A passing of one of radio’s last geniuses

“Joe Frank is what radio in its wildest dreams wishes it could be,” Harry Shearer said of Joe Frank, who died yesterday at age 79, leaving behind a few inspired people who remain in the business.

Frank, who hosted Weekend All Things Considered for a time in the ’80s, experimented with what radio could be at a time when people could, especially on public radio.

“I thought it was going to be entertainment-oriented, and that’s why they had hired me,” he said of NPR around that time. “But our signals were crossed–they wanted a host for a news program but I wasn’t equipped to do that, I wasn’t interested in day-to-day events. But at the beginning, they allowed me to do a short essay at the end of the show, four to six minutes on subjects of my own choosing.”

He produced hundreds of programs for NPR Playhouse, and his monologues on the radio — New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans — showcased the beauty of the medium where intimacy came from the edge of its geniuses and always in the dark, which was the name of his show.

“Beneath every surreal flourish is a search for something to believe in, a yearning for love, a quest for self-acceptance, LA Weekly said of him in a 1978 review.

Here’s an example.

Think a radio station would ever bite on this idea now?

He was an audi-O. Henry, the Washington Post said in 1983.

Because no one else in radio is doing what Frank does, it’s easier to describe his approach by pointing out cultural kin. He travels in the emotional landscape of Bergman and Fellini; there’s a tension and sense of mystery halfway between Kafka and Chandler, plot twists worthy of Rod Serling, and a satiric edge worthy of Firesign Theatre and Woody Allen. “Sales” probably is Frank’s most accessible piece, an elliptical love story for the ’80s in which love blossoms long-distance only to wilt in the cold light of proximity. In this exploration of the nature of fantasy and romance, there is one voice (Frank’s) leading the narrative, two central characters weaving in and out of each other’s needs, a half-dozen supporting characters fumbling around the action and subtle washes of sound and music lapping against the story-line. It’s all pulled together seamlessly; as with a good mystery, you won’t want to turn it off until it’s run its course.

His introduction to the medium was classic old-school radio. Inspired by a baseball broadcast, he gave radio an edge because he figured why not? There was no one listening.

“I particularly loved listening to baseball because the announcer wouldn’t just say, ‘He hit the ball to third base.’ He’d talk about the history of baseball, the weather, the lives of the different players — it was like being with somebody I liked. So I started thinking about being on the radio myself,” he told LA Weekly in 2008.

“During the mid-’70s there were several people doing interesting work at WBAI, in New York, and I heard they were short of engineers so I got my FCC license and started engineering programs for them,” he continues. “It turned out that I was pretty good at editing, so in 1976 I was given my own show, from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., every Tuesday. I figured nobody was listening at that hour so I felt free to do whatever I wanted, and that was the beginning of the idea of telling stories on the radio. The show was well-received, so they moved me up to Saturday night.”

He left radio in 2002 the way most people do. He was fired.

Frank, whose family fled the Nazis, had his first bout with cancer at 20, and it was unrelenting for much of his life.

“I’ve heard people say they’re not afraid of death but I never believe them — I don’t even believe religious people aren’t afraid of death,” he said. “When a pope dies, people grieve. If they believed what they claim to believe, they would be celebrating the fact that the pope has gone to heaven. And the pope doesn’t want to die, either.”