On Joe Frank’s hallucinogenic journeys

Written by

I got to work with Joe Frank as a recording engineer and mixer in the mid-1990s. By this time he had already created award-winning audio masterpieces. Stories so intimate they felt like they were being told inside your own head, telephone conversations that seemed so personal you feel guilty for listening.

The 80-Yard Run was the first Joe Frank program I ever heard. It was produced back in 1977. It confused me and scared me a little, because while it was hypnotizing, it was also unsettling. Part of it seemed like autobiography, part of it was about boxers of the 1950s, and the end just spun off into a surrealistic dream. In other words, it had some of the same elements that Joe continued to perfect during his decades of work.

I know that Joe didn’t like The 80-Yard Run very much. His is voice higher than his later shows, the sound mix isn’t always perfect, and Joe even takes a break to get a cup of tea halfway through. But I like the roughness of that very early episode. It shows Joe’s creativity while it was still percolating, while he was still getting a handle on what he was doing.

By the time I worked with him, Joe crafted each episode like he was composing music. His hypnotizing written monologues, the dark and hilarious conversations with his collaborators (created by editing hours of inspired improvisation) it was all pushed forward by the galloping rhythms of Joe Frank’s trademark music loops.

Much of Joe’s work was done in the pre-digital era, so audio-editing which is done effortlessly on a computer, had to be created in weird ways with a reel-to-reel tape machine in the studios. Everything was much more hands-on. An audio loop was literally a loop; a long string of analog recording tape was strung around the studio, curving around mike stands and then reconnecting to itself as it played a continuous musical drone on the tape machine. As long as the machine was on, the loop could play for hours. We would live-mix different rhythms in and out of that drone, and could change its musical key by raising or lowering the speed of the tape machine.

With his program Joe created a new way of using music on the radio, it set the tone for his stories, created the imaginary world  that became the setting. The momentum that comes from the music is why Joe Frank programs always feel like you’re going on a hallucinogenic journey.

I created my own program UnFictional with a foundation of knowledge and inspiration gained from my years as a fan and colleague of Joe Frank. He was extremely conscientious about every detail of his program, he wanted it to be perfect; weird and well written, emotionally riveting and hilarious, and unlike anything you’ve heard. I am honored that Joe was able to produce some of his final work for UnFictional. And I’m especially gratified to hear from people discovering Joe for the first time, who are now ready to dig deep into his vast archive of unforgettable stories.

Listen to Joe Frank on Unfictional 

(Photo: Joe Frank, courtesy Michal Story)