Shingles, and it changed my world. On the ranked list of people who've had the most significant impact on my life - my mother, my childhood mentor, my grad school advisor, and my spouse - Joe's position is very high on the list. He showed me that a world of irreverent, funny, smart people existed, and that knowledge drove me to leave home and seek them out.

Joe's work has kept me company throughout my entire adulthood. It brought me peace on long walks while I adjusted to the shock of entering college. It make me laugh while shoveling snow and greasing gears during a long Antarctic winter. It distracted me from my bladder while I spent 11 hours locked in sleeper car with a family of Old Believers who'd been tricked into smuggling drugs in a pillow across the Mongolian border. Today it makes doing the dishes and standing on crowded buses a lot more fun. And, sadly, it calls to me every time I want to put off doing time-critical work.

I'm not sure I'd actually like the guy if I spent more than a few minutes shaking hands and asking him to sign things. His politics and his relationships with women seem pretty dreadful. (Though, Michal Story is an incredibly smart and self-away person; I can believe the later has improved a lot since the WBAI days.) But, goddamn, he was a genius.

For the last forty years the answer to the question, "who is the new Joe Frank" has always been, "Joe Frank." I'm not sure what the answer is now.

posted by eotvos at 10:13 AM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Was just speaking to a friend about Joe, talking about when we were first introduced and I remembered that in the mid-90s, KCRW was one of the only stations that was streaming a TON of shows (including TAL, I believe) and they had Joe Frank's ENTIRE archive online for free ((<-- version, no actual streams) In glorious RealAudio. I think Razorfish did the site) It was amazing and only lasted a few years. I actually remember copying episodes from the the computer audio output onto CASSETTE TAPES. So thank you good people of KCRW.
posted by gwint at 10:36 AM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by Joey Michaels at 10:40 AM on January 16, 2018

Oh no! This is terrible news.

posted by but no cigar at 11:52 AM on January 16, 2018

Very sad. When I first got broadband in 2001, I went off looking for radio stations to listen to, and, on a Sunday evening, found something unlike anything I’d heard before. It was Summerhill, one of the later episodes he made for KCRW. It was also my introduction to Jack Kornfield and to Buddhism, and to aspiring to be nice to people. I never really succeeded at that, but at least now I knew it was worth trying.

I tracked down as many as I could, and I think my favourite might be Eye in the Sky, but I’m not sure.

In any case, he did change my life, and set me in the vague direction of being a better person, even if I still tend more towards Larry Block than Joe.

I’ve heard lots of people trying to be Joe Frank, but no one who made it sound so natural, or so effortlessly cool.
posted by Grangousier at 12:03 PM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Listening to radio in Los Angeles in the late 80's early 90's and coming across a Joe Frank show after it started and trying to figure out "what the hell is this?" was a surreal experience. It felt like coming in contact with another world. In a way it was like stumbling across the Art Bell show. Hopefully you were driving across the desert at night when you found them.
posted by bongo_x at 12:12 PM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

posted by svenvog at 12:50 PM on January 16, 2018


I remember driving up the 101 with my fiance around 11:00, just letting the radio scan through the dial, and it just clicked on a man narrating the story of how, with an inheritance and miss if confidence, he went through one business enterprise after another. I never caught the name of the man who was doing it.

Another trip, another late night, and the radio dial latched onto the story of a traffic helicopter above Los Angeles as traffic got worse and worse. For ages after, a go-to phrase of my wife and I even things went awry was "And you might want to consider a different route."

So, damn. Just, damn.
posted by happyroach at 1:48 PM on January 16, 2018

Dear happyroach, you may already know this (it's not entirely clear from your post), but in case you want to look those up again, you're looking for An Enterprising Man and Eye in the Sky, both part of the Somewhere Out There series.
posted by eotvos at 2:00 PM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I may be remembering it badly, but my favourite line from Eye in the Sky is “a drive by shooting gone terribly wrong “. Because normally they go so well.
posted by Grangousier at 2:11 PM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I believe I first heard him on KPFA in the 90s, and they were playing I think it was An Airstrip in the Jungle? I was a big fan of experimental and avant-garde storytelling via radio. I still have a collection of ZBS/Meatball Fulton productions on my shelf.

I loved the aesthetic, of course, but also how the background loops smoothed over the way he'd transition from story to story without making it feel like you'd left the one before. It was the structure of (forgive me) Slacker without the seams. I reached the end and held my head in my hands as I spooled back in my memory trying to work out what the story actually was.

It was like trying to re-live an amazing yet exhausting week, and I did it all from my bedroom in an hour.

I wonder if it would translate today. The reverb, the band filters, they made it seem like he was a correspondent reporting in via telephone. Those artifacts are dated now, like diagonal VHS static or carbon mic crackle. Would it feel as intimate to the next generation?
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:55 PM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:25 PM on January 16, 2018

An Airstrip in the Jungle?

That would be A Landing Strip in the Jungle
posted by Rash at 4:37 PM on January 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is terrible news. I discovered his work over 20 years ago on WFMU, which aired his recordings for an hour each week. At one point the show was on Wednesday early evening, when I was working on deadline, furiously copy editing long articles for a weekly music trade magazine. The hypnotic combo of his voice and music helped me get through many a night of marking up galleys and writing headlines.

RIP, Joe.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:48 PM on January 16, 2018

they made it seem like he was a correspondent reporting in via telephone

Which often, later, he was, more or less.

posted by kenko at 6:46 PM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The last time I remember hearing him on the radio must have been one of the last times he was on KCRW. He was actually doing a pledge drive. The typical cheery pledge drive hosts ceded the mic to Frank, (it kind of sounded live, but who knows?), and he went on in usual fashion, with a meandering monologue drawing you deeper, making you more uneasy and then OH MY GOD?!?!, followed by OH MY GAWD!!!, as he brought his wrenching story to a close, somehow, by bringing you back into the reality of a pledge drive, in the most deadpan funny way. You could hear the pledge drive volunteers in the background whoop with relief and amusement. He was killing it on air with a live audience that was likely ignoring calls to keep listening.

His show was the kind of thing you would listen to for twenty minutes in your car after you reached your destination, because you absolutely had to hear where the story was going. I've missed that. It makes me sad that I will never have that again. Thanks, Joe, for letting me have that.
posted by 2N2222 at 6:48 PM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

posted by valkane at 7:02 PM on January 16, 2018

Did y’all know that the set-up for the Scorsese film After Hours was apparently, um, borrowed from a Joe Frank radio drama? TIL.
posted by Mothlight at 7:21 PM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Joe Frank made me cry in my car.

posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:13 PM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

No shit, there I was.
In the seventh hour of a long drive down to LA, it’s dark out but it’s dawning on me that the conversation on the radio has taken a very strange turn sometime in the last five minutes—and like a flu nap, it’s made everything else seem plausible but hollow. No commercials, few cars on the road, rainy night, and listening to something from somewhere that seemed more real than where I was at that instant.
I never got over the perfect weirdness of it and like any gobsmacked fanatic I wished everyone I knew could encounter Joe Frank exactly that way for the first time, unexpected and out of nowhere, but his conviction and purling low voice even came through on noisy cassette tapes I urged friends to listen to. I’m glad to read here descriptions of his talent and wide influence.
posted by ssr_of_V at 9:45 PM on January 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Joe Frank was so great. He was so smart. He was such a smart-ass. There's always room in my life for his work.

And it *was* work. All of the editing, all of the music, hell, all of the writing -- that's work. And I'm pretty sure he did it for love, I doubt that KCRW paid him much, damn sure didn't pay him for what he gave us all.

I first read about him on Salon, maybe 98, 99. (Remember when Salon didn't suck?) I got over to KCRW and recorded the streams from there, but that was a mere pittance , just a bit of the shows he'd done. He was fine with ppl recording his stuff -- that changed, maybe 2001 or 2002 but by then I have found almost all of his shows, have them on .mp3 files Anyone else remember Hotline? A huge Joe Frank fan had pretty much all of his shows, had it on a Hotline server, I got all that he had. Nosing around the 'net here / there you'd every now and again find something I didn't already have.

"Eye In The Sky." A great show. "The Road To Calvary" That might be my favorite of all of them, though it would be hard to choose. "Bible Stories." "Windows" -- another really fine,fine show. That entire Karma series, maybe like 10 shows in that Karma series. chronicling a brutal breakup he went through. "Jerry's World" Parts 1-3. Since he did put current events into some of the shows.

His pledge drive shows, they were perhaps the best. Where the hell did all of his ideas come from? "Redneck Rounder", an interview with this absolute character, in a bar. "Prayer" -- really really a great show. "The Street" -- interviews of ppl living on the street, one schizophrenic I sure remember well.

I could go on and on but I pretty much do that anyways; maybe this morning I'll try another angle, quit while I'm ahead, if in fact I am ahead.

I'll leave that to you to determine.

Joe Frank was great. I'm glad I am alive when he was, really glad I found out about him.

Happy Trails, Joe -- thank you for the work you gave us.

posted by dancestoblue at 6:36 AM on January 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

""Windows" -- another really fine,fine show. "

That was the exact one I was talking about! I had to pull over to finish listening to it.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:17 AM on January 17, 2018

Joe Frank is the best.
posted by goodsearch at 7:26 AM on January 17, 2018

A couple obituaries: posted by Rash at 12:26 PM on January 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fuck. This upsets me like few celeb deaths have. And I am so, so grateful for this thread, because I don't know many people in meatspace who knew (let alone obsessed over) his work. I'm re-listening to The Dictator again now, grateful to have it in mp3.

posted by Westringia F. at 5:57 PM on January 17, 2018 [2 favorites]


I was in a chat room -- chat is great for me, I type fast, I love the back and forth in real time, ICQ had a feature I really loved, you could see what the person typed as they were typing it and in that way you get to know the person oh so much better, get to see what they're thinking, and writing, before they send out the piece of their mind they want you to see, the nicely edited version, maybe the PG version.

So anyways, I was in a chat that I often frequented, and this person came in, and immediately I felt her -- this person is something else. She is on fire with smarts, but that's easy -- she was also on fire with the Art of being her. And she is Art, perhaps the most creative person I've ever known, and it's nonstop, there isn't an "Off" switch. Word play is something, amazing how much can come across on a cold bright screen. She was shy, in her way, and who could blame her, so many wacko perverts out there online and I could easy be one of them, which of course I am but hey, on with the show.

I wrote what I just did to write this: Joe Frank. Once she found out that I was/am this Joe Frank freak, she opened, as she also is this Joe Frank freak. Point being, Frank facilitated a very important friendship, I on the river here in Austin, she in the mountains in North California.

She has family in Texas -- Alpine, which is sortof what I figure Tucson was 60 years ago; small, college town, set in the desert, and full of desert rats, a breed unto themselves. But she couldn't get past what so many think of when they think of Texas; you mostly have to come here to get it.* She came here, and she's a perfect fit for Alpine, a desert rat to the core, happy in Alpine, happy in her marriage and has this beautiful little girl who's smart as fire is hot. So maybe Joe Frank got Amy to Alpine? I think there is at least some weight in that.
*Listening to Texas music can open you to Texas, if you come to understand that Texas music isn't some asshole in a hat singing Nash Vegas garbage without any heart in it. That's a different topic but an important one, or so it seems to me, but this is supposed to be about Joe Frank, so for once I'll shut up.


Joe Frank, I think he was ten years too soon for the internet, maybe 15 years. Had he offered his shows freely, rather than putting them behind a paywall, I believe that enough ppl would hear him and it'd reach critical mass, and he'd have earned the fame and the money given to stars such that he was. I cannot blame him -- he has this lifetime body of work, and today he'd have to give it away to prime the pump -- the internet has turned everything upside down, you've got to give away to generate a larger fan base, and then the fame comes. Or maybe not, but I've sure thought that since he set it up as he did.

Some of his work is dated now, there were many references to current news bits that were in his time frame that many today wouldn't get.But I think overall the work stands. His shows are just great on long road trips, such as the drive from Austin to Alpine, from the time you're three hours out of Austin you're then in this blasted, heat-baked, lunar landscape, huge skies, vast distances. So set the cruise control and kick back and enter into Frank's crazy, brilliant, dark, savagely funny world.


We sure did lose. But maybe I should concentrate on the other piece: We sure are lucky he was here, and gave of what he did. An outstanding man. A bright star, shining, for over forty years he's been in the crest of the wave that Hesse wrote about in Steppenwolf, and that wave now broken, and rolling back to sea.

posted by dancestoblue at 9:36 PM on January 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

posted by Duck_Lips at 6:38 AM on January 19, 2018

On the Media had a wonderful remembrance of him with RadioLab's Jad Abumrad.

It is a great regret of mine that I only learned about him this year, through broadcasts late Saturday night on WNYC. It's strange, because I am such a fan of radio and of weirdness, and he took the form to a new level. His infleunce is clearly monumental in retrospect.

posted by Miko at 10:25 AM on January 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Joe Frank Signs Off
posted by kliuless at 9:16 PM on January 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

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