Joe Frank, the acclaimed radio host and producer who created darkly comedic and philosophical narratives, died on Jan. 15 in Beverly Hills. He was 79.
Frank explored existential, spiritual and sexual themes in scripted monologues — delivered in a resonant monotone over hypnotic repeating music loops — and improvised dramatic scenes with actors.
He recorded more than 230 hours of programs for National Public Radio (NPR) and Santa Monica public radio station KCRW, and earned Peabody and Emmy awards. Stations around the country aired his boundary-pushing work. Public radio’s biggest producers, including Ira Glass, creator and host of “This American Life,” cite him as a major influence.
“He would give the actors plot points and then they would perform it over and over with him directing them,” said Glass, who worked as a production assistant for Frank in the early 1980s. “And then he himself would sit in the edit room and edit the reel-to-reel tape … and what came out of it was something that didn’t feel like radio drama but felt way more cinematic and way more alive.”
Frank was born Joseph Langermann in Strasbourg, France, in 1938. He was 1 year old when his Polish father and Austrian mother fled Nazi Germany and moved to New York. His father, a successful shoe manufacturer, died when Joe was 5.
Death was a regular theme in Frank’s work (he once called it “the shadow that hangs over me”) because he was seriously ill for much of his life. He was born with clubbed feet, for which he underwent a number of corrective surgeries and wore leg braces as a child. He was treated for severe scoliosis and kidney failure, and survived cancer three times.
“It made him more ferocious to get his work done,” said Ariana Morgenstern, a longtime KCRW staffer who had a close relationship with Frank. “His body didn’t matter to him. It was his mind that was really important to him.”
Frank died from complications after surgery for colon cancer. Michal Story, Frank’s wife and only surviving family member, chronicled Frank’s final two years of illness on a GoFundMe page that raised more than $124,000 for his medical expenses.
Jewish themes also were prevalent in his work, and his darkly absurd scenes evoked a particularly Jewish form of gallows humor.
In 1995’s “Prayer,” Frank attends the funeral of his Uncle Murray. A rabbi delivers a grandiose eulogy, while Frank remembers the man’s many flaws (“He had breath that could peel paint and pants that he would belt under the armpits.”) We later hear Murray’s wife interrupt the service to berate her dead husband and engage in a screaming match with the rabbi.
In 2000’s “Bad Karma,” Frank attends a dinner party with famous mass murderers, among them Adolf Hitler, who becomes emotional as he describes his favorite book, “Goodnight Moon.”
The spellbinding 2012 program “Dreamers” unfolds through the surreal nightmares of a young Arab suicide bomber, an ultra-Orthodox American who joined the Israeli army and renounced God, and a Christian pastor on his first trip to the Holy Land.
And in 2013’s “A Hollywood True Story,” a screenwriter finds himself at a Buddhist meditation retreat at Auschwitz in an attempt to advance his career in Hollywood.
While radio was his storytelling medium of choice, Frank had a literary pedigree. He studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop and taught literature and philosophy at Dalton, an elite Manhattan day school, for a decade.
He began his radio career in 1976 at WBAI in New York with experimental, free-form stories. Two years later, he was hired to co-host “Weekend All Things Considered” at NPR, and ended each hour with a provocative five-minute monologue that humorist and former KCRW host Harry Shearer described as “like a fist coming out of your radio.” Only three months later, Frank switched to producing radio dramas for NPR.
In 1986, Ruth Seymour, KCRW’s then-general manager, offered him a Saturday night radio show and he relocated to Los Angeles, quickly earning a cult following among listeners.
In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” in 1989, Frank explained that creating radio programs helped him transcend his fears and insecurities.
“Whatever tragedies might befall you, you can always right away think, well, that would make a great story for radio … so that it was easier to experience whatever suffering that came my way,” he said.