I grew up a latchkey kid in a rough, working-class California suburb. My mom worked long hours in the city, so I usually found myself alone in the apartment on weekday evenings, with an antenna TV that picked up three or four fuzzy stations and a radio receiver with seventies-era wood-panel speakers.
I can’t remember how old I was when I first heard Joe Frank’s voice on the radio. It has a low, gravelly tone. It bears resemblance to a traditional broadcasting voice, but it’s more hushed, as if the announcer has finished reading the news, turned off the microphone, poured himself a drink, and begun to confess to a stranger in the production booth
Frank’s shows often begin with gentle, pulsing music, followed by a monologue in which he pretends to be anyone from a third-world dictator to a preening narcissist to a regular person trapped in a nightmare. He enlists voice actors to participate in disturbing dramas in which ex-lovers leave desperate phone messages, argue with strangers, or laugh mechanically for uncomfortable lengths of time.
There’s no way to do his programs justice by describing them here. You have to hear them.
One thing Joe Frank pioneered with his shows is the use of background noises to achieve a documentary effect—something that’s now become almost ubiquitous in nonfiction radio. Frank’s programs turned radio into literature.
In recent years, Frank has been writing brief vignettes meant to be read, rather than performed. Having grown up memorizing his unforgettable voice, it’s impossible for me to read what he writes without hearing him. I’m taken back to my childhood apartment, lying face up on the shag carpet, the lights out, and the whispering anticipation and fear that came in the first moments of his shows.
Being a cartoonist, albeit a rather colicky one, I thought perhaps I might be able to grab onto some of the mood of what his program does without the advantage of sound. So with Joe Frank’s blessing, I’ve turned one of his written vignettes into a cartoon.
Jason Novak is a cartoonist in Oakland, California.