There were times when Joe Frank’s radio show turned unnervingly confessional, segments when he patiently explained why he had written no material for that week’s broadcast: His cat of 14 years had died, he had been invited to an endless, anxiety-inducing dinner party, and his health had slipped once again, following a childhood case of clubfeet and an early diagnosis of testicular cancer.
Other weeks there were interviews, slow-burning conversations that blurred the line between fact and fiction. Mr. Frank called a crisis hotline to ask a counselor how she dealt with tragedy and trauma. He spoke with a purported mime, discussing the history of the art form before inviting the performer to “do something for us” on the air — and after a minute of complete silence, declared that something wonderful had occurred in the studio.
Mr. Frank, who was 79 when he died Jan. 15 in Beverly Hills, Calif., spent a career pursuing what he called “transcendent” material, stories that delighted and entertained legions of dedicated listeners while confusing countless others who were more attuned to the staid bandwidths of news and classical radio.
His acolytes included storytellers such as David Sedaris and Ira Glass, who worked as a production assistant for Mr. Frank in the early 1980s and credited his unorthodox narratives as major influences on the radio program “This American Life.”
“Joe Frank was the first time I heard radio narrative,” Glass told the NPR program “All Things Considered” after Mr. Frank’s death. “I just remember thinking, like, I don’t know what this is, but I can’t stop listening. All I want to do is just know what’s going to happen next.”
From 1986 to 2002, when Mr. Frank’s close-to-the-microphone baritone reached a national audience through syndicated programs at the Southern California station KCRW, what happened next was entirely unexpected — resulting in what comedian and radio host Harry Shearer once likened to “a fist coming out of the radio.”
Mr. Frank hauled a bathtub into the recording studio, dined on potato chips and dialed a phone-sex line while reclining in the water. He played lecture excerpts by Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, interrupted monologues to pour a cup of tea and experimented with music samples from soul master James Brown and composer Steve Reich. Late one night, he called his former lovers live on the air, encouraging them to join him in the jazz standard “I Remember You.”
He was imaginative even in pledge drives, once offering a “Vietnamese monk’s self-immolation kit, which comes with a can of gasoline and a pack of matches” as a thank-you to high-paying donors, the website Salon reported in 2000.
“I’m constantly driven by the desire to do something that has never been done before on the radio, or to surprise and astonish and amaze my listeners — just to kind of press the limits as far as I can,” Mr. Frank told the NPR program “Fresh Air” in 2003.
Although Mr. Frank’s stories and improvised sketches sometimes plunged into the surreal and absurd — one segment described a dinner-party conversation between Pol Pot, Mao and Hitler over the proper arrangement of flowers at a wedding — they were frequently drawn from life, inspired by surreptitious tape recordings that Mr. Frank made of friends, family members and strangers.
Mr. Frank was adamant that such methods were justified, so long as they were done in the name of art. But he also described a therapeutic aspect that resulted from his radio stories, a sense of healing that occurred when he adapted aspects of his childhood escape from the Holocaust or the health troubles he faced in adulthood.
“Whatever tragedies might befall you, you can always right away think, ‘Well, that would make a great story for radio,’ ” he told “Fresh Air.” “It was easier to experience whatever suffering that came my way.”
Joseph Langermann was born in Strasbourg, France, on Aug. 19, 1938, to a Polish shoemaker and a Jewish mother from Vienna. The family fled in advance of the Nazi German invasion and settled in New York City, where Joe had leg operations and wore braces and casts to treat his clubfeet and support calves that he described as being skinny as “broomsticks.”
The younger Mr. Frank (who took the last name of his stepfather) was a poor student, and said he was accepted to Hofstra University only because he cheated on the entrance exam. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, Mr. Frank attended the distinguished Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught at the private Dalton School in Manhattan.
His love of radio began a decade later, after he quit teaching to become a manager for musicians and started listening to broadcasts while commuting to work. Drawn to the digressive style of baseball announcers, he volunteered at Pacifica’s WBAI radio station in New York and in 1977 was given his own show.
Remarkably, within a year he was offered a job co-hosting the weekend edition of “All Things Considered.” It was a plum position that Mr. Frank soon quit.
“The kinds of questions I was interested in [‘All Things Considered’] didn’t answer,” he later told Salon. “Why are we here? What is the nature of God? If nature is bred with tooth and claw, is human compassion just an anomaly?”
Mr. Frank directed and performed on programs for the radio-drama series “NPR Playhouse” before coming to Santa Monica-based KCRW in 1986.
He received a Peabody Award in 1991 for his show “Joe Frank: Work in Progress,” which later evolved into the programs “In the Dark,” “Somewhere Out There” and “The Other Side,” and in 2003 was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival.
Survivors include his wife of six years, Michal Story of Beverly Hills, who said Mr. Frank had recently undergone surgery for colon cancer.
In recent years, Mr. Frank produced segments for the KCRW show “UnFictional” that recalled his earlier skits and interviews.
“Sometimes I feel like a voyeur into people’s lives. Even listeners might feel that way,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “But it’s not voyeurism. Because when you look into the life of someone else, you see what you share with them. You see your own reflection.”