An Interview with Joe Frank

When you come face-to-face with someone you have only heard on the radio, it rarely lives up to your expectations. It’s almost like they have to apologize for not being who you thought they would be.

However, my experience with Joe Frank was different. A year ago, I had the opportunity to see him perform at the Metropolitan Pavilion in Manhattan, and the atmosphere was almost holy. He was in his seventies, yet his movements and voice still had the power of a young man.

I was introduced to Joe Frank while I was working at This American Life. It was Ira Glass who, having gotten his first job in public radio working for Frank, gave me some of the CDs of shows that had been airing on KCRW in Santa Monica for sixteen years.

One of the CDs had a monologue that talked about boxing, bullfighting, and a mysterious sexual encounter at a movie theater. What I remember most from this experience is how, during his talk, he took a break to go get a cup of tea. It was funny and natural, casual and confident. It was the first time I had ever heard of something like that being done on the radio.

Joe’s work was in stark contrast to the philosophy of TAL, which viewed radio as an instructive tool, leading the audience by the hand.

Joe’s pieces were often quite different; the listener was dropped into a world where they had to figure it out for themselves. Whereas TAL’s pieces were scored to create a narrative arc, Joe’s music was often a loop that would repeat for the entire hour, accompanied by his voice.

The effect was enchanting, and the importance of the craft was held in high esteem. It was normal to stay late at the desk, working on a story until midnight. Knowing that millions of people were paying attention to each pause and music cue, it was essential to impart meaning with each breath.

The fact that Ira began with Joe Frank felt like a connection to a grand tradition; Joe Frank was like Yoda to Ira’s Obi-Wan.

From Joe, I realized that it is possible to be an artist while working under tight weekly deadlines on the radio; there is space for something more intimate, out of the ordinary, and conceptually intriguing.

His works did not reveal their drama right away. His shows blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction, making it impossible to tell which was which. Even when it was known that it was fiction, it seemed to be conveying a deeper truth.

Among the plethora of podcasts that I adore, Joe’s two-hundred-plus hours of radio are unique. In a genre which is typically fleeting, and mainly used for mundane tasks such as driving or exercising, Joe’s production is akin to a holy scripture carved in stone.

According to Jonathan Goldstein, _________.


Payments related to divorce are often referred to as alimony, but may also be known as spousal support.

Have you had a pleasant day so far?

Joe Frank commented that the start was only just beginning.

Have you arisen from sleep already?

JF: Indeed.

BLVR: Why is it 9:35 instead of 9:30?

John: I have to take my medication at 9:30 in the morning.

BLVR responded with an acceptance of the situation.

JF: I’m only joking; I don’t need a few minutes to ponder my ailment.

BLVR inquired whether the individual had relocated recently.

JF: Yeah, I changed residences. I used to be located about a mile away, but now I’m in a different apartment complex. This was a result of my recent marriage. We had both been living in separate apartments for a long time. We eventually opted to move in together, so she gave up her small place and I did the same, and now we’re living in a much roomier spot.

BLVR inquired as to how long the couple had been wed.

JF: We have been a couple for nearly a decade, but we only made it official and said ‘I do’ in May.

BLVR: Is this your first time living with another person?

JF discussed his experience of living with someone since he was twenty. The marriage lasted for three years, but ended in a difficult alimony situation. To make sure his ex-wife would not be worried about finding another spouse or being financially unstable, he regrettably agreed to an alimony contract that would give her money until she was remarried.

BLVR: For how long was it before she tied the knot again?

When JF and the other person parted ways, it had been understood that once she was able to support herself financially or remarried, the arrangement would end. It ended up continuing for a total of seventeen years.

BLVR: A span of seventeen years!

JF spoke of the relationship between them becoming very unhappy and contentious, recalling the phone calls where he would express his feelings of it being unfair and a betrayal of their understanding. This led to many arguments, which is why it took him so long to get married again.


BLVR: My tasks in the radio world are somehow comparable to yours–there’s a kind of merging of make-believe and truth. Radio is a medium that is steeped in news, and people typically accept what they are hearing without question. Have you ever experienced difficulty in deciding how to classify your work?

JF commented that he was not affected by the audience’s reaction. He stated that there were people who didn’t appreciate his work and he jokingly referred to them as having “some sort of deficiency or lack of a sense of humor.” He further clarified that he was exaggerating the term “defective.”

BLVR: Did you ever find it tedious to classify yourself into either a nonfiction or fiction writer?

JF made clear that KCRW gave him free reign to do whatever he felt would be interesting on the radio. He had a show on WBAI and invited Arthur Miller, who was not the playwright, to appear and pretend to be a famous mime on tour in the U.S. They talked about the history of mime, and Arthur seemed completely credible.

When asked if he would perform something for the audience, he agreed and then there was a minute of dead air. Phone lines lit up with people who were both outraged and amused. It didn’t matter to JF, though, since it was actually better that some were angered by the joke. He pointed out that if everyone had understood it, what kind of joke would it have been?

It’s hard to believe that BLVR could’ve gone on for a full minute without any sound. I’ve heard tell of some versions of the story that extend that silence to ten minutes, or even a half hour!

JF expressed that the thought of having to wait even forty-five seconds would have been very intimidating for them. That amount of time, though not technically considered long, is seen as an eternity when it comes to radio broadcasting.

BLVR: Is there a metaphorical connection between your radio work and the story you just shared? Could it be that you are metaphorically performing something that does not translate literally or is not a perfect fit?

JF: Recently, I was anonymously nominated for a fellowship and the fellowship committee sent me a variety of questions concerning my aesthetic, my goals in radio and other inquiries that I found difficult to answer. I couldn’t explain my aesthetic or philosophy and I wanted to tell them, “Just listen to the work and decide if you want to support it. Don’t ask me why I’m doing it because I don’t know the answer.”


Smokestacks are often referred to as chimneys, and they are used to expel smoke and other gases from a burning fuel source. The gases are diffused and dispersed into the atmosphere through the stack.

Did you ever take any radio personalities as your role models?

JF expressed his irritation when people assumed he was influenced by Ken Nordine, a figure he was previously unaware of. He admitted he may have been influenced by the authors he was reading, specifically citing Notes from the Underground by Dostoyevsky and Kafka. He identified strongly with their characters, feeling he was in some way similar to them.

BLVR: It’s evident.

JF recounted a number of formative experiences from his early life. He recalled that his family had escaped the Holocaust in 1939, and that he had been born with clubbed feet and had undergone a series of operations, leaving him with thin calves and scarring on his feet. He also mentioned his father’s deteriorating health due to kidney failure and the fact that his parents did not speak, as his mother had an affair with a friend of theirs.

He further elaborated on the fear he held for his father due to his shaking hands and a blue vein in the back of his hand which he had imagined to be a blue worm under his skin. All of these experiences had shaped his sensibility as a young child.

BLVR: Would it be correct to say he was engaged in the business of selling shoes?

JF shared with me the story of an industrialist in Germany that he had researched. Photos of the massive factories, spanning two or three blocks, with smokestacks, had piqued his interest and he learned of the man’s humble beginnings in a small Polish village. When I asked my mother if he was brilliant, her response was that he had surrounded himself with talented people, which made a huge impression on JF. He confessed that his work wouldn’t be what it is today without the people he had the privilege of being surrounded by, all of whom were incredibly talented in various ways.

BLVR: What criteria do you consider when choosing a performer to collaborate with? Is it important for you to be fond of the individual?

JF emphasized that excellent improvisational abilities are a necessity.

BLVR: How much footage was captured for the part where David Cross portrayed the African-American pastor? What was the ratio of recording?

JF commented that it took him twenty minutes to get his presentation down to eight minutes, and he was not pleased about this. He said to JF, “Hey, there was a lot of great content in there, why did you cut it down?” JF responded by saying that he is very particular about what he includes, only making sure that the best material is featured and nothing else.

IV. Dolby Sound

The fourth point in our discussion is regarding the Dolby sound system. This sound system has been created to give users a better audio experience. It has been designed to produce high-quality sound for films and television programs. Dolby sound has become an integral part of the entertainment industry, providing a better listening experience for viewers.

BLVR: Are you experienced in the field of acting? Have you ever participated in improvisational theater classes?

JF: Absolutely not. I completely detest that kind of stuff. When I was at the University of Iowa to become a writer, I thought to myself, This is the least effective method of learning how to write. Everyone in the room wanted to compose the greatest American novel and we would read each other’s stories and share our own. That isn’t living a life. I’m not a fan of that. I prefer to learn while doing the job. The quality of my work has definitely changed as a result of the experiences in my life.

What are your thoughts concerning the expression radio drama? Do you see the work you do as such?

JF recalled a moment while they were in their car and listening to a radio drama when they instantly knew that it was “bullshit”. They had no interest in participating in something like that and preferred to work on something that was more “transcendent”, or in other words, not scripted.

BLVR: Had it not been for your invention of radio, would you have been content to continue as a writer?

JF: Absolutely not. I gave it a shot, but the problem is that there was no one to witness it. There was no due date. Writing in an empty space, a gap, felt meaningless. Even if two friends was the only ones to view it, what would they really know? The most essential factor with radio was having an audience to perform for and to amuse. This anticipation for the next episode was a great source of motivation. Furthermore, when there was a weekly broadcast, you had something to look forward to. If I had tried to do radio without any spectators, if I’d just had a tape recorder at home and I was creating monologues without anyone to listen to and no timeline, it would have fizzled out quickly.

BLVR: Are you of the opinion that your writing has not been accomplished to its potential? You composed a book of short stories, Queen of Puerto Rico

JF: I’m thankful you brought that up. That book was not to my liking.

BLVR: What is the reasoning behind this?

JF stated that if the music was removed from his radio programs, they would be entirely different. He noted that music is vital.

BLVR: At what point had you already gotten involved in the game before you began to incorporate music?

JF shared that music had been integral for him since the outset, as he thought it was nearly as necessary as the dialogue for the dramatic impact. He devoted an extensive amount of effort to seeking out the perfect tunes for the show. Furthermore, he also stressed the importance of delivery, noting that during the early parts of his career, he made sure to emphasize the bass more. Lastly, he jokingly added that he didn’t want to bore the listener with details.

BLVR expressed their interest in the topic and recalled listening to a presentation about Dolby.

JF: After I recorded a monologue with Dolby, I listened back to it in non-Dolby and was amazed by the sharp, deep sound. However, there were a few pops that I ended up having to edit out, but the result was worth it. My voice had a new edge that it previously lacked. Whenever I used it, people were quite impressed. Even when I met people in person, there was a stark contrast between how I sounded in reality and what I sounded like on the radio.


The settlement was reached, bringing a resolution to the matter. It provided an answer to the problem and brought an end to the dispute.

BLVR: Not long ago, a woman got in touch with me. She alleged to have been one of your interns. She indicated that her duties included transcribing tapes of conversations that you had with your girlfriends, and then handing them over to you. After that, you would go through the transcripts and decide if it should be recreated with professional actors. Is this accurate?

JF: I recorded a lot of conversations without notifying the other person, as I wanted to capture the truth. For example, I went to Florida when my stepfather was on his deathbed, taking a hidden tape recorder in order to document the conversations I had with my mother and him during the visit.

With the aim of saving it for transmission?

JF commented that having the events that transpired transcribed was extremely beneficial for him psychologically because it created a certain distance for him. He mused that if he hadn’t done that, he would have most likely been pulled into the situation more and suffered more. He noted that it allowed him to view everything in a more balanced way, and with a slight cynical attitude, he thought that any particularly compelling moments would be useful for his writing. He mentioned that the transcript was as thick as War and Peace, and after reading a portion of it, he concluded that it was quite banal and decided not to use any of it.

Do you inform individuals after the fact that their conversation was taped?

JF shared that someone recommended he meet a woman and that she was quite bright and intriguing. He then proceeded to document their conversations for many hours, had it transcribed, and ended up with a book. He found, however, that there wasn’t any material he could use, it wasn’t as fascinating or witty as he had believed.

When someone is so captivating in conversation that it feels like you’re falling in love, yet the written transcript fails to convey the same level of interest, does that happen to you?

JF: I had never seen her before, so if I had and she had been beautiful, it might have been like you said. But my story was not accurate. I never actually read the transcript. We became friends and she visited L.A., then one day at dinner, I let her know I had recorded our conversations and had them transcribed. I said it was like a historical document. Before I could get any further, she was extremely angry that I had taken advantage of her, and demanded to read the transcript right away. We left the restaurant and went back to my house. Unbeknownst to me, the transcriber had added her own comments–like “What an idiot!” and “She’s trying so hard.”

BLVR: What a dreadful thing.

JF recalled a rather unpleasant situation. He had no knowledge that the woman in question had read a certain document, but when he found out, she went back to New York and got a lawyer to sue him. The irony of the situation, he said, was that he had been intending for her to read it with no hidden matters between them, but obviously it had backfired.

BLVR: If you had been informed that someone had been recording your dialogues without your knowledge, how would you have reacted?

JF: Extremely angry. Absolutely livid. Had I been in her position, I would have been just as enraged.

BLVR: What was it that made you taken aback by her answer?

JF: I was being unclear.

BLVR: Did you have a distinctive sense of responsibility in your role as the artist, such that it felt like a present to the audience?

JF said they wanted him to capture their–

BLVR affirmed with a yes.

JF commented that they weren’t considering the present to be for the recipient, but instead, for themselves.

Do you notice that when you record yourself, it helps bring out your best self or does it create a different type of awareness of yourself?

JF confessed that the idea of making a radio show never occurred to him as a revelation, but rather just as something that would be good on air.

In the end, is the aim of creating good radio the only justification for the means?

JF: I’m starting to feel like a criminal being questioned. [ Laughs ] But it’s true, the results do make up for it. I did quote people, however I twisted the details in order to not be obvious. But what it all sums up to is that I did it, and I did it for the art, the radio programs, and all that. And I don’t regret it even for a second, since some really good radio programs were created from it and no one was hurt, as far as I know. All I can say is, Jonathan: don’t hold back if you want to get the best work you can get. Break the law, violate, and inflict harm. If it’s for the program and it’s done with accuracy, go for it. [ Laughter ]

BLVR: I’ll take that into consideration.

JF remarked that in order to ultimately reach one’s goal, it sometimes necessitates a few people having to suffer.


BLVR: What would a screenplay with a concept similar to Rent-a-Family look like?

JF: Don’t even think of the word “script”! That was not something that was planned out beforehand.

BLVR: Alright, so how did the scene in which the female character was ringing up her former spouse go, imploring them to allow her to reside with them? It was an incredibly poignant and sorrowful moment, full of destitution and emotion.

JF: My plan was to create a phone conversation where the ex-wife was desperate and the ex-husband had a progression of responses, starting with disconcerted, then annoyed, and eventually furious. The new wife was supposed to be in the background, perturbed by the situation and angry with him. These were my parameters and the actors were able to realize this goal exceptionally. I would provide direction, such as “Don’t do that, do this,” and the cast members were incredibly talented and it worked out brilliantly.

BLVR: Have you ever asked the actors to redo certain passages because the first delivery of the dialogue was unsatisfactory?

John Fonda expressed that he didn’t like the term “line readings” because that’s not what he was doing. He believed that the actors were inventing their performances as they went along.

BLVR: Correct. Did you have a clear idea of where you were heading?

JF: Yes, I was aware it was going to be a challenge. You had to take it somewhere. Editing these takes requires days of effort as you are dealing with actors who are improvising. To make a coherent and tight film, you have to do the same scene multiple times, and pick out the best line from each take. This can be quite difficult.

Do you have any podcasts that you’re keeping up with currently?

JF: I’m ashamed to say that I’m not proficient in that area due to my lack of technical knowledge.

BLVR: What is your opinion of them?

JF: How can I tell? I listen to Ira’s show periodically, because I find their work to be the best of its kind. That being said, This American Life has spurred a wave of programs where people narrate their experiences, and it’s become a bit of an overkill. It’s not particularly consistent and I find it irritating, as it just seems like everyone is talking about themselves and I can’t help but think, “Why should we care?” A lot of these tales are redundant. How many do we really need to hear?


The process of aging is something that happens to everyone, and it can be both a blessing and a curse. Although it is inevitable, it can be a time of both joy and sadness. As we age, we gain wisdom and experience, but we also lose physical strength and energy. It can be a time of reflection and contentment, but also of loneliness and despair. Despite the challenges, it can be a period of growth and development for those who embrace it.

In a Salon interview, you were quoted as saying, “Questions such as ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What is the nature of God?’ were not being addressed on All Things Considered.” Do you think that it is possible to incorporate such queries within the realm of radio broadcasts, or even across the media today?

JF: While it is true that media is a broad concept, it is not something that is intended to be addressed on All Things Considered [which Frank had a short stint as co-host], and that is completely understandable. I was not pointing a finger at All Things Considered – my thought was more along the lines of, This is not the right place for me to be, since it deals with international happenings rather than global inquiries.

BLVR: How have your views on death evolved over the last few years? You’ve mentioned it previously as “the shadow that hangs over me.”

JF expresses that feeling of racing against time and wanting to spend the time left wisely. To do this, he has been writing and working nonstop. However, he is concerned that this can be limiting as he is relying too heavily on his own ideas. When he was doing his show, he was taking advantage of any creative experiences that came his way. But now that he is older, his life is more limited and he worries that this will constrain his ability to write.

BLVR: So, do you have elements in your life that, uh–

JF: –there is indeed one thing to consider, but it’s difficult to make much of it. It’s the reality of growing old and the humiliation that comes with it.

I recall a time around ten to fifteen years ago when a group of teens drove past me and then cut me off. We ended up at a red light next to each other, and I said something to them, but they simply called me an old man. I was aghast. I’ve been ill and feel vulnerable. I’m now in a position where I’m dependent on others and my pride is constantly being attacked.

I remember being young and seeing elderly people and being disinterested in them and not seeing them as having any wisdom. Now, I’m an old man myself and feeling powerless. I can’t confront these people and I want to regain my power, but how? Being on the radio was an answer to that question.

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