From The New York Review of Books:
Through his broadcasts over the course of forty years, Joe Frank, who died at seventy-nine this past January, brought the notion of the auteur to postwar American radio. He cleared a path for generations of producers who think of telling stories for radio not as a disposable information-delivery system for a mass audience, but rather as a place for ambiguous, strange artistic expression. Frank’s style earned him no more than a modest cult following. But his legacy lives on, in a very different form, in the work of Ira Glass (whose first job in public radio was as Frank’s production assistant) and in Glass’s own outsize influence on radio and now podcasting, where many of the best shows don’t aim to break news or provide trenchant analysis. Instead, they prize, above all, narrative tension and surprise, lending them an absorbing, binge-worthy quality that helps to build an emotional connection between the hosts and their listeners.
According to Glass, it was when he was watching Frank record a monologue in the studio in Washington, D.C. that he first realized that “radio was a place [where] you could tell a certain kind of story.” Frank gave him the desire to make this kind of story, by which Glass means an intimate, quasi-literary narrative, as opposed to a “straight” news report—although, Glass says, he decided to try to make this sort of radio narrative using just “facts and reporting,” rather than the blurred memoir and theatrical fiction that Frank dwelled in. Frank’s influence on Glass and others recalls the cliché about the Velvet Underground: not many people bought their records when they first came out, but everyone who did went on to start a band. This American Life’s success comes in part from its editorial emphasis on what marketers like to call “relatability.” This idea got Glass into trouble with the Internet a few years ago after he observed on Twitter that a performance of King Lear he’d attended in Central Park had “no stakes” and was “not relatable,” concluding, “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.” Frank’s work, for all its willingness to provoke and confuse his listeners, still managed to have “stakes”; the major difference between Frank and Glass (and the rest of the journalistically oriented world of narrative audio) is less Frank’s use of fiction, or his idiosyncratic deployment of music, than his disinterest in Glassian relatability.
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Frank’s work is, in fact, immensely “relatable”—if you’re disaffected and overcaffeinated and exhausted, driving alone on an empty freeway into Los Angeles in the middle of the night. But listening to his aggressively surreal and provocative work, it’s hard to imagine that he’d find a home on one of the major radio or podcast networks that bear his imprint today.
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One of the strangest biographical details that recurred in Frank’s obituaries this year, usually mentioned in passing, was that, for a few months in 1978, he was the host of National Public Radio’s Weekend All Things Considered. This should be a highlight of any radio personality’s career: reaching a national audience in a position of great prominence and authority. But Frank’s work was dark, profane, sometimes perverse, and hilarious—words no one has ever used to describe any of the daily news shows on NPR (at least not since the first Gulf War, when it completed its transformation into a respectable mainstream news organization).
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books