Dark Matter: The radio art of Joe Frank

Joe-Frank-tapes-crop.jpgPhoto: Joel Bellman

In one of his last interviews this past summer, the late radio dramatist Joe Frank confessed that he couldn't "remember a thing" from the six years he spent living in Washington, D.C. before moving to Los Angeles to join KCRW.

Selfishly, I was relieved. That meant he'd also forgotten about the time I dumped his drink in his lap when we first met at a Georgetown bar.

The year was 1982. A year or so earlier, I had just started my first professional radio news job in Los Angeles, and a close friend who shared my passion for radio casually asked if I'd heard of this guy Joe Frank--"you might find him interesting." A handful of Joe's early shows had aired nationally on NPR, but back in those pre-digital days, "downloads" were marketed in the form of audio cassettes, each in its own clamshell case. In for a penny, in for a pound, I ordered the whole batch.

My literary taste has always leaned toward the dark and weird, having been raised on horror and science fiction in movies, short stories, comic books--as well as the medium of radio drama, which had captivated me ever since I'd first heard rebroadcasts of "The Shadow" back in the mid-1960s. As an English professor, my dad had exposed me from an early age to Poe, Kafka, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and all the great British ghost story authors, many of whom had been effectively adapted for radio during its pre-television "Golden Age."

But when my NPR cassettes finally arrived, nothing had prepared me for the hallucinatory world of Joe Frank. It was as if he'd absorbed all the classic literary influences I loved, applied the most sophisticated and imaginative radio production techniques I admired, and conjured up a shadowy realm of free-associative aural nightmares.

As musical trance-loops droned in the background, Joe's narrator, speaking in an even, sonorous monotone, would begin his tales conventionally enough. But before long, his voice might take on a new urgency, even a barely controlled hysteria, as he recounted increasingly absurd, bizarre, and frightening scenes with clinical precision. As things increasingly spun of control, listeners would quickly find themselves plunged into a world of incipient madness, careening from deadpan humor and twisted erotica to desperate confessionals and despairing existential debates.

I knew I had to meet this guy, and it wasn't long before I found my opportunity. I was scheduled to travel to D.C. for a conference, and knowing that Joe was living there, got his number, called to introduce myself, and we agreed to meet. The bar was a dark and crowded yuppie hang-out; I spotted Joe off in a corner, his drink set on a small three-legged table. After navigating through the crowd, I leaned in to shake hands--and immediately upset the table, spilling the drink all over him. Not five minutes in, and I was already beginning to feel like a character in one of his radio plays.

Despite my disastrous first impression, Joe kept in touch. A couple of years later, a package arrived in the mail; I opened it to find a signed copy of a new prose anthology, which included the transcript of Joe's 1983 radio play, "The Decline of Spengler." But I found the most exciting news in the index card he'd tucked into the flyleaf: "Dear Joel," it read, "I'll be coming out west in February for a series of 12 one-hour live programs on KCRW, with original music by a band I'm working with here in D.C." It was to become the most celebrated and productive phase of his long radio career.

Shortly after Joe's move to Los Angeles, we got together again for dinner. At some point in the conversation, I mentioned Martin Scorsese's then-current film, "After Hours," a black comedy that I imagined Joe could easily have written. Well, he said--he sort of had. A friend of his had seen it, and reported back to him, "Did you know they stole your work and turned it into a movie?" When Joe went to see for himself, he was shocked to discover that fledgling screenwriter Joseph Minion had lifted the first 20 minutes or so of his script for "Lies" (a 1982 Frank radio play) almost verbatim. "And the crazy thing is, the guy was a big fan of mine," Joe told me. "I have letters from him telling me how much he loved my work." Warner Bros. hastily settled Joe's inevitable lawsuit, which kept him solvent for the next few years, and whose non-disclosure agreement kept the whole matter safely under wraps.

In 1988, I found an excuse to interview Joe for a local public-affairs program I was hosting on KPFK. The topic was talk radio, a populist phenomenon whose dark side had recently been explored in a controversial Oliver Stone film. I asked him the reason for its exploding appeal.

"Because of the anonymity, because visually you can't be seen, you're not known, it gives you a certain kind of freedom that you wouldn't have otherwise, and so that you can say things, and reveal yourself in ways that you wouldn't perhaps be otherwise willing to reveal yourself," Joe explained. "And of course there's also the element of voyeurism, people who listen and enjoy a certain kind of voyeuristic pleasure, particularly if you're listening to a program of a psychological nature, where people are talking about their marital problems, or problems in their love relationships, or whatever."

And beside the prurient hosts, there were the others, the outrageous and abusive: "I think that's appealing because the listener can vicariously enjoy it," he told me. "We all feel anger, we all feel rage, and we all want to be outrageous, and we all want to be lawbreakers, and we all want to be reckless criminals. We want to do things we can't possibly do. The hosts of these programs, in a sense, they're the lawbreakers, and they do things we can sort of vicariously appreciate and enjoy because we're not doing them. If you live in a world in which frustration is a good part of your life, and you have to repress or suppress a lot of your own emotions, then it's liberating on some level, again vicariously, to be able to see somebody else do it."

Despite forays into stage performance, a printed short story collection, and periodic attempts to adapt his work for film and television, Joe's medium would always be radio. It was there he returned again and again, struggling mightily in recent years against mounting health problems. In the theatre of the mind, after all, the only artistic constraint is the writer's imagination, and Joe's was thoroughly unbridled, running wild and free throughout several hundred programs across nearly 40 years. He was, as many have written, "an acquired taste," but for listeners with an adventurous palate, he created a singular body of recorded work that will stand with the finest radio dramas--indeed, the finest literature--our world has produced.

Sample or subscribe to Joe's work at: https://www.joefrank.com.

Previously on LA Observed:
Joe Frank, RIP

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