Working for KCRW’s master storyteller was an inspiration and an adventure

Joe Frank, a groundbreaking radio broadcaster who stretched the very boundaries of the medium while at KCRW, has died. Photo by Michal Story.

By Esme Gregson

Joe Frank — the brilliant, neurotic, groundbreaking broadcaster who redefined radio storytelling at KCRW in Santa Monica and a boss who became a second father to me — succumbed to his lifelong nemesis, cancer, on Jan. 15. The disease had attacked his bladder twice, his testicles at age 19 and, most recently, his colon. Joe spent his final years with his beloved wife, photographer Michal Story, which is somewhat comforting in that he was always happiest at her side. He was 79.

Obituaries in The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times recount his fabulous public exploits — calling ex-girlfriends to sing to them in the middle of the night; imagining Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler discussing wedding floral arrangements and pleated pants; radio’s first live broadcast of a mime performance.

“There are not many people in the world who are able to push a medium into a new shape. Joe Frank did that with audio,” KCRW General Manager Jennifer Ferro, who introduced me to Joe 22 years ago, tells The Argonaut. “He combined fiction and audio that transported you to an entirely different world. You felt like a voyeur, an eavesdropper and an invited guest into a world that lived in someone else’s mind.”

I worked for Joe from 1996 to 2002, first part-time and then full-time, mostly creating transcripts of recordings he’d use as raw material for his broadcasts. In the beginning I’d stop by his home once or twice a week to pick up one or two audiocassettes (60 minutes each side) of bizarre, unscripted phone conversations between Joe and his collaborators — the topics ranging from angry threats by psycho exes to the finer points of Zoroastrianism.

But my favorite part of the job was the research Joe would ask me to do.

“Esme,” he would say, then pause, interrupting a conversation midstream, “I need you to look up how many ounces of milk are in a Tahitian coconut. Tahitian.” Or, “Esme, I need you to get me a Spanish translation of Psalm 23 — the one that begins, ‘The Lord is my shepherd …’ in Spanish. Thanks.”

I lived for those small tasks, eager to show him my cleverness, impress him with my work ethic. It succeeded; he eventually asked me to work for him full-time when I was unceremoniously fired from KCRW after faxing then station manager Ruth Seymour her 70-page “emergency” transcript in reverse order at 2 a.m. Ruth had brought Joe to KCRW from weekend hosting duties at NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 1986, but their relationship had deteriorated when was fired from the station in 2002.

***

Once I had asked Joe if I could come in a little late the next day so my writing partner and I could troll a popular “girls night” in West Hollywood for bar scene extras for a pet project we were producing on spec. I arrived the next day around 10 a.m., slightly hung over but feeling OK … until I saw Joe waiting for me in his office, wearing his bathrobe and pajamas and leather slippers, looking as if he’d been up all night. He set his coffee cup down and cleared his throat; I stopped as though I’d just walked in on a bank robbery.

“Esme, next time you butt dial me from a lesbian bar at one-thirty in the morning and leave a half-hour message …”

I gasped: “No! I did not! No!”

“… Yes, you did. Please allow me to finish. … Next time you butt dial me from a lesbian bar at one-thirty in the morning and leave a 30-minute voicemail featuring loud, shitty, migraine-inducing music from diabolical beginning to godforsaken end, please make sure I can hear what’s going on! Next time, pull your phone out of your ass, your purse, or wherever and put it somewhere I can catch a conversation.”

Joe turned on his heels, trudged up the stairs to his exercise bike and pedaled furiously for 45 minutes while I quietly catalogued, labeled and organized hundreds of cassette and DAT tapes, contemplating my nonexistent severance package.

***

After I’d been working for Joe for many years, my father — born just days before Joe in August of 1938 — died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Joe was incredibly kind and protective of me. A few days after the funeral, when I stopped by his house to pick up a tape, he got up from his chair and hugged me. Joe had never been physically affectionate towards me, so it caught me off guard. I broke down, because it was such a sweet thing to do, and because I hadn’t anticipated it. He held me for at least a solid minute.

“Esme, I didn’t know your father, and I’m sorry to say but I’m very angry at him right now for doing this to you. … He did a cowardly thing. That’s just how I see it. … I can’t understand how he could do this to you, his family. It’s utterly beyond me.”

I love my father and understood his decision to take his own life came after years of suffering and “battling demons which have robbed me of my will to live” — his exact words in his suicide note to me.

But to Joe, who battled an utterly relentless terminal disease his entire life, it must have seemed such an incredibly selfish and senseless act. Around his first birthday, Joe’s family fled Europe to escape the Nazis; at age five, his father died while Joe was in surgery to correct childhood deformities of his legs and feet.

“You know I would never, ever do that to you,” Joe said. “I won’t leave you. I promise.”

“I know, Joe. I know you wouldn’t,” I said. Then, after a pause, “So you’re telling me you’re going to be my dad now? You’re going to walk me down the aisle, if I get divorced and remarried?”

Joe, who had no siblings or children, blanched.

“Don’t be insane … please. … You better hope Mike doesn’t divorce you, because finding another guy foolish enough to marry you — good luck with that.”

From then on I would joke with Joe, calling him Dad and scolding him when he forgot my birthday. He was a bit neglectful as a father, but then again he had not agreed to the job, so I was OK with the relationship as it was.

Joe Frank may have come off as a tortured soul, but was filled with compassion for animals and people. Photo by Michal Story.

***

Joe would spend hours in the studio, sometimes getting there at 9 a.m. and working until two or three in the morning. His process was grueling. He’d take the printed transcripts I’d typed and physically cut out individual lines of dialogue to make a new “script” from the lines he wanted to use, and then go back into the recording and pull out each line individually and remaster them. In the beginning he would do this by hand, with a razor blade and scotch tape.

As Ferro recalls, “Joe was incredibly thoughtful and totally possessed by his work. When he wasn’t making programs, you could tell he was obsessing over thoughts about the next one.”

Eventually everything became digitized, but instead of making things easier for Joe, that only seemed to expand his options. I remember bringing sandwiches to the studio at midnight, and he’d begrudgingly pause his work to wolf down a few calories.

“Did you feed the cat?” he asked.

“I did.”

“You didn’t just take the can from the fridge and put it in the bowl cold, right? You heated it up in the microwave — but not for too long, right?

“Just 20 seconds.”

“Good. She won’t eat it if it’s cold,” he said. “She’s not like you; she has high standards.”

“How sad, then, that she got you as an owner.”

“Ha!” he laughed. “Nice.”

***

After Joe had started a relationship with Michal and was nearing the end of his time with KCRW, he no longer needed me to transcribe for him, or pick up his dry cleaning, or give his cat a massage. We only talked once or twice a year, over the phone, until we saw each other at a dinner party one night. I brought my friend Elia as my date, and she and Joe hit it off — instant friends. She asked if I’d been a good assistant.

“Yes, Esme was the best assistant anyone could wish for … that is, until she caused me to be sued for $100,000,” he answered.

Elia blanched; I coughed a sip of Trader Joe’s chardonnay out of my nose.

“I thought you knew,” Joe said. “I’ll explain later.”

Later, we cornered Joe in the kitchen. I already knew all of the details, except that there had been a lawsuit.

Joe met a woman online and they “clicked,” emailing each other casually at first, then hourly, then moving their conversations to the phone. He would spend hours on the phone with her, as many as four nights a week. He believed there was real potential for a relationship, and told me so.

Once I started transcribing their conversations — Joe recorded many of his conversations, personal or professional; it was all material — I concluded this woman was nuts. And a liar.

One day something she said struck Joe as odd, and he asked my opinion. That led to Joe asking me to write transcript footnotes that would call out anything which seemed patently absurd or especially suspect. I became more and more annoyed with this woman, and remember my comments reflecting that. Ruthlessly scrutinizing her motives, openly contemptuous of her points of view and, obviously, threatened by her, I resorted to the mean, brutal and petty character assassination that women exclusively use to destroy other women — particularly any perceived rivals.

Shortly after I accepted a new full-time job at a music licensing company, Joe invited his telephonic New York girlfriend to Los Angeles. I remember him telling me on the phone that the visit was a disaster, but it wasn’t until the dinner party that I learned it was positively apocalyptic.

“We had an argument because I knew she was lying about something,” Joe told us, “and I told her she shouldn’t bother denying it because I had a transcript to prove she was lying.”

“No!” I screamed. Literally, screamed. Everyone else at the party stopped talking and looked at us alarmed. “You told her?! What do you mean, you told her? Told her you were illegally recording her and having these illegal recordings transcribed? Ermagherd. WHY?

“Because she was lying and it was infuriating!”

“But, Joe, she’s a liar. I told you at least 100 times that she was a liar! Did you read any of the transcripts?”

“Not until after.”

“After what?”

“She read them.”

“Oh my good gay God, Joe.”

Apparently Joe had forgotten he’d asked for my opinion — gave me carte blanch to be “totally honest.” And now he remembered.

But Elia threw me a withering look and patted Joe on the shoulder.

“It’s not your fault,” she told him. “Esme should have been nicer.”

Joe perked up immediately.

“Right!” he said. “She shouldn’t have been so mean.”

I looked alternately between the two of them, initially speechless.

“It’s awful late, Joe,” I said. “We’ve got an ecstasy-fueled, clothing-optional lesbian rave party to go to.”

We left. Not for any such party, but I thought the idea might keep Joe awake late enough to ruin the next morning, perhaps hoping for another butt dial like so many years before.

***

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

I miss Joe greatly. He was kind, thoughtful and funny. He loved animals and people, and was deeply, intensely grateful for the years of life he was given on this planet.

But because of his work, Joe isn’t really gone. His art lives on at joefrank.com, where I can visit him whenever I like.

***

Esme Gregson lives in Venice, where you’ll find her playing paddle tennis on the boardwalk.

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