Wide Angle

Joe Frank Signs Off

The radio legend helped make Ira Glass, Jonathan Goldstein, Harry Shearer, and Alexander Payne the artists they became. Before he died on Monday at age 79, he had one last story to tell.

Joe Frank. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Michal Story.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Michal Story.

Joe Frank has been dying his entire life, but this time he seems to mean it. We’re sitting in his apartment in Los Angeles in the summer of 2017, eating raspberry squares with Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream, and he’s wearing loose-fitting jeans, in case he has to make a run for the bathroom. He is 79, with congestive heart failure and bowels so unpredictable that he seldom leaves the house. I look at his bookshelves, notice a favorite book of mine, Arthur and George, by the English novelist Julian Barnes. I ask if he’s read it. He hasn’t.

“As I near extinction,” he says, “I am not going to spend another day or an hour reading something. I would rather try to write.” I ask if he really thinks of it that way, that he has to conserve his time because he has so little of it left. “Absolutely. I have been very sick for many years in different ways, and was supposed to die on a number of occasions.” And on Monday, he finally did.

In this conversation, by turns bleak and macabre, cryptic and suspenseful, Frank demonstrates why you haven’t heard of him but why you’ve heard people who have. Frank is the ultimate acquired taste, and it doesn’t really matter if you acquire it; the right people do. Since the 1970s, Frank’s radio broadcasts, mixing scripted drama, improv comedy, and conversation have always been right-place, right-time affairs; it helps to have a friend with bootlegs. His brew of fiction and nonfiction, cruelty and self-laceration, and taboo-smashing riffs on sex, religion, and scatology have been controversial since his New York debut 40 years ago. But as Frank races illness to produce a final work, he could take some comfort (although he doesn’t) in his important fans. For when you ask the innovators of our new, golden audio age—Ira Glass, Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment, Jonathan Goldstein of Heavyweight, many more—how they found the courage to innovate, they speak of Joe Frank.

Glass, in fact, makes it sound as if This American Life would not have existed without Joe Frank. In 1979, the 20-year-old Glass was detailed to Frank’s short-lived NPR show as a production assistant.* One of his first days on the job, Glass heard Frank recording a narration. “I had never had that experience, listening to the radio that was that good, that I had to know what was going to happen next,” Glass says. “And I remember feeling, ‘Whatever this is, I want to know what this is.’ ”

As Glass tells it, it was 20 years before he felt he’d learned enough to do a show like Frank’s. When he did, the trick was to learn from Frank without imitating him. A lot of good radio is worth copying, Glass says. Terry Gross’ longform interviews, for example, are widely copied, and rightly so. “You can break it down into parts and say, ‘Here’s how she does that.’ ” Or his own This American Life, for that matter: “Our show is deeply imitable. You can name the parts, and people can knock it off, and should if they like it.” But not Joe Frank. “He invented an aesthetic, and he fulfilled it.”

Frank took risks in radio that nobody has taken since. In his early piece “The 80 Yard Run,” one of Glass’ favorites, a cockamamie picaresque about a football dash, with detours including sex in a movie theater, Frank, the narrator, pauses for refreshments. “I felt everything I understood about radio was broken in an instant,” Glass says, “when he said, ‘I am going to fix myself a cup of tea, and be right back in a moment.’ And there is this break”—Frank walks away from the mic, and the listener waits as he makes tea. So you can see why Glass thinks he may be Frank’s “little grandkid, or nephew, or something,” but not his heir. Frank has no heirs.

“I have been very sick for many years in different ways, and was supposed to die on a number of occasions.”
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Michal Story.

Frank’s shows are, paradoxically, supremely vulnerable and supremely confident. They are about despair and impotence, made by someone obviously in control. But Frank has been fighting infirmity since birth, so this is aspirational art, a Proustian decathlon of the bedridden. Frank was born with club feet, and that was the good news: Of his testicles, one was unusually small, and the other, undescended. A childhood nanny would threaten him with enemas. A cast left one leg permanently withered and his mother permanently ashamed. “She did not even want to celebrate Mother’s Day,” Frank tells me, “because it was not a happy day for her, having given birth to a child who was deformed.”

When Frank was 20, he got testicular cancer in his remaining, withered testicle, and was saved by a brutal regimen of cobalt radiation. Later he got colon cancer, and then, in his sixties, kidney failure. In 2006, he got a donated kidney from his first cousin, who charged him for it.** His colon cancer is back, and when I interviewed him over the summer, he was preparing for another operation, which he had in October.

So Frank’s been thinking about death. He wonders where his body will be found. “Am I going to fall off the toilet and be sprawled on the tile with my glasses somewhere, and my book on the floor? Am I going to be in the kitchen reaching for a plate in the cabinet?” He lives on the second floor, with a plant-filled balcony overlooking Darlington Avenue, in Brentwood, and while he lacks the courage to jump, he thinks he has a way around it. “If you stood on the other side of the room, assuming I could run, go fast enough, get enough steam going so you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to, then maybe you could pull it off.” But of course he can’t run. He can barely walk without a walker. He has thought of signing out a Rent-a-Wreck and driving it into a bridge abutment, wearing a T- shirt on which is written, “i want to die!,” so that the paramedics won’t waste their energy.

But Frank actually wants to keep living his miserable housebound life. He takes pleasure in his raspberry squares, in his Häagen-Dazs, in Silicon Valley and Better Call Saul and the company of his wife, Michal Story. He wishes that he were better known, but at the same time he is reasonably content being one of those known unknowns. Fame would be nice, but what he really wants is to keep working. And all this morbidity is, as ever, good for his art. He has been making notes for a new piece. The piece would air on KCRW, the Los Angeles public radio station that brought him west in 1981 and still recycles his greatest hits during the off-hours. He hasn’t made anything new since 2015, and he’s due. He doesn’t say this work will be his last, and I don’t ask. I just ask what it’s about. He says it’s about his own decay.

“I’ve been having some trouble with my bowels for some time now,” Frank says. “So I have lost some control. Anyway, I had canceled twice on a friend because of this problem. And he would take me out to lunch at the Peninsula Hotel,” a swank place on Santa Monica Boulevard, in Beverly Hills. Finally, he and the friend, Mike Meloan—a writer/landlord/aerospace engineer; the kind of gorgeous weirdo Frank collects—had their lunch. But Frank was still feeling terrible. “I had already checked out the distance from the table to the men’s room, trying to determine, ‘Am I ever going to be able to make this distance, if I have to go?’ ”

Fortunately, his bowels held up. But on the way out of the restaurant, he made a pit stop in the men’s room anyway. And he was overwhelmed by its beauty. “The marble is polished, the toilets where there is no dripping of urine anywhere … and there are little hand towels, and little soaps to choose from.” He began thinking about “this exquisite bathroom that I could just move into. Get a bed, check in.”

But then he thought, “Am I worthy?” He thought of all the valet-parked Jaguars and Bentleys outside, then his little Honda Civic, a car that announces its own prurience: “I have always noticed to my chagrin that on our license plate, the middle three letters are VAG. And I have always felt odd, a man driving around with a car that has ‘vagina.’ ” He began, there in the restaurant bathroom, to think about his bowels, and his shame—could he shit in a bathroom where shit really didn’t stink?—and then how his shame was redoubled at the valet stand, where his vagina-mobile was pulled up alongside all these elegant machines. He began to see a Joe Frank story take shape.

He mentioned a couple more notions that might make it into the weave of the story: something about retirement homes, something about the extras in violent movies who get gunned down and are never heard from again. Obsolescence, self-vanquishing—I sort of got how it all hung together. So far, he said, it was just a bunch of notes scribbled somewhere. But I could begin to hear the music underneath.

You can see why Ira Glass thinks he may be Frank’s “little grandkid, or nephew, or something,” but not his heir. Frank has no heirs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Brent N. Clarke/FilmMagic.

Joe Frank was born in 1938 in Strasbourg, France, to a wealthy couple that would have been miserable even if they were not fleeing Nazis. They arrived in New York City a year later, a good portion of their fortune intact. Like his son decades later, his father went into kidney failure, and he finally died on the day of one of young Joe’s foot operations. “So when I came home, my mother lied to me and told me that my father had gone to Boston on business,” Frank told me. “I was five and a half.” His mother got married again, to a family friend with whom she’d been having an affair. They lived on the 24th floor of the Eldorado, on Central Park West. Frank disliked his mother, was indifferent to his stepfather, but loved his cocker spaniel, Blackie.

Frank’s parents sent him to Walden, a progressive school that went bankrupt in 1987. “Everyone there was Jewish,” Frank said, a fact that pleased his mother, a Zionist who believed that the gentiles were out to get them. Of course, in her recent past, the gentiles had been out to get her. And some still were. One day she came home to find the building’s doorman, Tom, rifling through her drawers. After Tom was fired, he began to send the family obscene, anti-Semitic mail. Frank was saddened because Tom had always played with Blackie the dog on the elevator.

Judaism was a burden to the young, crippled immigrant, one more source of shame and difference. Jews were “ugly, unattractive, physically no match for gentiles”—Jews were, in other words, all like him, and thus the cause of him. In high school, he moved to Great Neck on Long Island, which at the time was less Jewish than it is today. He liked the gentile boys who dominated the sports teams, whom he found “in many respects nicer than the Jewish kids.” Still, he was a drama-club Jew, which is how he befriended one of the few drama-club gentiles, Francis Ford Coppola. They later carpooled to Hofstra University, where they were both day students. Coppola recalls that whereas he was deep into the theater scene, Frank “was interested in writing, and sort of drifting toward comedy.” He remembers Frank as “very kind, very sweet,” with “a sly, subtle sense of humor.”

After Hofstra, Frank was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he attended classes for two years but never finished a degree. He returned to New York and taught at Dalton, an elite private day school. He tried to keep up his writing but found it “impossible to write without an audience,” he says. He quit teaching and started promoting concerts at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachussetts. He booked Tom Waits, Jimmy Cliff, Taj Mahal. Then, partnering with a friend, they went bigger, promoting Fleetwood Mac and Blue Oyster Cult. They were inept promoters. “We never failed to lose money,” Frank says.

On long drives up I-95 and I-91 from New York to his concert venue in western Massachusetts, he listened to baseball games. “There was something so soothing and comfortable and warm in listening to these sportscasters,” he says. They’d describe the game, but then there were “the exchanges they had, which may have had nothing to do with the game. Or maybe the game was rained out, or there was a break. Whatever it was, the most enjoyable thing was driving, listening to these sportscasters talk about sports, and talk about other things as well.”

Francis Ford Coppola remembers Frank as “very kind, very sweet,” with “a sly, subtle sense of humor.”
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Earl Gibson III/WireImage.

Writing, music, radio, what we listen to when we’re alone at night in the car—these were the neighborhoods where Joe Frank would soon live. He started volunteering at WBAI, the storied freeform FM station in New York, learning how to edit audio tape with a razor blade, work the sound booth, engineer. Soon he got his own show, three to five in the morning, once a week. As he remembers it, in 1977, after the overnight host Bob Fass was fired in a labor dispute, management gave his Saturday, midnight-to-5-a.m. slot to Frank. “That’s when my real radio career began.”

At the time, radio was exciting and unpredictable, sort of like your podcast app now. It was a playground for gifted talkers, men (nearly all men) of various enthusiasms and bountiful logorrhea: countercultural polemicists like Fass, who one day convened hundreds, maybe thousands, of his devoted listeners at JFK airport for a “fly-in” just to hang out; early shock jocks like Joey Reynolds; rock talkers like Vin Scelsa and Scott Muni; homespun raconteurs like Jean Shepard, who told anecdotes in a lineage that would lead to Lake Wobegon. In Frank’s early work, he drew on all of these traditions, but his work was also more planned, if not always scripted, and thus harked back to the early days of radio theater.

In one early episode of In the Dark, Frank’s show on WBAI, he interviewed the actor Arthur Miller, playing a mime in town to perform at Carnegie Hall. The mime discusses his split from his old colleague Marcel Marceau, whom he deems a sellout. “I tend to feel that Marcel led mime into a cul-de-sac,” Miller says, “an aesthetic trap, in which, for the sake of popularity, easy access, by making mime user-friendly, the true nature of its aesthetic thrust was weakened.” The mock interview is a dead-on satire of art-speak and lit-crit bloviation, as well as being bawdy slapstick, as there is a couple audibly having sex in the room next to the studio. But it soon takes an otherworldly turn when Frank asks the mime to give the audience a taste of his work. “Could you give us perhaps a taste of the performance this Thursday evening?” he asks. The mime obliges, says he will perform a piece called “Nothing Happened.” And then there are 30 seconds of silence.

This was the silence heard ’round the radio world: In a 2013 interview with Joe Frank in The Believer, interviewer Jonathan Goldstein, a huge fan of Frank’s and himself an innovative radio artist, notes that the silence’s duration has grown in legend. “I’ve heard versions of it where it was ten minutes, or half an hour,” Goldstein says. The WBAI listeners—no strangers to weirdness on air—were shaken. “What was remarkable about it,” Frank recalls, “was half the people thought it was extremely funny and just cracked up and were calling us—‘This is so innovative, so original, you had me on the floor.’ And the other half were calling to say how incredibly stupid it was.”

Among those who loved the bit, some no doubt noticed its debt to the composer John Cage’s modernist classic 4’33”, from 1952, in which musicians take the stage and then don’t play their instruments for four and a half minutes. Ira Glass says that this intentional obliqueness, this refusal to play nice with the audience, was part of what set Frank apart. He wasn’t trying to win people over. “You totally have to come to him,” Glass says. “It’s totally a generational difference, too. He’s Philip Glass’ age”—Ira’s cousin, another difficult, minimalist composer.

Frank’s shows were noticed by a producer at National Public Radio, who thought it would be interesting to make Frank a host of Weekend All Things Considered. It wasn’t. Immediately after Frank moved to Washington, he—and everyone at NPR—realized it was a bad fit. He wasn’t a natural interviewer, and the only part of the show that worked was the last five or six minutes, when he shed his host persona and delivered a Joe Frank–style monologue. After about three months, he quit hosting before they could fire him.

Frank served out his contract producing shows for an NPR series called Options, where he picked up where his WBAI work had left off. Keith Talbot, who produced Options, remembers with a thrill the first show that Frank did for him, in 1979, an hourlong radio drama called “A Call in the Night.” It’s about a rube named Joseph, once a sickly boy, now a young adult, a character clearly based on Frank himself. After wandering the country, trying to find his father, he shows up in a plague-ridden New York City and meets a woman (played by Beth Dixon) at a gallery, where he’s puzzling over the abstract art. They become lovers, and she squires him around. Every few minutes, the show cuts to commentators—psychoanalysts, maybe, or literary critics—who deconstruct their interactions. Very New York-in-the-’70s: There’s a plague of homeless people, sore-ridden and ubiquitous, but also a plague of pretension. It’s poignant and funny: We feel for the lost Joseph, laugh at the ridiculous crowd he’s fallen in with, and identify with (but also smirk at) the critics dissecting them. The conversations all sound highly improvised, like a mumblecore film from the aughts.

“That was a wonderful show,” says Talbot, the radio legend who hired Ira Glass, then assigned him to work briefly with Frank.* “He truly deconstructed—a word we wouldn’t have known in 1979—the whole idea of criticism and drama.”

Through 1985, Frank lived in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, subsisting on an inheritance from his father, small checks from NPR, and once, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. In this early work, Frank was already using radio to process personal, idiosyncratic traumas—the fatherless boy, with intellectual insecurities, of “A Call in the Night,” the ineluctably alienated Jew of “Jewish Blues,” from 1978, about a fictional elderly Jew who invented the blues (and whose son converts to Christianity). It was too much for NPR, which, while a good table on which to set comfy, meatloafy fare like Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, was not really a place for Frank’s freeform Gotham noir. When the general manager of KCRW, the try-anything Santa Monica station, offered him a job, he packed his bags and drove west, far west, and moved into the Marina Pacific Hotel in Venice Beach, California.

Harry Shearer says when he first heard Frank, it was “like a fist punching through the radio.”
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for NAMM.

Beginning in January 1986, working in KCRW’s basement studios, crashing weekly shows on sleepless deadlines, Frank got big. By 1988, when the Wall Street Journal called him “radio’s prince of darkness,” his show was on in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, more. In 1989, the rock magazine Spin wrote of his dislocating weirdness, “Sartre would have called it nausea; Frank makes it art.” To the Village Voice, he was “the most imaginative, literate monologuist in radio today.” (Who was the competition?) According to Penthouse, again in ’89, “A Japanese exchange student wrote Frank after returning home, ‘Life without Joe is boring and almost empty.’ ”

From 1986 to 2002, when station general manager Ruth Seymour fired Frank—an episode that he discusses with the energy of a man one-third his age, and which she refuses to discuss at all—he produced his show under multiple titles. At first, he called his show Work in Progress, then he reclaimed his old WBAI title In the Dark, after which it was Somewhere Out There, then The Other Side. Frank speaks of each series as its own creative iteration: Work in Progress was heavier on scripted dramas, like the three-part “Rent-a-Family,” in which a woman (played by Grace Zabriskie) rents herself and two children out to lonely bachelors, while The Other Side, for example, featured more confessional talk, as Frank and friends discuss dysfunctional relationships and frustrated career ambitions with brutal candor.

But all over Frank’s oeuvre, ingredients repeat: conversations with friends, improv, scripted drama, stunt phone calls (to old girlfriends, to a depression hotline), and monologues. Looped jazz or rock samples, ripped without permission. And a disregard for rules, or rather an invention of new rules. In Frank, one hears the multi-act structure of This American Life, the wraparound soundscape of Snap Judgment, and the neurotic self-criticism of Goldstein’s old Canadian show WireTap. Heavyweight, Goldstein’s new show, in which he tracks down lost friends, is basically an extended Frank tribute. The brainiac experts on Invisibilia and Radiolab recall Frank’s choruses of literary critics, psychologists, and spiritual masters. Frank was possibly the first to goof on pledge drives, once threatening to shoot a dog on air if KCRW didn’t make its goal. (They didn’t, and sound effects ensued. “We did a great whimper or whine, right after the bullet was fired,” Frank says.)

During his years on KCRW, he never got famous-famous. For every one Joe Frank fan tuning in to indie KCRW, Rick Dees, who ruled over the Top 40 charts at KIIS, had hundreds. But Frank became a cult figure in the city’s artistic underground, the mention of his name a secret handshake with a sly finger-tickle. Saturday morning at KCRW, you had the one-two of Harry Shearer—pre–Spinal Tap, pre–voice-of-Mr. Burns-on–The Simpsons—followed by Joe Frank. Shearer considered it an honor to share a boss. When he first heard Frank, it was, he says, “like a fist punching through the radio.” The two of them were the best listening in town, for those who knew about it. And it’s amazing who knew. Alexander Payne, the director of Sideways and Election, used to listen to Frank with his fellow film students in L.A. “I have to say, we worshipped him,” Payne tells me.

Frank was the ultimate studio rat. “He was very serious about his work, and completely involved in it, and exhausted all the time,” says Kristine McKenna, an old friend and former KCRW host. But when fame beckoned, he could be lured out, perhaps with less difficulty than he’d have you think. In 1988, Frank performed with Tom Waits at a local tribute to playwright Eugène Ionesco. A year later, “Rent-a-Family” was adapted for the stage by director Paul Verdier and ran for two months. Simultaneously, Frank was performing his first stage show, Joe Frank: In Performance, at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (“a breathtaking display of soul-baring”—L.A. Weekly). He also staged shows at venues like Largo and the Viper Room rock club. These were small venues, but big enough to hold the people who mattered.

For a recluse, Frank got around. Hosts wanted to get him out of the house; women wanted to get invited back in. “As long as I have known him, he has been with some serious girlfriend,” says McKenna. “It was always just work and the girlfriend.” Frank likes routine, and he’s one for weekly calls with friends and regular brunch spots, but he’s ambivalent about any interaction outside of his inner circle. His friends gradually learned that he could be dragged to parties but then hated himself for going. Both McKenna and their mutual friend Gideon Brower, an actor, told me about the night Frank got them to a party in the Los Feliz neighborhood, then bailed on them. “We got there, and within three minutes, he decided he wanted to leave,” Brower says. “We’d probably driven for half an hour to get there.” One gets the sense this was not a one-time occurrence.

“I have to say, we worshipped him.” —Alexander Payne
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

When Frank looks back on his life, the New York years sound pleasurably painful, like a scab that you want to pick, and which leads to healing. Washington doesn’t exist—Frank can’t remember a thing. And the Los Angeles years are all about work. Every friend, whether Brower or McKenna or even his wife, who has built his spiffy website and digital archive, you can be sure he has worked with. Friends with no radio experience, like Mike Meloan, his Peninsula lunch pal, end up on air.

And every tale of a wild night or traumatic breakup ends with a matter-of-fact discussion of how it made good radio. In the late ’90s, he was dating a woman, “and we were having a lot of problems.” His house had a lot of glass, and was landscaped with large river stones. Their fight concluded, as Frank tells the tale, with her “picking up these huge stones around the tree and hurling them through doors and windows, and I had to call the police, and she was taken away in handcuffs.” At the time, his show The Other Side dealt with a lot of relationship issues. So the rock-throwing story was perfect for radio! “I talked about it all the time.”

A confession: I have a hard time listening to an hourlong Joe Frank episode in its entirety for the same reason I have a hard time reading experimental science fiction, or listening to Sgt. Pepper’s: I get easily distracted, have a hard time immersing myself in an alternate universe, and so am a poor candidate for art that takes U-turns. I tend to drift off, and when I get my focus back, I have no idea what the hell is going on. I’m also rarely alone, and Joe Frank is a soundtrack to aloneness: in the car, or after your ex has left you for good, or when reality just seems to be a cruel joke anyway. Right now, I’m not much of an audience for sonic surreality. For digestible work, I do best trolling his website for standalone, madcap bits, like “Joe Frank’s America,” in which he calls other Americans named Joe Frank, or sticking with straightforward, narratives radio dramas, like “Rent-a-Family.”

That said, I am susceptible to his more ambitious collages, and my all-time favorite work of his is “Prayer,” from the mid-’90s, in which (as the description on his website once put it, with deadpan perfection) “Joe is approached by a woman on the street who asks, ‘Would you like to come up to my apartment for a drink and some sex? I’m not very expensive, and I’m an excellent typist.’ They engage in a tawdry encounter … Then Joe dictates a letter to her before attending the funeral of his Uncle Murray.” Later, a “self-proclaimed mystic,” played by the late performance artist David Franks, leads a caller, a stroke victim who wants to be healed, through a series of increasingly absurd prayers as funny, and as cruel, as anything I’ve ever heard.

Listen to Prayer.

“Repeat after me!” the mystic begins. “O Lord, in Clytemnestra’s daughter!” The caller repeats after him. “Roll me [“Roll me!” the caller says], knead me [“knead me!”], slap me. Let me be like a mouse, inside a mousetrap. Feed me bread, wine, hamsters, rats, bullfrogs, African Eurasian tiger-pussycats. And love me, O Father, and pull the cotton from my earlobes. O Lord, take my soul, and put me over a barrel, and pull my pants down, and slap me with the punishing rod. Forgive me of my sins, and take me to Heaven … on a muskrat.”

This goes on for seven minutes, until he has the caller conclude with: “O Lord! Snap the button on my underwear, and let my armpit fall upon the crawfish on the ground.”

When Joe Frank has tried to sell out, he’s been laughably bad at it. Sure, lunches have been taken—with Michael Mann of Miami Vice, with Elliott Gould—but despite promises made and options sold, he never made a television show or a feature-length movie. Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, Stripes) once bought some material, but he never used it. Coppola says he was “always anxious to collaborate,” but he never has. In the early 1990s, director Paul Rachman, of the documentary American Hardcore, made four short films from Frank stories—one aired late at night on CBS, three aired on the Playboy Channel. Ten years later, filmmaker Chel White adapted three more Frank stories as shorts. At one point, David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) was in talks with HBO to make a series of Frank stories, but that didn’t happen.

Rachman, who was still close to Frank, acknowledged that Frank is not always the most lunchable guy. Film is a director’s medium, at best, and just as often, the money men call the shots. In any event, the writer has to know to butt out. “Hollywood is always trying to change things,” Rachman says. “ ‘Well, Joe, we’d like to do your material, but it has to be like this.’ The minute you start messing with Joe’s work, it’s not Joe’s work anymore. It loses that magical flavor of Joe’s storytelling.” Still, Rachman was, improbably, hopeful.

But there seems to be a general murmur of agreement that Frank’s natural “medium is aural,” as Alexander Payne puts it. Even Frank hates his only book, the forgettable short-story collection The Queen of Puerto Rico, from 1993. And even if he could let go of control, those who can green-light a movie seem to agree that his vision is too hard to film. In a twist worthy of a Frank radio drama, the only feature film based on his work was made without his permission: Frank got some settlement money after the screenwriter Joseph Minion seemed to draw from his monologue “Lies” for Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.

So Frank has underground-legend status, but we know how well that pays. Due to his remarkable gift for avoiding paydays, the last couple of years have been harrowing, financially, for Frank and his wife, whom he met at a KCRW pledge drive in 2000 and married in 2011. His troublesome kidney, congestive heart failure, cancer scares, even an infected hand—everything seemed to send him to the hospital, and his insurance didn’t stretch far enough. An online fundraising drive met its initial $100,000 goal and then some. The donors are a gallery of fans who got the money, or fame, that eludes Frank: $500 from Reitman, $10,500 from Shearer, $100 from NPR’s Susan Stamberg, $50 from Jay Allison (The Moth Radio Hour, This I Believe). On the giving page, Allison wrote, “You are a dark bright light.”

He knew that the podcast revolution is a big feast at a table he set.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Michal Story.

According to Story, her husband lost all of 2016 to illness, then worked steadily through 2017—although where he describes one main project, about gastrointestinal challenges at the Peninsula Hotel, she sees him working on many projects, or one that keeps morphing. “If there is no deadline, the work keeps changing,” she says, exasperated. Right now, “he is looking through his older writings and putting things together, and he has put a number of vignettes together for a book coming out next spring”—a book Frank had failed to tell me about. And he keeps producing new material: “I don’t see any day that he doesn’t write.”

While he grinds away at the next, hoped-for radio piece, Frank posted short shorts on Facebook, to be read by his 4,556 followers. The last post of this sort, from September, began: “My wife and I went to a therapist. He said that in our marriage I behaved like a frightened forest animal. I was embarrassed. When we came home, I stopped expelling the noxious odor from my anus, removed my quills, and struggled against the compulsion, when my wife entered my study, to assume a frozen stance to blend into the environment.”

That passage sounds like Joe Frank, and having spent many hours with and on the phone with Joe Frank, I can report that he could still summon the old husky, insomniac whisper. Which means that radio piece, if he had ever made it, would have been a great one. In 2012, KCRW announced that Joe Frank was returning to the station, and since that time, he has made or contributed to 10 episodes of its series UnFictional; his last piece, “Downfall,” aired two years ago.

On Oct. 13, Joe Frank had another operation for cancer.** For all his talk of wanting a good death, he didn’t want one yet. But I did wonder if, having faced death so many times, he had gotten used to the idea. So I asked him, before surgery, did cheating death before make him less afraid? “No,” he told me. “It would be nice to be able to say that. If extinction meant you’ll be dead for 100 years, but then you’ll come back, fine. However, if it’s what I think it is, eternal extinction forever and ever and ever and beyond, that’s pretty brutal to me. That’s frightening.”

But enough talk of death. That’s what the work is for. Frank was chagrined, even a little embarrassed, that he hadn’t made radio for the last couple of years. He knew that the podcast revolution is a big feast at a table he set. “There is something about all these podcasts, the kind of thing I think is, ‘They don’t even know that I started it! They don’t even know where this came from!’ ” And so there is work to be done. “That’s why this next piece is so important.” He had a rough draft, with some plot points—“the hotel bathroom, the car … ”—but no music yet. When he was past the latest health scare, back in his second-floor apartment, the one he would never jump from, he could get back to work. Then it would all come together. “I have got to get going,” Joe Frank said, urgently. The other side, he hoped, could wait.

*Correction, Jan. 19: This article originally misstated that Ira Glass worked on Frank’s show as an intern. He worked on Frank’s show as a production assistant.

**Correction, Jan. 21: This article originally misstated the year that Joe Frank received a new kidney. It was 2006, not 2007. Additionally, it misstated the date of one of his operations for cancer. It was Oct. 13, 2017, not Oct. 2.

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Mark Oppenheimer hosts the podcast Unorthodox, about Jews and Jewish life, from Tablet magazine.