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Remembering Peabody Award-Winning Radio Artist Joe Frank


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Many years ago, when FRESH AIR was a three-hour local show with plenty of time to fill, Terry was always happy when some new material was available from Joe Frank, a masterful storyteller whose syndicated radio show Work In Progress was a one-of-a-kind production that defies easy description. Frank died Monday in Beverly Hills at the age of 79. Frank's shows combined interviews, personal monologues, dramas with radio actors - even tapes Frank had surreptitiously recorded of friends, family and strangers.

Ira Glass worked as a production assistant for Frank in the early '80s, and he credits Frank as a major influence on his program This American Life. Terry spoke to Joe Frank in 1989, and they began with an episode of his program called Rent-A-Family, in which a woman named Eleanor phones her ex-husband Arthur, who's remarried. It's one of a series of desperate calls she's made, and Arthur's begged her to stop calling.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) Hello. May I speak to Arthur, please?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Kathy) Eleanor - Eleanor, this has got to stop. I mean, this can't go on. Surely, you're aware of that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) May I speak to Arthur, please?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As Kathy) Eleanor, listen. I understand what you are going through, but what you've got know is that it's not working. None of what you are doing is working.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) May I speak to Arthur, please.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) Arthur, I've been thinking.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) Yeah, what?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) I would like to come and visit with you and Kathy (ph) for a while. Now hear me out. I won't be any trouble. I can do all the things I'm sure Kathy has no time to do because she has her job. And I can cook nice things for you both. And I can clean the house. And I can do the gardening. And I can take care of all of the little things that you don't have time to do or that you don't like to do - you know, Arthur, those things. And I'll stay - I'll stay out of your way. I won't say a word if I'm not - I'll be sort of a housekeeper - a silent housekeeper. You see the thing is that I need - I need a family, Arthur.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) Eleanor, I feel for you. Kathy feels for you. But you got to understand we have our own life. It won't work. How could you possibly imagine that the three of us could share a house together?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) But you don't understand. I could do all kinds of things for you. I could clean the house. I could keep the garden beautiful. And your life would be so much easier. Don't you understand? It would be...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) What you're suggesting is bizarre.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Arthur) It's absurd.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As Eleanor) It could work. It could. It could.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: An excerpt of "Rent-A-Family," written and directed by my guest Joe Frank from his series "Work In Progress," which is produced at public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica and is carried on many public radio stations around the country.

Joe Frank, what's really eerie about that tape is how real it sounds. I'm usually not a really big - real big fan of radio drama. There's something about it that sounds very phony and actorly (ph) a lot of the time. And these sound like real phone conversations - real scary ones.

JOE FRANK: Well, I agree with you entirely about radio drama. And I've never been able to listen to radio drama and believe in the credibility of the performances. And I'm always distanced from it, and it does seem artificial to me. And so the approach that I've taken in all the dramas that I've created is that in fact they're not written. It's not accurate to say it was written by Joe Frank because these are improvisations performed by actors, which are very carefully directed. And what this involves is a great deal of editing because you do a lot of - you create a lot of tape. You create a lot of - you do the telephone calls over and over again. And then I edit them in such a way that I hope creates a credible performance.

GROSS: Well, sometimes you do tell your own story. And I want to play an excerpt of a show in which you did that - at least I assume it was your story. And the show is called "No Show." And do you want to explain what this show is about?

FRANK: Well, "No Show" came out of an experience in which I was - I came into the radio station unprepared to do a radio show. I had had a horrendous week. Everything seemed to had gone wrong that week. I'd had no chance to write or to work on creating a radio program. And so I decided since I had to go on the air, and there was no way of avoiding it, that I would simply explain to my listening audience why I had no show prepared.

GROSS: And one of the many reasons why you had no show, in addition to having been out with a friend till 4 in the morning, having a sick cat, having a lonely friend come over - (laughter) in spite of your asking her not to - you were invited to a dinner party. And you had to go. And this is the part of your program "No Show" in which you talked about that dinner party, which prevented you from producing your program that week.


FRANK: Well, the dinner party that I attended began with a group of people sitting and talking in the parlor living room of a woman's house - of the hostess who had invited us all - eating caviar and sour cream, liverwurst spread and cheese on crackers. And there was a table with a row of wine bottles and some glasses on it. I was compulsively eating the crackers and the cheeses and drinking wine - wishing that I could wake up from this dream, be back alone in my hotel room. But I was also thinking, this is good for you. This is good for you. Get out. Meet people. You could learn something. This will be nourishing. Maybe you can get some good material out of it.

But, you know, it's hard to be a gatherer of material when you find yourself periodically tuning out to what's going on, when you lose track of the conversation, when you suddenly find yourself on Dream Street. You don't have the faintest notion of what anybody is saying - of what's being discussed. You're thousands of miles away. It's like the other people there are on television. They're characters in a sitcom with the volume turned off. And you can see them gesturing and talking and laughing, but you can't hear anything. And you're thinking of nothing. Your mind is in brownout.

And yet I was painfully aware of the fact that to some extent I was on trial. The party was being given - I was told, to my chagrin - in my honor. And everyone else here, I figured, was - were members of the jury. You know, they were all being very nice, and they were being pleasant. But I knew that at the end of the evening when they were walking and driving home with their friends, with their lovers, with their wives, they would discuss how the evening went.

And my name eventually would come up at some point. And they'd say something like he seemed so intelligent, so outgoing on the air. But really he's rather disappointing, don't you think? George was so much funnier. George was so much cleverer. He was so much faster on his feet than Joe Frank was. I mean, did the man say one arresting thing all evening? No, he just sat there listening, laughing at what other people said - trying to avoid the limelight for all he was worth. He's obviously typical of so many performers - shy, neurotically withdrawn.

GROSS: Joe Frank - an excerpt of his program "Work In Progress," which is heard on many public radio stations around the country. Joe, do you really make pacts with yourself to never go out again (laughter)?

FRANK: Well, I don't go out, or I very rarely go out. And I certainly haven't been to a dinner party since the one that I described.


FRANK: And that was at least a year ago. Yes, I remember that party well. And I'm pretty much a loner and pretty much work-obsessed and spent most of my time working or thinking about the work that I'm doing.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you about the work obsession. You have to eliminate a lot of, quote, "real life" to stay home all the time and obsess on your work. Do you think that that kind of real life is sometimes overrated as it's filled with stuff that you don't much enjoy anyways?

FRANK: No. I think I've been caught in a paradox, really, because in order to be able to create compelling radio programs, you have to have some experiences to base, you know, those programs on. And if you live the kind of life that I've been living recently, you're not living yourself. You're just - you're not gathering material from your own life.

So what I have done recently, although I'm going to change that very soon, is I have drawn on the experiences of others. I interview people. I talk to people. People come to me with their stories. And we'll sit late at night for hours in my apartment with a tape recorder rolling. And then on the basis of that extended interview - and some of these interviews will go on for days - radio programs will be created.

But I'm beginning to find this approach too parasitic and not that personally satisfying. So I'm going to go out and begin to live as a normal human being or maybe an abnormal human being in order to gather my own material and sort of create experiences for my radio program out of my own life as opposed to drawing from other people's lives.

GROSS: You know, a lot of your more personal shows deal with fears and insecurities - ones that, you know, we can all relate to. But I wonder if when you take your own insecurities and put them in a kind of persona and make them into an hour radio program, if they're easier to deal with than they are, say, when you're lying awake alone in the middle of the night.

FRANK: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, by using those experiences for radio programs, you transcend them. You almost look for bad experiences or painful experiences. Whatever tragedies might befall you, you can always, right away, think, well, that would make a great story for radio. And so that whatever happens, even if it has a great negative content, even if it's painful - because you can then tell it on the radio and share it with many listeners and move people or entertain people, it then takes on a positive value.

And I remember distinctly that - coming to that revelation a number of years ago when I realized that I no longer wanted to avoid pain - that I could use it in a way that was very productive so that it was easier to experience whatever suffering that came my way.

DAVIES: Radio artist Joe Frank speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1989. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 1989 interview with radio artist Joe Frank. Frank died Monday at the age of 79.


GROSS: I want to play another excerpt from one of your shows. And this is from a program that you did called "Let Me Not Dream." And for this show, you called a lot of your ex-lovers. And explain what this was about.

FRANK: I'm constantly driven by the desire to do something that has never been done before on the radio or to surprise and astonish and amaze my listeners or just to kind of press the limits as far as I can carry them or press them. One thing that had occurred to me was to call up all my former lovers and girlfriends.

It was 11 o'clock in Los Angeles. And all - they were all living on the East Coast because that's where I was originally from. So they - it was late at night in New York and Washington, D.C., which was where they all lived. And I called one after another after another after another and woke most of them up and just told them that I was calling them live on the air and engaged them in conversation. And at the end of each conversation, I sang the song "I Remember You."

GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of this program.


AMY: Hello?

FRANK: Hello, Amy?

AMY: Joe?

FRANK: Yeah.

AMY: Hi.

FRANK: Hi. How are you doing?

AMY: I was asleep.

FRANK: Well, I guess...

AMY: What time is it?

FRANK: Your time - it's probably 2:30 now. Do you know what I'm doing?

AMY: You just finished your show?

FRANK: No, my show is still on.

AMY: Oh.

FRANK: Do you know what that means?

AMY: Am I on the air?

FRANK: That's right. You're on the air now.

AMY: Oh, well, glad I'm so sleepy.

FRANK: That's all right. I just want to sing you a song.

AMY: You do?

FRANK: Yeah. You can sing with me if you want to.

AMY: Oh.

FRANK: You ready? Here we go.


FRANK: (Singing) I remember you. You're the one who made my dreams come true a few kisses ago.

You can sing along if you want to. (Singing) I remember you. You're the one who said I love you, too. I do. Didn't you know...

I remember, too, what distant bells... (Singing) I remember, too, what distant bells...

And stars that fell... (Singing) And stars that fell...

Like rain out of the blue... (Singing) Like rain out of the blue...

AMY: (Laughter).

FRANK: (Singing) When my life is through, and the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all, then I shall tell them I remember you.

I'm going to go away now.

AMY: Was that just for me?

FRANK: That was just for you.

AMY: Oh, that's sweet.

FRANK: Good night.

AMY: Good night, Joe.

GROSS: Well, Joe Frank, I think that was really funny and really cruel (laughter). It's one of the weirdest pieces of tape I've heard. Don't you think it's a little cruel - calling up - wait. Let me just run through the ways (laughter) - calling up old girlfriends, waking them up because it's 2:30 their time, singing a song they don't know and asking them to sing along and then telling them - leading them to believe that they're the only one that you've called to sing "I Remember You" to (laughter).

FRANK: I feel guilty about that program. On that...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: You know, very often, when you do what I do, you...

GROSS: Sell out a friend for a program (laughter).

FRANK: That's - well, I must say that she was the only one who asked me, did you just do this for me? So I only had to lie once. And the - it's true. It was - there was cruelty in doing that. And I sometimes question myself about that particular program. In fact, Let Me Not Dream - I could have repeated it recently on KCRW at a certain point. And I didn't want to do it because I feel uncomfortable with that show. However, on the other hand, it's a program that generated tremendous listener response. People loved it. And I got lots of letters and phone calls and people who wanted cassette copies of the show because they thought it was so amusing and entertaining and original. So you're kind of torn between doing things that may not be very nice sometimes but make really extraordinary radio.

GROSS: You are getting into performing in person now - I mean performing in performance spaces, instead of just on the radio, where you're invisible. And I wonder what it's been like for you to actually, you know, have a body in front of the people who you're talking to. I found myself - that I frequently feel when I meet listeners - that I'm disappointing them, you know, that they've imagined somebody in their mind and that there you are, the real person, and that you're not necessarily going to measure up to who they imagined you were, you know? Do you ever feel that way?

FRANK: Oh, absolutely. But I feel that way when listeners come by the radio station - those avid, slavering, salivating fans with their eyes brightly shining. And they're looking for you. And then suddenly, they see you. And they - and you can see their expressions drop, and their hair seems to lose its luster.

GROSS: (Laughter).

FRANK: And they seem suddenly deeply saddened by seeing you. But the performance that I've been doing at MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is a different experience altogether because in that case, I'm actually in front of an audience of just about 200. And in that case, I don't feel that particular experience because I do a performance which is similar to the radio programs that I present. And the audience seems to enjoy it. But it's not how attractive you are. It's simply that people have a preconceived notion somehow of what you look like based on this voice that they've been listening to maybe for years. And whatever you look like, it's not going to be what they they've imagined.

DAVIES: Radio artist Joe Frank speaking with Terry Gross - recorded in 1989. Frank died Monday. He was 79. Coming up, we speak with Daniel Ellsberg, whose decision to leak the top-secret study of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers is portrayed in the new film "The Post." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANK JONES' "I REMEMBER YOU (TAKE 3)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.