An Interview with Joe Frank
When you meet people you’ve heard only on the radio, you’re often disappointed. They don’t look the way you think they should, and, as irrational as it is, you fault them for it. Often when I meet people who’ve heard me only on the radio, my first impulse is to start apologizing. But seeing Joe Frank in person for the first time was different. It was about a year ago, at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan. Now in his seventies, he was shaky as he walked up the mild ramp to the stage, while the room, filled with old friends, lovers, colleagues, and young radio nerds, was putting off a reverent, almost churchy vibe. Depending on how he moved under the stage lights, I sometimes saw him as a young man, other times as an old man. Throughout, his voice was strong.
It was while working at This American Life that I was introduced to Joe Frank. Ira Glass, who got his first job in public radio working for Frank, gave me some of the CDs from Frank’s shows, which aired for sixteen years on KCRW, out of Santa Monica. One of the CDs was a rambling, spellbinding monologue about, among other things, boxing, bullfighting, and an anonymous sexual encounter in a movie theater. But what especially stands out in my mind all these years later is how, at a certain point, he interrupted himself to go get a cup of tea. It felt funny and alive, casual and confident. I didn’t know you could do such things on the radio.
Joe’s work in many ways ran counter to the philosophy at TAL, which held radio as a didactic medium, one in which you took people by the hand and led them along, telling them what they were going to hear and what to make of what they had just heard. With Joe’s stuff, the listener felt dropped into another world and left to figure it out. Whereas at TAL we scored pieces in order to create a sense of narrative, Joe’s music was often a repeating loop—deceptively simple, highly manipulated—that would sometimes persist the entire hour. In combination with his voice, the effect could be mesmerizing and hypnotic, like a spell being cast. At TAL, radio was treated with an almost religious devotion. It was a time when eating leftover Indian takeout at your desk at 10 p.m. and scoring a story until midnight was seen as normal and natural. It wasn’t just that people, possibly over a million people, would be listening to each pause and music cue, but that these things were important in and of themselves. You were imparting meaning, and you had to make each breath count. For me, the fact that Ira had started out with Joe Frank felt like a connection to some great tradition. Frank loomed as Yoda to Ira’s Obi-Wan.
In Joe, I saw that you could be on the radio, laboring under weekly deadlines, but still be an artist: that there was room for something more private-sounding, conceptual, and just plain odd. His dramas did not telegraph their dramahood. His shows walked the line between nonfiction and fiction, and you never knew which was which. Even when you knew it was fiction, it felt like he was getting at something true.
In this landscape of podcasts (which I love), Joe’s two-hundred-odd hours of radio stand apart. For an art that is ephemeral, a medium mostly used to keep you company in the car or on a treadmill, Joe’s work exists like a sacred text cut from granite.
I. ALIMONY PAYMENTS
THE BELIEVER: How’s your day been?
JOE FRANK: It’s just beginning.
BLVR: Did you just get up?
BLVR: Why 9:35 instead of just 9:30?
JF: Because I take meds at 9:30.
BLVR: Oh, OK.
JF: So I might want a few minutes to think about my illness. No, just joking.
BLVR: And you moved recently?
JF: Yeah. I didn’t live that far, but I moved. I lived roughly a mile away and now I’m in a new apartment. That happened because I recently got married. We both lived in separate apartments for many years and then decided to move in together, so she gave up her small apartment, I gave up mine, and we moved into a pretty spacious place here.
BLVR: You guys have been married some time, right?
JF: We’ve been together for probably around nine years, but we just got married in May.
BLVR: Have you lived with someone before?
JF: I haven’t lived with someone since I was first married, which was when I was twenty years old. We were married for almost three years. Turned into a very horrendous alimony situation. Because I didn’t want her to be nervous about finding another husband or being on her own and having no money, I made the blunder of signing an alimony contract that entitled her to alimony until she was remarried.
BLVR: How long was that until she remarried?
JF: Well, at the time that we split, our tacit understanding was that once she found her footing and could make her own living, or married again, this arrangement would stop. As it turned out, this went on, I think, for seventeen years.
BLVR: Seventeen years!
JF: It became a very unhappy, contentious relationship, because I remember—not frequently, but periodically—calling her and saying, you know, “This is really unfair. This is a betrayal of our understanding as far as I’m concerned.” So we had a lot of arguments. This is in the way of explaining why I took so long to get married again.
II. THE MIME
BLVR: My work in radio is in a similar territory as yours—there’s a kind of bleed between fiction and nonfiction. Radio is such a kind of newsy medium, and people take what they hear at face value. Have you had frustration about not knowing how to take your work?
JF: It doesn’t concern me at all. However the audience responded, that was fine with me. Of course, there were people who didn’t understand it, who found it offensive. I always considered them limited. I considered people who didn’t like my work to be in some way defective, deficient, lacking a sense of humor, and not understanding what was really going on. I’m exaggerating when I say “defective,” OK?
BLVR: So you never found it a drag to have to slot yourself into one category or the other—nonfiction, fiction?
JF: Well, the fact is, I’ve done whatever I wanted to do on radio. That’s what KCRW permitted me. Whatever occurred to me that I found interesting, I’d just go ahead and do it. There was this guy, Arthur Miller—not the playwright—he was really smart, and he had a very deadpan sense of humor. I had a show at the time at WBAI and I invited Arthur to appear on it pretending to be a famous mime on tour across the United States. So he came into the studio and we discussed the history of mime, and he sounded completely legitimate. Then I asked him, “Well, if you’re going to be doing a show at Carnegie Hall, perhaps you would like to do something for us?” And he said, “Well, there is a piece, it’s not too long, that I think your audience would appreciate. It’s one of the more popular pieces that I do.” Then there was dead air for about a minute. Of course, the phone lines lit up. Some people were outraged. They couldn’t comprehend how on the radio you could have a mime perform—so there was that body of people. Then there was another body of people who thought it was the funniest thing they had ever heard. It didn’t matter to me. In a way, it was actually better that people were outraged. I mean, if everyone had been in on the joke, what kind of joke would it have been?
BLVR: The story is so apocryphal. A minute of radio silence is so long, but I’ve heard versions of it where it was ten minutes, or half an hour.
JF: No, no, no. That would have been completely nerve-racking to me. A minute—I don’t even know if it was specific. It might have been forty-five seconds, but you’re right, in radio terms, that’s interminable.
BLVR: If you were to unpack that story, do you think there’s a metaphor buried there for what you do on the radio? The idea of performing something that doesn’t literally translate, or isn’t a proper fit?
JF: A while ago an anonymous person nominated me for a fellowship, and the consequence was that the fellowship committee sent me a number of questions about my aesthetic, about what I was trying to do in radio, a bunch of questions that I found impossible to answer. I thought, I don’t have an aesthetic, a philosophy. I found it extremely troubling, and I wanted to say to them, “Listen, you listen to the work and you decide whether you want to support it. But don’t ask me why I’m doing it, because I really do not know the answer.”
BLVR: Were there ever any radio people who you emulated?
JF: No, and I found it extremely annoying when somebody would say something like “You seem to be influenced by Ken Nordine.” And I didn’t even know who Ken Nordine was. I never thought I resembled anybody. I might have resembled some of the people I was reading—that probably is true. I remember reading Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky’s book, and I identified so much with that alienated character. I read a lot of European literature, a lot of Kafka.
BLVR: I can see that.
JF: You develop a sensibility when you’re a young child. Some people say your personality is formed in the first three, four years of your life. Well, in the beginning of my life a number of things happened. First, I was part of a family that escaped the Holocaust. Left Germany in 1939, which was, like, eight minutes before the war. I was born with clubbed feet and I had a number of major operations, and I lived with casts on my legs for a while. So I ended up with calves that looked like a polio victim’s—very thin, like broomsticks. And I had scars on my feet as a result of these surgeries. I was very self-conscious about those things. Add to that, while I was going through those surgeries and then wearing braces and being pushed around in a wheelchair, my father was dying of kidney failure. I had also watched my mother and father’s relationship deteriorate to the point where they did not speak. He refused to talk to her, because she was having an affair with a friend of theirs. So you grow up in that environment… it’s enough to be crippled, but to have a father who’s dying, who you’re frightened of because he had palsy and his hands would shake… just the fear of him. He also had a large vein in the back of his hand, a blue vein, and I imagined that it was a blue worm under his skin.
BLVR: He sold shoes, right?
JF: That’s right. He was an industrialist in Germany. Very successful. I actually came across photographs of his factories, which were monumental—just amazingly large facilities, as large as two, three blocks. They had smokestacks. After he passed away, he became a figure of great interest to me, so I learned about how he started in poverty in a small village in Poland, and eventually became this big-time entrepreneur. I once asked my mother, “Was he brilliant? How did he do it?” And she said, “He surrounded himself with extremely good people. Extremely capable people.” And that was really a revelation to me, because that’s exactly what I did. For what it’s worth, I would say that my work would not be remotely what it’s become unless I’d been surrounded by the people I was surrounded by, who were enormously talented in different ways.
BLVR: What do you look for in a performer, in a partnership? Do you have to like the person?
JF: Well, they have to have great improvisational skills.
BLVR: That piece where David Cross played the black preacher—how much did you record? What was the ratio?
JF: Probably twenty minutes for eight minutes. And he, by the way, was very disappointed by the fact that I reduced it to eight minutes. He said, “Hey, man, there was a lot of good stuff in there! Why?” But I’m very careful about those things. I want only what really is terrific and nothing less.
BLVR: Do you have training as an actor? Have you ever taken any improv classes?
JF: No. I hate all that stuff. When I went to the University of Iowa in order to be a writer, I thought, This is the worst way to learn how to write. To sit in a room with a bunch of would-be writers, who want to write the Great American Novel, every one of them, and you read their stories and they read yours, and you’re not living a life. I don’t like that. I like learning on the job. The character of my work has definitely evolved from the character of my life.
BLVR: How do you feel about the term radio drama? Do you consider what you do to be radio drama?
JF: No, I don’t. I remember a moment—I was driving in my car and a radio drama was in progress. The moment I heard it, I knew, This is a radio drama. These are actors reading scripts! This is bullshit! I didn’t even want to listen to it. I thought, I would never want to do anything resembling this kind of work. What I want to do, and this is a big word, is transcendent stuff. Material that is unscripted.
BLVR: Had you not discovered radio, do you think you would have been satisfied being a writer?
JF: No way. I tried, but the problem is that there was no audience. There was no deadline. You were writing in a vacuum, a void. You might show it to two friends, but what did they know? The most important thing with radio was there were people to play to, to entertain. They would be looking forward to the next show—it was very motivating. And you had a weekly broadcast, so you had something to look forward to as well. If I had been doing radio without an audience, if I’d just had a tape recorder at home and I’d been doing monologues and there was nobody to listen to it and no deadline, that would have died fast.
BLVR: Do you feel your work on the written page is not fully realized? You wrote a book of short stories, Queen of Puerto Rico—
JF: I’m glad you mentioned that. I hated that book.
JF: It just didn’t play. If you took any of my radio shows and you took the music out of them, they wouldn’t be remotely the same thing. Music is really important.
BLVR: How deep in the game was it before you started using music?
JF: I always used music—from the very beginning. I felt it was almost as important as the dialogue, to what was going on dramatically—that driving rhythm. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find music that would carry the show. And delivery was really important. The early part of my career, I don’t remember what kind of mic it was, but I insisted that the bass be emphasized more. Then, at a certain point—I don’t want to bore you—
BLVR: No, I find it so interesting. I remember hearing you speak about Dolby.
JF: Yes, I recorded a monologue in Dolby and then relistened to it in non-Dolby, and I was so astonished with the sharp, deep sound. It did create some problems, a lot of popping, so I had to spend a fair amount of time editing those pops out. But it was, to me, well worth it. The consequence was brilliant, because my voice took on a real edge that it never had before. For as long as it was available to me, I used it, and people were quite impressed. When I met people in person, they would be appalled at the disparity between what I really sounded like and what I sounded like on the radio.
V. THE SETTLEMENT
BLVR: Some time ago, this woman reached out to me. She claimed to have been an intern of yours. She described one of her jobs as—you had given her tapes of conversations that you had had with girlfriends, and she would transcribe them and give them to you, and from there you would do a paper edit to see if you wanted to re-create them with actual actors. Is that so?
JF: Well, I recorded lots of conversations. Not just with women, but in general, and very often I did not tell the person I was doing it, because I knew that would change the character of the conversation. I wanted—you know, truth. One time I went down to Florida—my stepfather was dying—I went down with a hidden tape recorder to record conversations with my mother and him, the whole visit.
BLVR: With the intention of recording it for broadcast?
JF: No, to have it transcribed and then tell the story. It was actually very useful in a psychological way, because it gave me some distance from what was happening. If I hadn’t done it, I probably would have been dragged into it more and would’ve suffered. But I was much more balanced. If something happened that was particularly compelling, I’d think, in a sort of cynical way I guess, Wow, I’m going to be able to use this. The transcript was as thick as War and Peace. I read a portion of it once, and I thought: This is very banal. And I put it down. I never used any of it.
BLVR: Do you let people know afterward that they’ve been recorded?
JF: No. Actually, there was a woman that somebody suggested I meet, because he thought maybe the two of us would hit it off. And she was very clever and very interesting, so I started recording our conversations. I recorded hours and hours, then I gave them to a transcriber, so I had, you know, a book. But it turns out I didn’t see anything that I could use. It wasn’t as interesting, as clever, as I had thought.
BLVR: Was it one of those things where everything a person is saying is so inherently interesting because you’re falling in love with them, but when you subject it to the scrutiny of objective transcription, it can’t possibly live up to that?
JF: Well, I’d never seen her, so if I’d seen her and she’d been beautiful, it might have been the way you just described it. But I mistold the story. I never actually read the transcript. And this woman became a friend. She came out to L.A. and we hung out, and I wanted to have an honest and truthful relationship with her. So we were at dinner and I said, “I want to tell you something.” And I told her about recording all of those conversations and having them transcribed, and I said, “I thought it would be really interesting for you to read it, because it’s like a historical document.” And before I got any further, she was just livid, furious that I had taken advantage of her. And she said, “I want to read that immediately.” So we left the restaurant in the middle of the meal and we went back to my house. I pulled the thing out and she began to read it. Thing is, I didn’t know this transcriber had added her own commentary to the transcription—“What an idiot!” “Oh, she’s trying so hard.” You know, very disparaging remarks.
BLVR: That’s horrible.
JF: Horrible. And I didn’t have any idea that they were in there. So this woman really went off. She went back to New York and decided to sue me, got an attorney, and I had to settle this lawsuit. The funny thing—or the ironic thing—is when I told her, I was well intentioned. I told her because I didn’t want there to be any secrets between us. And I thought, Well, it will be very interesting for her to read it. Boy, did I make a mistake.
BLVR: If someone had told you that they had been secretly recording their conversations with you, what would your feeling have been?
JF: Anger. Great anger. Oh, I would have been really pissed off. I would have been as angry as she was.
BLVR: So why were you surprised by her response?
JF: I don’t know. I was obtuse.
BLVR: Did you feel that your stake, as the artist, was different? That it was sort of like a gift to them?
JF: That I’d record their—
JF: No. I didn’t think it was a gift to them at all. I thought of it as a gift to me.
BLVR: Do you find when you’re recording yourself that it brings out your better self? Or brings about a different kind of self-awareness?
JF: I never thought of it as a revelation to myself. I just thought, This would make good radio.
BLVR: Is that the bottom line—“It’s going to be good radio”? Do you feel like that justifies the means?
JF: I’m beginning to feel like a criminal being interviewed. [Laughs] But you’re right, the ends do justify. I did sometimes quote people, but I did it in such a way that I changed the details so it wouldn’t be obvious. But the bottom line is, yeah, I did do that. And I did it for the work. For the art, however you want to put it. For the radio programs. And I don’t regret it for a second, because some very good radio programs came out of that, and those people were not harmed, as far as I know. But I would say, Jonathan: stop at nothing to get the best work that you can get. Betray, violate, cause enormous harm. If you can get the program, if you can get it right, go the distance. [Laughter]
BLVR: OK, I’ll take that to heart.
JF: You’ve got to destroy a few lives on the way to where you want to get.
VI. LINE READINGS
BLVR: Something like a Rent-a-Family, what does a script like that—
JF: Don’t say “script”! That was not scripted.
BLVR: OK. So the scene where the woman is calling up her ex-husband and trying to make a case for how she can come live with them, and it’s heartbreaking and filled with so much desperation and pathos—how did that work?
JF: I knew that I wanted the ex-wife to express desperation, and I wanted the ex-husband to first be disconcerted, then annoyed, then furious about it. And I wanted the new wife to be in the background, aggravated by this situation and very angry at him. So those were the parameters, and it was a legitimate phone conversation. What I mean is, the actor was in Washington, D.C. The woman in the background was his wife, and the actress I was working with was in Los Angeles. I was a silent partner in this. You know, I would interject—“Don’t do that, do this.” And they were absolutely wonderful. I mean, every one of them—it just came out great.
BLVR: Did you ever have them repeat certain lines because you didn’t like their reading of a particular line?
JF: I wish you wouldn’t say “line readings,” because that’s so alien to what I was doing. These were people who were making it up as they went along.
BLVR: Right, right. And you knew what you were driving toward?
JF: Yes. I knew that it was going to get worse. Dramatically, you have to take it somewhere. And these things take days to edit, because when you’re working with actors and they’re improvising, and you’re trying to make something that’s really coherent and tight that moves, and you do scenes over and over and over again, sometimes you’ll do four takes of something, and there are two or three lines in the first take that are great, and three or four lines in the second take that are great, and from each of these you take the best line, and that’s no easy thing.
BLVR: Are there any podcasts you listen to these days?
JF: I’m embarrassed, but I don’t do that, because I’m just technically incompetent.
BLVR: Do you have any thoughts about them?
JF: How can I know? I listen to Ira’s show on and off, because I think they do the best work there is in that form. But This American Life has inspired this proliferation of programs where people tell their stories, and I think it’s gotten—there’s too much of it. I find it annoying, because it’s very uneven. Now it just seems like everybody’s telling a story, and it’s beginning to sound narcissistic, and I’m thinking, Who gives a shit about your story? You’re just another person telling your story. How many do we need?
VII. BEING OLD
BLVR: In an interview you did with Salon, you said, “The kinds of questions I was interested in—All Things Considered didn’t address questions like ‘Why are we here? What is the nature of God?’” Do you think that there’s room for these kinds of questions in the world of radio broadcast, or in the media these days?
JF: Well, media is a big word. Certainly it’s not being addressed on All Things Considered [which Frank briefly co-hosted], and it shouldn’t be. It’s not in their purview. I wasn’t blaming All Things Considered—I was just thinking, This is not where I belong, because it’s addressing world events. It’s not addressing universal questions.
BLVR: You have also spoken a lot about death—you called it “the shadow that hangs over me.” In recent years, have your feelings about death changed?
JF: No. It’s about being in a race with time—just having a strong sense of mortality, and the idea of, How much time do you have left? How do you want to spend it? What I always come up with is: keep on writing, keep on working. But you can become sterile. It’s become a matter of trying to find inspiration someplace outside of my own head, which I’ve been using exclusively for too long. When I was doing my show, I was feeding off the stories people told me, or phone conversations, or the creativity of actors. I was using what came my way—which I guess is what any artist does. But when you’re older, and you’re enfeebled to a certain extent, you can’t get out into the world. You don’t have that many experiences. And because you’re hobbled, how much can you write about?
BLVR: Well, are there things in your life that, uh—
JF: —well, there is one thing. But how much mileage can you get out of it? It’s the business of being old. And the humiliations of being old. I had an experience a long time ago—ten, fifteen years ago—when a bunch of teenagers were in a car and driving kind of recklessly, and they passed me and cut me off or whatever, and at a certain point we ended up at a red light next to each other, and I called out to them something disparaging, and they responded by calling me an old man. You know, “Hey, old man!” I remember being appalled—and that was, you know, well over a decade ago. So now I’m compromised in certain ways. You’re in a position where you feel impotent, in a way. You’re dependent on other people. You’ve been seriously ill, and anything can happen to you because you feel fragile. Things humiliate and embarrass and eat away at your pride. You remember how you used to feel when you were young and you would see old people, and you remember how unattractive they were to you, and how you would help them if they needed your help but you didn’t want to be around them much at all. They were not like the myth that old people are wise. When I was young, I thought you had nothing to learn from these people. They’ve become narrower in their thinking, they become boring, more self-involved, whatever. And here I was finding myself an old man and feeling very much diminished by it. Being an old man, what can you do? Are you going to open your car window at the light and say, “You realize that you did such-and-such?” How are you going to back that up? What if the guy gets out of his car? There’s something about the feeling that you can’t stand up for yourself any longer. I would try to work my way around this—how could I deal with people? It was like wanting to be powerful. You lose all your power, but you don’t feel comfortable that way. You want to get your power back, but how can you get it back? Well, being on the radio is one way.