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The Voice in Your Head - A Tribute to Joe Frank

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 12:03 AM

How do you pay proper tribute to a legend that many people haven’t heard of?

We began asking ourselves this question last week when the visionary radio producer Joe Frank passed away, after a long struggle with colon cancer.  Joe Frank was the radio producer’s radio producer.  He told stories that were thrillingly weird, deeply mischievous (and sometimes head-spinningly confusing!). He had a big impact on us at Radiolab.  For Jad, his Joe Frank moment happened in 2002, while sitting at a mixing console in an AM radio studio waiting to read the weather.  Joe Frank's Peabody Award-winning series "Rent-A-Family” came on the air.

Time stood still.

We’ve since learned that many of our peers have had similar Joe Frank moments.

In this episode, we commemorate one of the greats with Brooke Gladstone from On the Media and Ira Glass from This American Life. 

This episode was produced by Jad Abumrad with help from Kelly Prime and Sarah Qari. 

A very special thanks to Michal Story.

Support Radiolab today at


Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass


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Comments [49]

Gerry from South Africa

Wow! I had never heard of Joe Frank before your show and was blown away by the sheer awesomeness of his spooky cool voice that really does climb right into your head. Rushed off to the official website and blew the budget. Thanks a lot for the show!

Mar. 15 2018 02:47 AM
Gerry from South Africa

Wow! I had never heard of Joe Frank before your show and was blown away by the sheer awesomeness of his spooky cool voice that really does climb right into your head. Rushed off to the official website and blew the budget. Thanks a lot for the show!

Mar. 15 2018 02:46 AM
Chris from Tokyo

I wonder how Joe would think about the actual company in Japan that rents families? This guy actually has had actors fill the entire groom's side for $20,000.


Feb. 28 2018 08:05 PM
Tom Baker from Jacksonville FL

Hey RadioLab, during long car trips I torture the kids by introducing them to a variety of podcasts and some of the best ones are the Ted Radio Hour, How Stuff Works, and your show. Now normally if a podcast talks about racy things or has expletives, there's a little E beside the show title so that I know to listen to this one without the kids.

So I find it perplexing as to why this episode saw it necessary to drop at least 3 F-bombs at the end of the show? It's not marked with an E and they were absolutely unnecessary for the story. After the first one I thought to myself....he didn't say what I thought he said... just to have it happen again and again before I could shut off the episode.

I enjoy your show but don't hang me out on the line like that again or I'll have to stop listening. There is a tool for you to use in order to warn people about the use of expletives so please use it!!

Feb. 17 2018 11:28 AM
Dan from Thailand

I went to the Joe Frank website after this show and his work is astonishing!

Feb. 06 2018 12:21 PM
Garrett from South Cali

This was amazing. RIP, Joe.

Feb. 03 2018 02:38 PM
Barbara Henninger from Berkeley, California

RIP Joe.

Feb. 02 2018 02:13 PM
DP Carlson from Chicago

There is a new documentary about Joe Frank's life & work that is heading to film festivals in 2018! JOE FRANK-SOMEWHERE OUT THERE starring Joe Frank, Harry Shearer, Ira Glass, Grace Zabriskie, David Cross, Alexander Payne, Terry Kinney, Debi Mae West, Larry Block, Ryan Cutrona, David Rapkin, Arthur Miller, Ariana Morgenstern, Theo Mondle, Ray Guarna and others! Check it out here:

Feb. 02 2018 09:53 AM
Christopher Mabry from Austin TX

Thank you for the introduction to Joe Frank!

Feb. 01 2018 07:33 AM
Kiki from NorCal

Hello - I am such a huge Joe Frank fan!!! I moved to LA in the mid-90s and stumbled onto the Joe Frank program one hot summer night (broadcast on KCRW). His attitude and surreal tone completely matched the somewhat chaotic atmosphere in LA at that time - just after the 1994 earthquake, and earlier riots and fires. Also, the OJ Simpson murders had just happened.

So, the genius of Joe Frank completely informed my early days in the City of Angels.

RIP to the weird and wonderful Joe Frank. I'm thankful that he archived so much of his work. I hope his estate figures out a way to give the public access to it. He deserves to be heard by a much wider audience.

Jan. 30 2018 01:52 PM
Kyle from The Universe

Where in the world can I find the entire "The Elevator" story? I have been searching extensively online and can find nothing!!!! Please help.

Jan. 30 2018 12:39 PM
Jen W from Vermont

Thank you, Radiolab!! This was my favorite show, out of many loved. Condolences to family, friends and all those who mourn Joe Frank. It's jarring, my exuberance and appreciation of hearing the man's work for the first time in a eulogic radiolab episode. I've been listening to Mr. Frank every chance I get, since. It's magical, the way the world shifts out from under me again and again as I listen. It's amazing to feel Radio Ga Ga again wow thanks Joe Frank, Radiolab and all those who work and/or support them getting onto the airwaves to us grateful listeners!

Jan. 29 2018 08:11 PM

WFMU 91.1 FM /90.1 fm -www.WFMU.ORG has been replaying Joe Frank radio dramas for YEARS. Check out the archives for Irwin's show where he's been replaying them

Jan. 29 2018 09:49 AM

Had never heard of Joe, but his sideways elevator story had me in tears in seconds, something about it had an instant profound effect on me. Will be checking his archives, thank you.

Jan. 28 2018 06:33 PM
Dave from Australia

Fabulous show - thought provoking - inspiring - but above all honest! Yes this is what I believe his magic was - honesty. I must listen to more of his work but based on the few snippets on this show he has two bankable assets - or at least he would if he were still alive - First is unwavering honesty which breathes value into otherwise valueless trivia - and second is his ability to follow a train of consciousness to the bitter end.

If it leaves you wondering what you were just listening to, or what you should take away from it, or what emotion is required to be feeling about it, then all of that is secondary. He does not try to do all these things, they are the fallout from honesty + train of consciousness. least that is my humble opinion.

Jan. 28 2018 06:01 PM
pia from maine

As an art student in Philadelphia in the 1990's - WHYY was an obvious resource for news/music, etc.
Joe Frank was played late at night after many, many deep, dark, micro-specific shows. I tuned in to hear Joe Frank
played very very late at night, on a Friday, weekly.

His work was brilliant, inspiring, intimate, and truly like nothing else I had ever heard. Absurdist, moving, human...
conceptual - on a level that floored me.
He stunned and amazed me with his brilliance.

I feel so much regret that I never wrote to tell him how highly I regarded his work - how much he inspired me. As a conceptual artist, I held him on par with Duchamp. His work was genius, and changed my life. His voice, the voices of his readers (German woman!), inexplicable and palpable chaos/confusion - human existence on the brink of having a breakthrough.
Thank you, Joe Frank. This world will miss you.

Jan. 28 2018 03:22 PM
Sarah from Davis

Thank you for the beautiful tribute to Joe Frank! In the 80s, I tuned in to KDVS on the UC Davis campus every Saturday night at 11 to hear him. I think the broadcast was from UC Santa Cruz. I taped every episode. Somewhere around here, I have about 50 cassette tapes of Joe Frank. He was very special.

Jan. 27 2018 06:57 PM
Raffy from Aruba

I have a suggestion. Before this, I want to thank you for revealing this person to me. It made me understand a dear friend who is also a helpless introvert. Ok, so my suggestion would be... When someone passes right... At what time do we start saying "of old age" rather than "of xxxx pathology". I feel that the reason of death is a bit of over information. Our brains, designed to make conclusions where there are none to be made will make a snap judgement based on reason of death. I believe this practice, should be abstained from mention, and to be only revealed at a closer glance even as a non relevant fact. Just a thought. You make me think, that's why I keep coming back. Very grateful for this gift today.

Jan. 27 2018 06:53 PM
Mark Gershfeld from Boulder

I really liked this episode. I also did not know who Joe Frank was, but what an amazing story telling style and cadence! I could not help wondering if Alec Baldwin was influenced by this man?

Jan. 26 2018 07:10 PM
Gabriele Schafer from Brooklyn

Very sorry to hear this. Heartfelt condolences to his family who should know how admired he was by this listener.

Jan. 26 2018 05:24 PM
Mike R Baker from Long Beach, CA

Long-time listener of Joe Frank on KCRW Santa Monica. I thought I'd come here and see hundreds of comments. How did people miss this guy? Joe shaped a lot of my humor, which often makes many people laugh out loud but more often, just me. Thanks for this tribute.

Favorite Joe Frank moment (not sure why):
Woman: "...for all intensive purposes..."
Joe: "It's 'intents and purposes.'"
Woman: "Then why do people say "intensive purposes?"
Joe: "Because they're ignorant."

Jan. 26 2018 03:34 PM
Mario Verber from Tijuana

We were kids 15-17 years old. We had a friend who lived by the beach in Tijuana in the late 80's. We would spend hours surfing the radio dial. Listening to all these far away west coast radio stations in the middle of the night while having our first beers.
One day, we heard Joe Frank out of a Santa Monica station. We looked at each other in awe.
First stories we heard were "Ode to the Highway" and one about him not being able to sleep at night, ordering a prostitute over the phone and marrying her.
Life changing event.
Today I learned of Frank's passing and heard RadioLab. I called one of those friends and spend a couple of hours over the phone. Laughing our asses off.
Thanks Joe.

Jan. 25 2018 09:57 PM
John from OH

I'm going to make a guess that the reason he wasn't widely known is because of his smart-alecy and urbane style probably didn't sit well with people outside of heavily urban areas. Ever if you loved the guy, you have to objectively see that he wasn't for everybody.

Jan. 25 2018 08:43 PM
Mike Wiltse from Maine

I’m a big Tom Waits fan and he will do some spoken word pieces on his albums sound like Joe Frank.

Jan. 25 2018 02:35 PM
John "Moose" Williamson from Grand Rapids, MI

My favorite part:

"I’m personally not one who who believes it matters, like, if your work lives on past you, you know what I mean? Like, I feel like f-ck the people of the future, you know what I mean? Like, these are radio shows, you know what I mean? Like, they’re meant to be enjoyed, like, (unintelligible), like, right now and then, like, if no one ever listens to them again after we're gone like f-, well f-ck them anyway. Like, walking around and, like, being alive while we’re dead, first of all, f-ck all those people being alive and having sandwiches and meeting for lunch while we’re dead and not existing. Like, I hate them already. They can f-ck themselves."

- Ira Glass

Jan. 25 2018 12:23 PM
Mike from Scottsdale

I saw Joe Frank perform with a jazz group in the late 70s/early 80s(?). The performane was at a jam packed art studio near Madison Square Garden where I realized I wasn't the only one listening to him Sunday nights on WBAI. Eclectic and unforgettable. I didn't realize he died. Thanks for the great homage.

Jan. 25 2018 09:57 AM
Ed Burkhalter from Pueblo, CO

I absolutely loved your tribute to Joe Frank, of whom I'd never before heard. It didn't immediately hit me in the head - until I found the first full-ish performance available on his website - how much he reminded me of Ken Nordine... I'd sure like to see how you might compare the two, maybe in a podcast (hint, hint). To me, Joe Frank pulls back to set the scene, like a camera-equipped drone, and Ken Nordine delves deeper into internal dialog. Either way, thanks for the introduction!

Jan. 25 2018 06:07 AM
TOC from California

I discovered Joe Frank hen I was working nightshifts in Boston in the late 80s - early 90s, driving home to Cambridge usually around 11pm, listening to the local NPR station. To call him an inspiration isn't enough. He changed my POV and the nature of my own creative work. He has been an influence on my for 30 years. I got to see him perform live once in Los Angeles, and it was the most excited I had been to see a show/performer since the 1st time I saw the Ramones in 1982. RIP Joe and Thank you.

Jan. 25 2018 03:41 AM
Anna from Chicago, Il

Thank you for bringing up this great artist. My husband and I discovered him on late Sundays on WBEZ and found ourselves slowing down the night's routine to stay up to hear these. You felt like you were traveling in a space small and dark, yet huge - like when they turn the lights out on a cave tour, the same disconcerting feeling of simultaneous closeness and distance. Phew! When you know his work you find that no one else does and that's frustrating. Remember his story about the shrinking man battling with the spider?

This also makes me think about Ruth Draper. She was sort of indefinable, especially in her time and is almost completely forgotten.

Jan. 24 2018 10:50 PM
Paul from St. Louis

Does anyone know the name of the bit about the chicken costume and the bathroom stall at the bar?

Jan. 24 2018 07:50 PM

Wish they could edit out all the laughing. Very distracting from the clips.

Jan. 24 2018 02:52 PM
Robert Valois from Champlain,Qc

wow,many thanks for this discovery.never heard of Joe Frank before,I will now.

Jan. 24 2018 01:41 PM
Etienne de Rocher from Athens Georgia

I loved hearing you guys pay tribute to this iconoclast and was hoping to hear you unpack his style a bit. Even when I discovered him in the 90s, he seemed to be conjuring the past and the future at the same time. The dry delivery and defeatism of a film noir detective but with the surrealism of Rod Serling and the absurdism of George Carlin. His shows could instantly put you in a blissful hypnotic state but slap you out of it with the occasional burst of humor. This immersive style was probably his biggest contribution to contemporary podcasting.

Jan. 24 2018 09:04 AM
Adam Mourad from Cairo

Maddening and comforting and maddening again. In a word, disconcerting. In a word, life.

Jan. 24 2018 04:10 AM

wow. Immensely grateful for this introductory to joe frank.

Jan. 24 2018 01:47 AM
Michael Taylor from Inverness, California

Thanks for this. I stumbed upon Joe Frank via KCRW in LA back in the mid-80's, and tuned in his show in whenever possible. There was nothing like it then or now. It -- and he -- were great. I'm very glad you remembered him in such a thoughtful, heartfelt way.

As for the remarks of Peter K of Los Angeles... I'm with Marky D -- ignore his churlish remarks. Radio Lab is one of the best shows on the air, and has been for a long time. Your style is your own -- no need to "polish" or change it in any way.

Jan. 23 2018 11:42 PM
Ian Garrett

Hearing "At the Dark End of the Bar" some Sunday twenty years ago was a deeply affecting thing... thanks for this.

Jan. 23 2018 11:24 PM
Allen from Mexico City

I have loved Joe Frank ever since I lived in LA and listened to him on KCRW. I even bought a couple of his shows so I could share them with other people. His train of thought is incredible.

Jan. 23 2018 09:28 PM
dave from denver

how do i sign up- i missed your text msg. thx

Jan. 23 2018 09:27 PM

Thanks for this!
Which JF show was the story about the man in the chicken suit breaking off a poo from?

Jan. 23 2018 06:59 PM
KellyK from Bellingham WA

Thank you for the glimpse into the genius of Joe Frank. His sense of humor and musicality will be missed. He reminds me of another stellar and under-recognized voice in radio, Ken Nordine, now 97, who mesmerized me with his “Word Jazz” in the 1970s.

Jan. 23 2018 04:50 PM
Kristen from Tucson, AZ

Radiolab, thank you so much for sharing this tribute and making me aware of the hilarious and amazing talent that was John Frank. I, like many, had never heard of him before, but I could not stop laughing at each clip of his work that you played! I will definitely be checking out more of his work!

Jan. 23 2018 04:38 PM
Aaron K from Kansas City

This is the first time I'm hearing of Joe Frank but listing to this episode I realized that Nightvale is definitely his spiritual successor

Jan. 23 2018 04:01 PM
Zack from Washington, DC

So glad I stumbled across this today. It reminded me of my own experience finding out about Joe Frank. When I was about 14 years old (sometime in the mid 90's) during one summer I used to stay up late in dark in my bed listening to the radio on my headphones. KPFA used to play all sorts of weird soundscapes and stuff and one night they played Joe Frank. I was completely mesmerized. I always remembered it even when,at the time I had no idea who it was or how to find more of it (in the days before the internet). I just remember sitting there in the dark with the windows open letting the summer night in and being so enthralled with what I was listening too. I remember one of his stories where he talked about a Japanese man who had strange cheeses in his hair and another story where the narrator ate a gigantic block of hash. Its like listening to a William S. Burroughs story. Every few years since I'd try to find out who or what it was, searching for whatever terms I could used to describe it. So happy when finally I found out that it was Joe Frank.

Jan. 23 2018 01:20 PM
Doc Rock from Columbia MD

Loved the exposure to Joe Frank! I grew up in South Jersey. In my teens in the 1950’s I listened to WOR from Ny trying to hear Jean Shepherd, one of the greatest story tellers I’ve ever known.

Jan. 23 2018 12:48 PM
Jack W from Providence

What's the title of the clip about hugging? I'm having a hard time finding it on Joe Frank's website.

Jan. 23 2018 12:26 PM
Don B from Pittsburgh, PA

Thank you for sharing this tribute to one of my earliest favorites of radio and exposing Ira Glass as a total potty-mouth.

Jan. 23 2018 12:04 PM
Marky D from England

What an excellent episode. I live in the UK and am a huge Chris Morris fan. Now I realize that the genius of Mr Morris was largely derived from Joe! That's bitter sweet I have to say, one comedy genius deposed by the ghost of another.

PS. Ignore Peter K from Los Angeles.. he's the one being rather precious here I feel. Being a podcast addict I must state that yours is, by far, the best overall listen.

Loving it. Keep it up.

Jan. 23 2018 10:25 AM
Peter K from Los Angeles

Did ya' really have to include your own laughing over his clips? Also, referring to 2002 as the "stone age" even in this youth obsessed culture, seems ignorant. Finally, to say that "No one" except the smarty-pants at public radio knew Joe Frank's work simply isn't true. My entire FB page is filled with people of all sorts who knew his work for years, and I think it's a discredit to portray the reality as otherwise.

Finally, your faux-casual style on RadioLab is precious and sounds about 10 years old, style-wise. We get it, you're just kooky amateurs! Enough with that. You're pros, polish it and make it shine--like Joe did.

Jan. 23 2018 03:55 AM

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