You don't have to close your eyes to appreciate Joe Frank's dense audio universe cascading out of your radio. It helps, though, because there are so many layers--of sound, of philosophy, of reality--coursing through his dramas.
Come to think of it, after a while, you won't want to close your eyes, because in Frank's short stories for radio, the tension and pathos are as enveloping as they are intriguing. Each time you think you've caught a thread, he'll put a surprising twist in it. Call him an audi-O. Henry.
Starting today, eight of Frank's dramas will be nationally broadcast as part of National Public Radio's "NPR Playhouse." While Frank is a Washington-based producer, only two of his programs will be carried locally, by WAMU on April 23 and 30. (WAMU has broadcast some of the other programs previously and its format only allows room for two.) Another problem, according to "Playhouse" producer Mary Lou Finnegan, is the complexity of Frank's work. "People have to learn how to hear Joe's work. Only people who are accustomed to complex sound could listen to Joe and not be baffled, because there are a lot of layers in his work. It requires media sophistication on his part, and the listeners' too."
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.
To hear "Decline of Spengler" (winner of the Broadcast Media Award for Best Dramatic Program of 1982) is to enter Frank's view of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's painful yet exhilarating search for immortality; it is also to be trapped in an Escher maze where passageways and story lines are constantly disolving. The dramas, usually 30 minutes long, are emotional investigations--not the common fare for radio, even public radio. For instance, "Questions" deals with "the philosophical riddles of free will and determinism," according to the program notes; while "The Queen of Puerto Rico" is about "a young man's voyage of self-discovery and his awakening through hidden truths and inner peace."
Because Frank is a storyteller using so many levels of sound, "you really need to listen to each story more than once," says an NPR producer. "You either like or hate it; you may not want to work so hard; people will like some shows but not others. But you won't be bored. There's something so real, so recognizable about the characters he creates . . . you know them, you become interested in what happens to them. There's a quality of compassion in Joe's storytelling; he knows the human heart."
Frank, now 38, was a teacher before he went--late in the game-- into radio. He designed his own courses for private school students in existentialism and "The Human Condition." "It embarrasses me to think I used that title," he says now, somewhat sheepishly, "but I did; it was a study of various writers and philosophers and their view on what the human condition was. People said that to take my course was to contemplate seriously the question of whether one should continue living or not. The material was serious but the approach was, I hope, entertaining." That philosophy extends, too, to his radio dramas.
"But I wasn't satisfied with teaching," Frank says in his wonderfully radiophonic voice, "and I was sort of looking around. I'd been moved by some of the things I heard on the radio, particularly on WBAI. People were doing things that I had never imagined." WBAI is New York's Pacifica station where "everything was permitted. There were enormous excesses, so that it was both terrible and wonderful, depending on who had the access."
It was on WBAI that Frank first heard Firesign Theatre and Bob Fass, who had a late Saturday night show integrating music and people talking, "using ambient effects in very original and interesting ways, all done live on the air. I'd never heard anything like it and it just opened my imagination. I began to think of myself in terms of being a late night voice."
Frank started at WBAI in 1976 as a volunteer, then became an occasional announcer, taking over for other announcers when they were sick or didn't show up. Eventually he got his own heavily improvisational comedy show, "In the Dark," which ran Saturdays from midnight to five in the morning.
He came to Washington in the fall of 1978 to host the weekend edition of "All Things Considered," but that didn't last long. "I thought it was going to be entertainment-oriented, and that's why they had hired me. 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." Frank did one on fast-food restaurants, "an evocation of what they're about and what they suggest about American culture. It was a serious, striking piece of writing that prompted 300 letters. But the show's producers felt that a host shouldn't have opinions."
After leaving "ATC" in the spring of 1979, Frank produced six specials under the name "Movie for Radio"--an apt description of his technique--as well as the Armstrong Award-winning "Death of Trotsky." He confirms a fascination with Bergman and Fellini, with Eastern European literature. "A lot of the stuff I do has a very dark, comic character to it." Some of his earlier work gave greater vent to certain obsessions, which now have been more subtly assimilated.
"There's a lot in my programs about Nazism, oppression, degradation, that sort of thing. My family came over from Europe; we were survivors and to some extent that affected some of my early thinking about life, particularly the realization that when I was young there were people in this world who wanted to destroy me and my people. It was a very powerful thing to live as a child and know that there are people who want to kill you and who succeeded in killing a lot of your family."
Five of the eight programs originally were produced at KCRW in Los Angeles (they have been sonically upgraded for "NPR Playhouse"), according to Frank, who writes all the scripts. He works in the studio with professional actors who sometimes contribute "structured improvisations" on his scripts; it can take up to two weeks to produce a 30-minute drama.
His is a challenging style of radio, Frank admits. "But I think most people are not only willing to listen hard but are exhilarated by it. There's a real audience dying for something more than they're getting, even if they don't know it. When they do hear it they're very struck by it. The response has been really remarkable wherever it's played. It's a curious thing--we get good critical response from listeners, but program directors and station managers are very resistant to this kind of radio. They're afraid that it's too provocative, and they're 'concerned' about their listeners."
Frank, who thinks of himself exclusively as a radio artist, not as a writer, adds that "audiences need this sort of thing. Where else are they going to get it? It's enriching if a person starts re-evaluating or starts thinking more deeply about his or her own life. If in any way it stimulates some more serious examination or deeper emotions or thoughts, that would seem to me to be a positive thing."