Posts tagged ‘National Public Radio’

January 16, 2018

#137) Remembering Joe Frank

In the spring of 1992, I was interning at WBUR-FM, Boston’s National Public Radio affiliate. As I was sorting through the mail, I came across one letter from a listener who was complaining about a program the station carried called “Joe Frank: Work In Progress.” “Joe Frank should be spouting his mentally disturbing drivel to a psychiatrist, not to listeners who pay to support the station,” the listener wrote. I asked my supervisor if he knew anything about Joe Frank. “Joe Frank,” he said, “is a nut.”

Fancying myself as a sort of nut in my own right, I made a point of staying up late – WBUR broadcast “Work in progress” from midnight to 1 am on Monday mornings, begging the question of why the letter writer was up so late – and tuned in. The first couple of shows didn’t make much of an impression on me so I went about my business, which back then consisted mainly of telling everyone why they should be listening to Dave Brubeck instead of Nirvana and wondering why playing jazz fusion on my portable Kawai keyboard wasn’t getting me laid.

One night I was lying awake pondering the above mentioned when I realized that Joe Frank’s program was on the air. This time, I heard a monologue from a street lunatic who threatened to kill a little girl and make sandwiches out of her. I laughed so hard it’s a wonder I didn’t wake my parents. I had seen my destiny and its name was Joe Frank.

The man whose radio programs spoke of street loonies eating girls, who once put himself on trial for misogyny, who told of a plane ride where the evening movie was a Walt Disney children’s adventure set in Berlin in 1936, who once did an entire hour-long monologue about why he had no show prepared and who set a story in a dystopian city where people line up to commit suicide by jumping into a vat of acid died yesterday at age 79 following a lengthy illness.

Joe Frank was born Joseph Langermann in Strasbourg, France in 1938. His family fled to the U.S. the following year and he grew up in New York. His radio career began in the 1970s on WBAI in New York where his proteges included a young Ira Glass. The future host of “This American Life” said of Joe Frank, “Before I saw Joe put together a show, I had never thought about radio as a place where you could tell a certain kind of story.” In the 1980s he moved to California, where he became a mainstay on KCRW in Santa Monica.

After getting hooked on Joe Frank, his voice and those of his collaborators became the soundtrack to the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I would tape the shows and play them for anyone who would listen. I had been grappling with whether to make music or writing my career and for a good while, Joe Frank swung the needle toward writing. Much of what I wrote was hopelessly derivative, pale imitations of the master, but in my blissful ignorance I was convinced I was the new, cutting edge voice from the mean streets of Brookline, MA, going so far as to call myself Brookline High’s best kept secret. When, in one of his programs, I heard Joe decry “people who send me their Joe Frank style monologues with hopes that I might read them on the air” I enthusiastically refused to get the hint. (I soon checked myself and abstained from sending him anything, but I did submit some stories to magazines, surely providing the editors with unintentional laughter.)

Then, as many summer romances do, this one came to an end. September brought the tragic news that Joe Frank’s “Work in Progress” was going to be discontinued. The show that aired on the last day was part one of a three part program, giving me hope for a few more weeks, but it proved to be an Indian summer. Joe Frank was no longer on WBUR. The World Wide Web was still a few years from ubiquity and the people who invented I Heart Radio were likely prepubescent. In late 1992 the only cure for my Joe fix was to purchase cassettes from KCRW with my limited budget. I bought a few, cherishing them and the programs I’d taped like letters from a departed lover.

The following spring, the needle of my professional goals began its permanent swing back toward music. I started college, began my first long term relationships, moved from one job to another and even had a degree of success with some of my bands. Joe Frank gradually began to fade, although I still revisited those old cassettes from time to time. My new life experiences gave me appreciation for details in Frank’s programs that I missed the first time around, such as a dream sequence in which the character finds himself strapped to two giant gourds, one on each side of his body, and then finds his entire body stiffening and having an acrid white liquid shoot out of his mouth. Once, perusing the personals in the Boston Phoenix (Craigslist before there was Craigslist) I came across one that read, “Help me unravel this knot and find my way back to the place where I first saw you, where all this started, this thirst.” Most would-be suitors probably would have dismissed it as the rantings of a lonely housewife but I frantically called her, convinced that my recognition of this Joe Frank monologue from his program “The Dictator” would be my golden ticket. (In keeping with my luck with women, she turned out to be 17 years older than me, and this was before cougars became a thing.)

Seven years after the Summer of Joe, I packed my bags for Los Angeles. My fascination with California, in particular my craving of the hard-partying L.A. lifestyle – temptation of the highest order for a nerd trapped in cold, proper Boston – predated my interest in Joe Frank, but his presence in Santa Monica was more proof that the Golden State was the promised land. That the L.A. of Joe Frank’s programs was one of wildfires, mudslides and characters by turns lost in the urban sprawl and burned out from one excessive party after another (not far from the truth, as I would learn) didn’t deter me; at least they didn’t have to shovel 40 stairs every time it snowed.

In California, I checked in with Joe Frank every so often. Thanks to Youtube, streaming and social media, I had unlimited access to him, although like many things that were once unattainable that become attainable, the novelty had worn off. I did enjoy bragging that, thanks to Joe Frank, I knew what KCRW was long before it became cool, but that fact didn’t play as impressively as I hoped it would.

I never became the mad genius I was convinced Joe Frank would inspire me to be, but I am still glad that I happened to tune in to his show that night and that WBUR didn’t give into the demands of the irate letter writer. He may be gone now but his dark humor will continue to be a touchstone for those who have shared in the experience.

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November 13, 2014

#87) Go home, NPR, you’re drunk

Dear National Public Radio,

I am sorry to tell you that you are drunk and I cannot serve you any more drinks tonight. Please give me the car keys. We’ll call you a cab.

We have had a long relationship together, ever since I interned for your Boston affiliate WBUR-FM as a junior in high school. Through the years you have provided me with a nice alternative to the same 10 classic rock songs, shrill talk radio hosts and endless discussions on sports shows about why the Lakers suck. It’s been hit or miss; no one’s perfect and I understand. There’s no shame in trying something new and not quite nailing it the first time; progress takes trial and error. When my friends and I watched the video of the live broadcast of “This American Life” that made its way through art house theaters a few years ago, we didn’t mind that Ira was visibly nervous; it made him seem more human than when he’s a cool, disembodied voice behind the microphone. I also understand that not all of your programing needs to be heavy; there’s only so much conflict in the Middle East that people can take. Sometimes you will over-intellectualize pop culture and that’s okay. Even body builders have ice cream once in a while. But “Please Do Not Leave A Message” – a feature on why the millennial generation does not like voice mail – is desperation. In television speak, it would be “jumping the shark.” It’s beyond pandering; it’s beyond condescension. It’s just plain sad.

Look, I get it. It’s a jungle out there. People have more and more places to get their news, commentary and music. You are trying to stay fresh and reinvent yourself; you are trying to debunk the stereotype that only bearded, pipe-smoking septuagenarians listen to NPR. There’s no shame in going after millennials; everyone else does. According to a report by Barkley US, “The sheer size and buying power of this generation means that they’re not just future consumers, they’re a vital part of the market… They’re not only your customers, they are also your employees, which makes it helpful to understand how they think and what will engage them at work.” Love them or hate them, millennials are hot; when they talk, people listen. Of course you want to reach them.

But is “Please Do Not Leave A Message” the way to do it? Do these all-important millennials really want to hear a thesis about why they don’t leave voice mails, especially since the basic premise of the bit is that they don’t have the patience to leave a voice mail? Do the people who donate want this?

Maybe I’m wrong and the only way to keep NPR afloat is to pander. Generally speaking though, pandering is at best a short term solution. You’ll never please everyone. For every Madeline Burg who admits that she enjoys the attention and finds it endearing, cute and ironic when adults try to pander to her, there’s a Tim Donovan cautioning business and politicians against embarrassing themselves. Consider the words of non-millennial Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right…for you’ll be criticized anyways.”

Hey, NPR, I don’t blame you. We all have an off day. For now just get yourself home safely, remember to hydrate a little extra tomorrow and give me a call if you need to. And if I miss your call I’m absolutely fine with you leaving me a voice mail.