On Joe Frank and his transformative work

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On Monday, January 15, 2018, Joe Frank left this world.

Those of you who knew and worked with understand that a true original is gone.

For those who don’t know his work, Joe Frank was a description all his own.

His work transported you into a place that made you question where you were and what time it was. It was like nothing else on the radio.

I had the gift of working for Joe Frank some 25 years ago. I transcribed his voluminous phone calls, which were the basis for his pieces. The best of the conversations would end up woven together, with his resonant voice layered thick with audio processing, into a story that was mostly bizarre, sometimes creepy and often poignant.

He followed a similar method of preparation for each show he created. He would design scenarios then have collaborators around the country contribute to them in a kind of telephonic improv. He taped every phone call, so when you called him you realized later that you could end up being transcribed by someone like me.

When you spend so many hours listening to someone’s voice, thoughts and conversations, you feel like you know them better than even their friends know them. As an eavesdropper I had the chance to analyze Joe Frank as a person and an artist.

Joe was remarkably conventional in real life even though his work was anything but. He was kind and funny but mostly focused on his work.

The themes of inadequacy, humiliation, insecurity and neurosis that plague us all at various points in our lives ran through all of his work. He gave a voice to the one that circles around in our heads. His obsession with these themes came from his childhood. His family survived Kristallnacht, fleeing the Nazis and relocating to New York.

From his birth with a clubfoot to cancer in his 20s and then again in his 50s, mortality was a constant companion. He spent a lot of time obsessed with spirituality, too.

I remember him talking about the popular notion that having a good attitude had some contribution to surviving cancer. He found that concept silly and knew that positive thinkers died and suffered just like the most miserable among us.

Like all great artists he was a perfectionist and worked late into the night to get everything exactly as he heard it in his head. KCRW engineers painstakingly helped him cut tape and get the sound he wanted, often working into the early morning hours.

His perfection was maddening to those of us who had to meet his standards. But he taught me how high your standards could be and how to work like hell to get there.

KCRW was his home from 1978 – 2002. He has inspired so many in public radio today. I’m sorry he’s gone.

(Photo: Michal Story)