An ad for Joe Frank's radio show after he moved to California Credit: sanzibar

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I first heard a Joe Frank monologue on the radio, but, like many others, I do remember how it felt: like an antenna, snapping to alert in my head.

“What was that?” was the question it raised.

The voice was distinctive and compelling—as intimate as if he were in the room, leaning in to confess a jarring and deeply personal tale to me alone.

I was hooked.

Joe Frank: Work in Progress aired on WBEZ on Sunday nights, starting in the late 1980s, so it must have been around then.  The show was fiction that sounded like fact, laden with emotional truth and laced with music that worked the way a great film score works, building the mood.

Over a career that extended another three decades—mostly on NPR, mostly from KCRW in Santa Monica, and often incorporating other actors—Frank inspired a subsequent generation of storytellers that includes Ira Glass, who was his one-time production assistant. 

Frank died Monday. He was 79, and had endured a lifelong series of illnesses, including three rounds of cancer. It was dispiriting to learn, not only of his death, but that this brilliant man had, in his final years, been impoverished by the unconscionable cost of American medical care.

Back around the time that I first heard him, Drew Wilson interviewed Frank for this Reader story.  It starts out with a couple of quotes from his programs: “We’re going to insert a catheter in your penis,” and “How do you reconcile the Holocaust . . . with a God you would worship?

He was, by the way, a Holocaust survivor.