Joe Frank, Spinner of Strange Radio Tales, Is Dead at 79

Joe Frank, Spinner of Strange Radio Tales, Is Dead at 79

2018-01-20 05:16:12

And, with exacting — sometimes maddening — workmanship, Mr. Frank edited and scored his programs as if they were films.

Ira Glass, the host of the NPR show “This American Life,” said in a telephone interview that Mr. Frank had been more comparable to movie auteurs from the 1970s than to storytellers like Jean Shepherd and Garrison Keillor. Mr. Frank’s tales, he said, threw listeners “into a gritty world where it won’t all come out so clean and the moral lines won’t be clear. And it will be a little philosophical.”

He added, “He was a mind-expanding example of what the medium could be, in all its power, that nobody else was doing.”

During one of his shows, Mr. Frank called former girlfriends on the East Coast late in the evening — guaranteeing that he would rouse them from sleep — to sing “I Remember You” to them.

“Was that just for me?” one of his former exes asked. Assured that it was, she said, groggily, “That was sweet.”

When Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” interviewed Mr. Frank in 1990, she called the encounters with his former lovers “really funny and really cruel.” Mr. Frank said he had felt guilty about waking them and inviting them to sing along with him. But, he said, the show was a hit.

“You’re kind of torn between things that may not be very nice but make really extraordinary radio,” he told Ms. Gross.

Mr. Frank was born Joseph Langermann on Aug. 19, 1938, in Strasbourg, France. His father, Meier, was a Polish-born shoe manufacturer in Nazi Germany, and his mother, the former Friederike Passweg, was a homemaker. The family fled Germany in 1939 and settled in New York City.

But Joseph had club feet and needed corrective surgery. His parents’ marriage was deteriorating, as was his father’s health. His father died of kidney failure on the day of one of Joe’s operations.

“So when I came home, my mother lied to me and told me that my father had gone to Boston on business,” he told Slate in an interview conducted last summer and published after he died. “I was five and a half.”

After his mother remarried, he took his stepfather’s surname.

“I think he was plagued by themes of inadequacy and insecurity, and a search for meaning that began in his childhood,” Jennifer Ferro, the general manager of KCRW, said in a phone interview.

He attended Hofstra University on Long Island — he said he cheated on the entrance exam — and spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but did not get a degree. In his 20s, he learned that he had testicular cancer. It was followed in later years by bladder cancer and two bouts of colon cancer. He also received a kidney transplant and had scoliosis.

He taught English and Russian literature and philosophy for 10 years at Dalton, a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and then promoted musical acts in Massachusetts. Listening to the radio during rides between Manhattan and Northampton made him think about changing careers.

“The radio became a real comfort and companion on those drives,” he told LA Weekly in 2008. “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.”

He found work at WBAI, a noncommercial station in Manhattan, as an engineer and host of an overnight show, on which he began to tell stories. They caught the attention of National Public Radio, which hired him to host the weekend edition of “All Things Considered.”

He did not last long at the job; he told Salon in 2000 that it had impeded his ability to pursue existential questions like, “If nature is bred with tooth and claw, is human compassion just an anomaly?” But he managed to produce meticulously produced free-form segments that mesmerized Mr. Glass, who was an intern.

“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t understand why this is affecting me this way, but I want to learn how to do this,’ ” Mr. Glass said. “Certain things he did, like the way he holds back information — he tends to throw you into a story in the middle of a dream and in the middle of a plot you have to figure out where you are and learn your way forward.”

Mr. Frank was hired by KCRW in 1986. He won a Peabody Award five years later.

But he was fired in 2002 in a dispute with the station’s general manager. He then built a website and subscription service and started performing at clubs and theaters. He also wrote short essays, which he posted on Facebook. He returned to KCRW for a few years but left in 2015 when his health began to fail.

Ms. Story — who met Mr. Frank during a KCRW pledge drive in which she critiqued his on-air work — is his only survivor.

Life, Mr. Frank once said in a monologue, is like being in a restaurant on a first date with a woman you’ve long admired. But “there is a waiting list and the names will be called in alphabetical order — and your name is Zarathustra.”

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