Radio Noir : On the Air, a Voice Like Dirty Honey Tells Stories Grim as Nightmares. If You Think Radio Is All Top 40, You Haven’t Heard Joe Frank.

<i> Jamie Diamond is a fiction writer and free-lance journalist. </i>

IT’S RUSH HOUR. You’re crawling along the San Diego Freeway, engulfed in exhaust clouds, fiddling with the radio, dialing for diversion, mental transport, transubstantiation, something.

When you hear sounds like peaceful ripples across a pool, you stop: A man’s voice as rich as chocolate is telling a story in a tone so confidential, so confessional, you’re sure it’s meant only for you.

The story is about a depressed guy named Dave who gets a job playing guitar in a sleazy strippers’ bar. The walls are hung with murals of goddesses, and roaches crawl out of his amplifier, yet Dave feels happy for the first time in years: His music is drawing a response. The lights go up, and Dave is eager to see the faces of his fans. One man nodding to the music is a victim of a spastic disorder, and the other fan is so blotto he couldn’t hold his head still to save his life.


Then a tragedy: The bar goes out of business, and Dave loses his job. He starts stuffing himself at fast-food joints: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Blimpies. He tops off his meals with ice cream sundaes and chocolate-chip cookies.

Now Dave gets winded putting his clothes on. When he lies in bed, his stomach serves as a tray. He can put a plate, silverware and a napkin on it.

You move to change the station. But somehow Billy Joel wouldn’t sound good right now. You’ve been hooked. You want to know how this ends.

When Dave sits in a fast-food restaurant, the table cuts into his belly. When he walks through a doorway, his sides press against it.

Making love has become difficult. The missionary position is out of the question.

The voice keeps pouring out like dirty honey. “Sometimes when I think about the life I’m leading,” it confesses, “I’m filled with self-loathing and disgust.” Then the voice brightens, becomes almost cheerful: “But then when I imagine myself as a character in a novel, well, then I think I’m pretty interesting, offbeat, entertaining. . . .”

The voice trails off, overpowered by the lush sounds of a waterfall and tropical birdcalls, and a dispassionate radio announcer informs you that you’ve been listening to Joe Frank’s “Work In Progress.”

From the day almost two years ago when Joe Frank started broadcasting from KCRW-FM, the Santa Monica public radio station, he has attracted a cult following. Whether people are entranced or repulsed by the verisimilitude of his radio noir , they listen, magnetized by the sound of his voice, hypnotized by the defiant sleaziness of the terrain he travels.

During a recent fund drive, when the station pulled the show because it was reluctant to pollute the stream of Frank’s narratives by trolling for dollars, listeners threatened to take back their contributions unless his program was reinstated. Response has been so strong that KCRW airs “Work In Progress” for one hour two evenings a week (at 11 p.m. Saturday with a repeat at 7 p.m. Wednesday) and broadcasts the program to more than a dozen other cities via satellite.

Harry Shearer, the comedian-actor-writer and former “Saturday Night Live” regular who has his own satire program on KCRW, says that when he first heard Joe Frank, “it was like a fist coming out of the radio. Other people besides Joe are doing ‘new’ radio drama,” Shearer says, “and it sounds just like ‘old’ radio drama, except that it’s in stereo. Joe’s approach is much hipper, much more intimate. It’s like you’re eavesdropping into his life.”

Shearer is referring to programs that feel like chapters in an obsessive, violent and sexual odyssey; programs like the one in which Frank dragged a bathtub into the studio and oohed and aahed in the suds, enjoying being bathed by a French woman, crunching on potato chips and dialing phone-sex lines. Or the monologue in which Frank talked about the urge to dismember the elevator operator who took him up to his psychoanalyst’s appointment. Or the parody that analyzed the works of a blind photographer whose pictures of legless debutantes appeared in Photography Yesterday. That show was laced with provocative calls from female listeners describing their clothing and bodies and asking, over the phone, to be posed and photographed by Frank.

The final call, Shearer remembers, “was from a woman who described in fairly frightening detail her preparation for an act of suicide. And you can hear Joe trying to read this situation, and when it got too scary, he took her off the air. And I thought, ‘You can do a lot of things, but you cannot put a live suicide on the air.’ ”

Shearer was, as were many others, fooled. Off the air, the would-be suicide admitted she didn’t intend to kill herself. But the feeling that anything might happen is Frank’s most potent appeal.

“It’s easier to confess on the air than anyplace else.” Frank, dressed in black, sits at a relatively quiet inside table at the Pioneer Boulangerie in Santa Monica. “With radio you can be hidden. The audience is an abstraction. They’re not distracted by what you look like.” His voice carries a slight edge of hostility, as if someone were trying to pry. He has a square, Slavic face bordered by graying sideburns, and he looks directly at you: In a stare-down contest, he’d win. His hands, which look clean enough to perform surgery, toy with the sugar wrapper from his iced tea. His nails are bitten to the quick.

“I couldn’t do conventional radio if I wanted to,” he continues. “I see life as problematic. Basically, there are two kinds of relationships--those that fail, and those that are difficult. I don’t know how I’d do a program in which two people are really happy and in love and things work out great.”

He’s twisted the sugar wrapper into a tiny spear.

KCRW’s general manager, Ruth Hirschman, first heard Frank after the station staff left the monitors on while his program was being broadcast from Washington as part of National Public Radio’s drama series, “NPR Playhouse.” And the staff didn’t just leave the monitors on, they switched them to full volume. Work stopped, phones went unanswered, and Hirschman realized she was listening to something extraordinary, “something more than just an excellent radio program.”

Frank, who started in radio as a volunteer at WBAI-FM in New York City before getting his own show and then moving on to NPR in Washington, had a small but ardent following. Hirschman felt that Frank’s risky radio carried the voltage to attract a more mainstream audience. After Frank made two exploratory trips to Los Angeles, Hirschman offered him “a home at KCRW,” and in January, 1986, he packed his silver Volkswagen Jetta, drove across country and moved into the Marina Pacific Hotel in Venice Beach.

In Washington, Frank had been accustomed to producing four or five dramas a year; now he was responsible for about 40. The first thing he did was put together five autobiographical monologues. But five programs were enough to make him feel in danger of repeating himself. So he began to look for “people with interesting stories.” Friends, acquaintances and strangers volunteered to open their lives to Frank’s scrutiny.

It’s one thing for Frank to cushion himself in a deserted studio and ventilate his fantasies. How does he get strangers to reveal their bleakest moments? Perhaps there’s something about his self-effacing manner and his graceful way of diverting attention away from himself and on to others. And perhaps there’s something about his serious, sensitive brow, his absorbing hazel eyes and his soft, lulling voice that makes people feel safe to speak the unspoken, knowing that pretty soon a good part of Los Angeles will hear it.

THE WALLS in KCRW’s performance studio are padded with oatmeal-color carpet; metal music stands are wrapped in blue bath towels; a grand piano is covered by quilted black vinyl. In the midst of this, Frank sits expressionless and unblinking, under an enormous pair of headphones, looking like a still life of a man in outer space. He flips a switch that carries his voice to the glassed-in control booth. “Sharon, get me a crisis hot line.”

Sharon Bates, a station volunteer, makes the call; when she gets through, she waves to Frank, who’s resumed his usual, distant, off-air expression.

Now he leans forward, his lips nearly touching the microphone, ready for the hot line. “I do a radio program where I talk about my life,” he tells the counselor. He rests one hand on his heart. “And because I’m sort of depressed”--his voice takes on a caressing shimmer--”I thought of calling you on the air.”

“A crisis stems from specifics in a person’s life,” the counselor says. “What’s happened that’s made you feel this is the last straw?”

Frank looks into the control booth at Bates and Eric Meyers, the engineer who’s recording the conversation for later use.

Frank sinks down in his chair and begins to explain that he moved to Los Angeles a year and a half ago, leaving behind a six-year relationship with a woman as well as all his friends.

“Have you made new friends, Joe?”

His eyes narrow and he sinks down farther. “It’s hard for me to make friends. And the cat I had for 14 years died.” He folds his hands as if in prayer, brings them up to his lips and sighs. Then he continues, relating a series of other losses.

Frank’s head is bent over, and he’s confessing that he’s taken on a new radio show and faces the possibility of failure. He rests his chin in his hands. After a moment he lifts his head to the microphone. “What do you do when you find yourself in crisis?” he asks.

Within a minute his magic has worked. The counselor is describing her previous career in real estate, her experiences as a bereavement counselor, her “holistic” perspective that enables her to deal with the inexplicable tragedies she hears about night after night.

Another engineer, Jack Cheeseborough, saunters in, popping M&Ms.; “Looks like he’s turned the tables again,” he says.

FRANK ACQUIRES the evocative stories that he weaves into his programs by lucky accident, as in the case of the crisis counselor, or by interviewing people he senses will be “interesting.” He often tapes up to 30 hours of material for each hourlong program; then he edits down and adds what he thinks are the most influential elements--the sound effects and music. The sound effects are so precise and so visual that listeners experience the radio in 3-D and Kodacolor. The music, an audio Valium that never reaches a crescendo, is painstakingly chosen and looped: Frank finds a segment of music he likes, sometimes just a few bars, and then records it over and over to form a pulse that beats throughout his story.

In addition to his autobiographical monologues and intimate confessions of real people, Frank is known for radio dramas that make one feel lost in a surreal landscape. These are droll satires in which, perhaps, a panel of experts debates the merits of boxer shorts versus briefs; or black comedies in which, for instance, an ambulance runs down people instead of rescuing them, or a go-go dancer’s parents drown in the waters of Lourdes.

For these dramas, Frank relies heavily on the influence of a small band of gifted improvisational actors, many of whom perform on Broadway; he met them in New York and still visits there to record these programs.

In contrast to the other characters who wander through KCRW’s overly air-conditioned catacombs in the basement of Santa Monica City College’s student activities building, Frank pales. Others make bold fashion statements but Frank does not wish to be judged by externals; clothing is something he gives little thought to. He wears things like an old man’s T-shirt under his short-sleeve shirt, bagged-out pants that hang too low on his waist and worn-down Florsheim shoes.

But this morning he appears in the studio in an electric-blue shirt patterned with Memphis squiggles. “Somebody else made me buy this,” he says, confessing to a closet that’s almost entirely black, brown and gray. “But I sort of like getting into colors.” He flashes a smile that seems to say, “I’m having fun even though I’m not supposed to” and then quickly subdues his momentary lapse into enthusiasm.

Today he must get permission from the supervisor of the crisis counselor to use the conversation on the air; later he has an appointment to work with an actor he’s never met. But he’s got something more pressing on his mind. In the morning’s rush, he left home without his Lomotil, a medication he’s taken daily for nine years to quell the constant upheaval that pulls at his stomach. Before anything he must get his pills.

He puts on black-mirrored sunglasses and walks to the parking lot with a slight limp. He moves unsteadily, reminiscent of a bear walking upright. When he reaches his car, he apologizes. “It’s a mess.” The spotless Jetta gleams in the sun.

“Inside is a mess.”

The interior of the car looks like it just came off the assembly line, except that on the back seat there’s a basketball, an empty light-bulb carton and a T-shirt.

“The T-shirt’s dirty,” Frank says.

WHEN FRANK returns to the studio, the actor, Harvey Sachs, is waiting.

“You’re not what I thought you’d look like,” says Sachs, a muscular man with an intense smile.

Frank steps back. “What did you expect?”

“Someone taller, with sunken eyes, and 10 years younger.”

Frank lowers his gaze; he’s 48. The age nerve seems to be a touchy one.

Because Sachs does a convincing East Indian accent, Frank asks him to sing “What the World Needs Now” in the accent.

Sachs happily agrees.

Frank says: “I want you to talk some of this. We don’t need another Caruso.” He leaves Sachs in the performance studio and moves to the control booth.

From the booth he can see into three other studios. In one of them, KCRW’s assistant musical director, Ariana Morgenstern, a young woman with a helmet of short dark hair, a Romanesque profile and graceful, pale arms, is eating green grapes. For the past year and a half, she and Frank have been steady companions. But today, at work, they give no indication that they’re aware of each other.

Frank cues up the syrupy music. “Don’t be nervous,” he calls to Sachs. “This is radio. You cannot fail because we can always tape it again.”

Five takes later, Frank sits on the floor facing the monitor, head cocked like the RCA dog. “It’s not working,” he says. He lies flat on the carpet, lacing his fingers and resting them on the top of his head. He closes his eyes. “He’s gotta talk it.” And although Sachs hasn’t heard him, the actor suddenly says, “Lord . . .” in the tone of voice of a man chastising a grandfather who’s brought his grandchildren 200 Twinkies, “. . . we don’t need another mountain.” Frank sits up. “This is good.” He laughs and calls a lunch break. Sachs and Frank return to the big table in the performance studio bearing take-out boxes of marinated vegetables, tofu and tuna. Sachs sits down; Frank purposefully walks to the opposite end of the table, clears it, and takes a seat 12 feet away.

FRANK’S VIENNESE mother and Polish father were in flight from the Nazis when he was born in 1939 in Strasbourg, France. They settled in New York City, where Frank’s father established a successful shoe-manufacturing business. Frank spent most of his childhood recovering from leg operations and confined to casts and braces to correct his clubfeet. “At school I used to wish I could say I’d been in a train wreck, anything,” Frank says, “rather than having been born as though I belonged to another species.”

The day before Frank was to undergo major surgery, his father died. Frank was told his father had gone away on business. After his surgery, he learned the truth. He was 5 years old. “My childhood was so hard to fathom that I developed an absurdist way of looking at things,” he explains. “It’s like when you go to a funeral and find you have to run into the men’s room to contain your laughter.”

At 20, he suffered a severe illness, and while recuperating he experienced something that turned around his life: He read William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” the story of a good family gone to seed. “I was completely staggered by Faulkner’s stream-of-consciousness method,” Frank says. “You’re going along and then all of a sudden, you’re inside somebody’s head, thinking what they’re thinking.”

Inspired to write, Frank attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and then taught at a private high school in Manhattan for 10 years. But he quit the Dalton School in the mid-’70s after, he says, “I realized I’d spent my entire life in school. I was teaching kids whose parents were more accomplished than I, and it was time to move on.”

He decided to sign up as a volunteer at the local Pacifica station. On Tuesday mornings from 5 to 7, groggy coffee sippers could hear such distinctive Joe Frank pieces as a mime performing on radio (daring: one minute of dead air), or a wry interview with a bogus Romanian playwright. Then, as now, some listeners didn’t know how to take this material. But then, as now, many listeners were hooked.

THE LIVING ROOM of Frank’s two-bedroom stucco cottage in Venice doesn’t get much light. The carpets and couch are the color of Alpo; the furnishings resemble those of a post-college apartment, and the only nod to 1987 is the exercise bike peeking out of the study. This is where Frank settled after a year in the hotel.

Dressed in a black shirt, gray pants and thick, brilliantly white socks that appear to be brand-new, he sits in a low-slung chair talking about how he’s changed in the last year and a half. “I’ve grown older. I cut deeper. The programs used to be more funny than they were serious. Now I’ve done these monologues, which are honest, emotional and wrenching. I didn’t do that when I began.”

He’s quiet for a while, then sits up straight. “Sometimes I feel like a voyeur into people’s lives. Even listeners might feel that way.” He sits back in his chair. “But it’s not voyeurism. Because when you look into the life of someone else, you see what you share with them. You see your own reflection.”

Frank is holding onto the toe of his white sock and staring down at it.

After a moment, he says: “When I was young, when I was in high school, when I lost my license for reckless driving, I used to try to live my life as though it were a movie.” His eyes travel to the dining room table, covered with stacks of paper, most of them transcriptions of tapes. “And now I have no life. All I do is radio. And so in a lot of ways, radio is more important to me than my life. At least for now,” he says, still holding firmly onto his foot.