On one program. Joe Frank played a recording of actual emergency-room incidents. “Were going to insert a catheter in your penis,” stated a doctor to a moaning gunshot victim. Another time he called up three of his ex-girlfriends and toyed with them emotionally. On another program he asked, “How do you reconcile the Holocaust . . . with a God you would worship?”

Since January, WBEZ (91.5 FM) has broadcast Joe Frank: Work in Progress every Sunday night from 9 to 1O. Frank is intense and serious. His unscripted radio dramas ask the big questions of life in an unsettling way–but you can’t turn the radio off. “Joe Frank inspires strong emotions,” says Ken Davis, program director for WBEZ. “Some people write in and say his program is worthless, self-indulgent garbage. But 75 percent of the mail we get is favorable.”

Sometimes Frank’s whole show is a provocative monologue. “A dog will never be able to read Plato,” says Frank’s urgent voice. “A cat will never be able to solve algebraic problems. Their intelligence binds them. Traps them. Why should we think we’re any different? There are truths of which we shall always be unaware.” But often his shows are dramas improvised by professional actors, delivering disturbing fiction that sounds so authentic you think you’re eavesdropping.

“Radio drama seems so contrived,” says Frank, who has broadcast his show for two years from KCRW in Santa Monica, California. “It’s obviously actors reading from a script. What I do in my programs is define the situation and characters and tell the actors what should happen, then let them improvise. We’ll try the scene several times. Sometimes it goes in a direction I never expected.

“I use improvisation to make the program sound credible. I want listeners to ask, ‘Is this real or staged? What’s going on here? Are they insane?'”

Frank’s dramas convey the sense of futility, desperate search for meaning in a spiritually empty world. One show, “In the Middle off Nowhere,” has two small-town losers verbally clawing each other over a silly hypothetical question as if their personal dignity were at stake. “What do you know about anything?” demands one guy, as the petty argument becomes hostile and, in an absurd touch, ends in murder.

Frank’s three-part “Rent-A-Family”–a big mail-generator, according to Davis–recently won the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Radio Program Award for best performance. The judges called it “riveting, innovative and spellbinding.”

This fictional story concerns a single mother with two young daughters who offers to rent her family to lonely professional men yearning for a family life. After appraising a number of videotapes, she selects a man.

“At first, everything was fine,” says the woman, telling her story with such chilling realism it seems as if Frank must have gotten his hands on some therapy-session tapes. Her sedate and rational voice, with its hint of torment, grips the audience. You are well aware from the beginning that something’s going to happen that may be sordid, wicked, or absurd. At the end of part one, her daughters disappear with the man.

Frank says radio executives often warn him not to go too far. “They’re worried I won’t use enough restraint,” says Frank, who attended the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and taught English at Manhattan’s posh Dalton School. He’s gotten thousands of supportive letters in the nine months he’s been broadcast nationally, but only a few with any invective.

“People tell me they’re powerfully moved and are surprised such a show is on the air,” says Frank. “The disturbing universal questions we all face aren’t addressed by the media. People suffer from [introspective] malnutrition and they don’t know they’re hungry.”

But he’s no sage. Frank doesn’t take sides on politics, and he offers no answers because, he suggests, there aren’t any. At the end of one show he said: “All those appositions–communism versus capitalism, female versus male, poor versus rich, black versus white–maybe in a way they’re all red herrings because they keep you searching for something. They keep you dissatisfied and hold out the hope you will be satisfied someday. [They’re] distractions from any kind of search for internal truth. Maybe because the truth may be too painful to truly grasp. To understand that life may have no meaning is too frightening.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Laufer.