Category Archives: FM Radio

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

August 19, 1938 – January 15, 2018

Sleepless son of the sleepless fatherStory Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

My father listened to the radio in the middle of the night. If I woke I could hear the soft tones of some seemingly distant program or if the Yankees were playing on the west coast, the announcer’s play-by-play.

I loved listening to the radio in the middle of the night.  As a teenager I’d slowly dial the tuner to find music or whatever caught my ear. I still am a night-listener, though nowadays it’s mainly podcasts.

At some point years ago when dialing around I heard someone telling a story. A remarkable voice.  In that sleepy-middle-of-the-night zone, I was hooked, but confused in a few minutes.

This storyteller, this Voice, had taken a turn somewhere and led me down the proverbial rabbit hole.

There was no Google. No internet to quickly look up a station’s schedule (if I’d even known what the station was). I never found out whose voice. Every few years in the middle of the night as the dial turned I’d hear him again and know I was in for another strange trip if I was lucky enough to have fallen at the beginning of this venture.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Joe Frank?

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

When I saw a headline that Joe Frank had died, I thought Joe Frank? Joe Frank died years ago. Then I realized I was thinking of old time  TV and radio personality Joe Franklin from New York City.

So. Joe Frank?

Yes. Joe Frank. After decades of wonder, enthrallment, and confusion, I’d found the voice.

Dozens of individuals and groups have since sadly noted Franks’s passing with glowing articles, interviews, and podcasts . If you Google “Joe Frank” the first page alone lists links to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, NPR, WNYC, Slate Magazine, the Washington Post, Chicago Reader, and LA Observed.

WNYC’s Brooke Gladstone’s comments typify these unanimous plaudits: Joe Frank died Monday. He was 79. And he was a radio giant. He conducted interviews, read stories, wrote dramas, and none of it was like anything done before because it was so raw and, frankly, nuts. To many of us, it was shocking and sad. He wasn’t a huge star but his light has been reflected in the great work of people you do know

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Who do we know?

People like Harry Shearer who said on Twitter: The great radio artist of our time has passed away. You will never hear anybody smarter, darker, funnier than Joe Frank. RIP, my friend. Check him out at https://t.co/yIYHeWiQHN No better honor of his memory than you hearing his work.

People like Ira Glass of This American Life who heard Frank and realized that this type of storytelling, this type of production, was what Glass wanted to try do, too.

Jad Abumrad, co-host and founder of the very successful radio program and podcast, Radiolab cites how important Joe Frank was to his career path. Abumrad spoke of when he first began Radiolab he was over his head, but after the show, Joe Frank came on…

“…and he was part of my shift. And every time, I’d just be like, what the F- is this stuff? I, I would just be sitting there listening to him and just like amazed and like mentally taking notes, being, like, oh, this guy has a feel and a — there’s a surreal-ity and a disorienting-ness to his stuff that I was just really fascinated by, and I was like, oh, I want to, want to do that.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Dressed like a chicken

To simply quote a piece Joe Frank cannot do justice to the power of listening to a piece, but just to give you an idea of Frank’s absurd genius, here is a small example:

There was a time when I danced on a street corner dressed as a chicken. My job was to draw attention to a furniture store down the block. One evening, when my shift was over, still wearing my chicken outfit, I walked into a bar across the street. I’d ordered a Bombay martini straight up, olives on the side.

A prostitute sat down next to me. She was young, willowy, had a faraway look in her eyes. Her name was Meredith. We talked about our careers, the importance of networking, setting goals, focus.

Then I excused myself, walked into the men’s room, entered a stall and sat down on the toilet and had a bowel movement that broke in two.

And half of it was still hanging out of me, so I had to wipe myself 50 times, repeatedly checking to see if there was more left on the toilet paper.

And written on the wall were the words, “Know that someone is suffering anonymously and unknown and that by the time you read this, I’ll be dead.”

Disgusting? Sure. Troubling? Yup. Intriguing? Absolutely. Keep listening? Hard not to. Where  was it going? How would it end?

Jad Abumrad spoke with Ira Glass on a Radiolab podcast tribute to Frank and both spoke enthusiastically, glowingly, and humorously about Frank’s influence on them. And if you have never heard Ira Glass drop a few F-bombs and you’d like to, follow that link!

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

A lifetime of illnesses

Joe Frank died of colon cancer complications, but health issues had filled his life from birth.

He was born Joseph Langermann on August 19, 1938, in Strasbourg, France, His parents and he escaped the Nazi pogrom in 1939 by fleeing to New York City.

Frank had club feet. His father died when he was five on a day of a procedure aimed at correcting that condition. His mother told him that his father had gone on a business trip.

One of his testicles never descended and when he was 20 he got cancer in his one testicle. Radiation saved him.

He had bladder cancer. He got colon cancer. He had scoliosis.

He had kidney failure and a first cousin donated their kidney to save Franks’s life, but later charged Frank for the kidney.

His colon cancer came back.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

The road to radio

Away from doctors and treatments, Joe Frank attended Hofstra University (NY)–he said he’d cheated on his entrance exam. After earning a degree in English.

He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but didn’t finish the program.

He taught for 10 years at Dalton, an exclusive private school in NYC hoping to be a writing, but teaching was too time-consuming.

For two years, still living in NYC, he formed a company to produce musical acts at the Academy of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts.

On the drives between NYC and Massachusetts he listened to the radio, particularly liking baseball games, not so much for the way the announcers called the play-by-play, but the way the announcers told side stories. Radio became his passion.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

WBAI to NPR

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

In 1975, he began to work at the Pacifica station WBAI in NYC. According to Frank in an LA Weekly article,  “in 1976 I was given my own show [ “In the Dark.”] from 4 a.m. to 5 a.m., every Tuesday. I figured nobody was listening at that hour so I felt free to do whatever I wanted, and that was the beginning of the idea of telling stories on the radio. The show was well-received…”

In 1978, he moved to National Public Radio in Washington, DC and its “All Things Considered,” but that did not work out. He continued to work sporadically for NPR as an independent producer.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

KCRW

In 1986, he and KCRW (Bakersfield, CA) found a partnership. His first series, Work in Progress, was followed by In the Dark, which morphed into Somewhere Out There, and finally The Other Side.

That relationship lasted until 2002 when a disagreement with Ruth Seymour, KCRW’s general manager, led to his firing.

By then the internet had arrived and Frank expanded his web page and his live performances.

He did return to KCRW before leaving again in due to recurring poor health.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Outside radio

Joe Frank was also a writer.  His site lists his published works:

Theatre Publications:

  • “The Decline Of Spengler” (New Directions 48, New York)
  • “A Tour Of The City” (Tanam Press, New York)

Three of Frank’s radio plays were produced for theatre:

  • “A Tour of the City” by Theatre Anima in Montreal, Canada, translated into French, which included performers from Cirque du Soleil.
  • “Rent-a-Family” by Stages Trilingual Theatre in Los Angeles.
  • “Jerry’s World Onstage” by Infernal Bridegroom Productions, Houston, Texas.

There are films he is associated with:

Short films based on Joe Frank’s programs:
“Hitchhiker,”
“Jilted Lover,”
“The Perfect Woman,”
“Memories,” 
directed by Paul Rachman

Coma and Eleanor
directed by Todd Downing

Magda and Dirt 
directed by Chel White

Finally, the industry recognized his talent with many awards.

  • George Foster Peabody Award “For creating radio of style, substance and imagination…”
  • Two Major Armstrong Awards For the “Most Innovative Radio Drama.”
  • Two Gold Awards from the International Radio Festival of New York for outstanding radio drama.
  • Two Corporation for Public Broadcasting Radio Program Awards for best Broadcast Performance.
  • A Broadcast Media Award from San Francisco University.
  • An Emmy Award for “Joe Frank: Storyteller” featured on public television station KCET.
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from Third Coast International Audio Festival. Listen to Joe’s acceptance speech (Stream | Download)
  • Mr. Frank is also a Guggenheim Fellow.

Joe Frank was also the author of “The Queen of Puerto Rico and Other Stories,” a collection of short stories based on his radio work published in 1993 by William Morrow.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

Frank was 79 when he died on January 15 in Beverly Hills, California.  

“I’ve heard people say they’re not afraid of death but I never believe them — I don’t even believe religious people aren’t afraid of death,” he adds. “When a pope dies, people grieve. If they believed what they claim to believe, they would be celebrating the fact that the pope has gone to heaven. And the pope doesn’t want to die, either.”
Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank

I wish I knew your name sooner, Joe Frank, but you will always be in my ears.

Story Weaver Extraordinaire Joe Frank
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WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

A man of principles
(click below to listen to Rosko’s theme)
Fall 1969

We, all of us, sitting here in our small comforts, worrying about inflation…swapping small talk at lunch…wrapped in ourselves in our banalities…all of us must sleep tonight in the knowledge that we share in mass murder.”

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

William Roskoe Mercer

William Roscoe Mercer was born on May 25, 1927, in New York City. After first working as a government clerk and a men’s-room attendant, he began his radio career as a jazz disc jockey at WHAT in Chester, PA. Later he was a DJ at WDAS in Philadelphia and then to WBLS in New York.

In the late 1950’s, when DJ were trying to form a union, he refused to cross a picket line. Management black listed him for six months.

In the early 1960’s, Rosko was back on the radio in Oakland and then back east at WBLS.

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

WOR-FM

Rosko, though obviously experienced, was not as well-known a name as Murry the K and Scott Muni when WOR-FM switched to rock in 1966. He quickly became a favorite.

Only a year later in October 1967, WOR-FM management began to use the Drake system, which emphasized the replay of hits songs. It upped ratings, but greatly diminished the person style that the DJs  had developed.

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

Monday 2 October 1967

“I cannot go along with the new policy here.”

On October 2, 1967, without warning the station’s management, Rosko spoke for five minutes about why he was resigning, saying, ”When are we going to learn that controlling something does not take it out of the minds of people?’‘ and declaring, ”In no way can I feel that I can continue my radio career by being dishonest with you.

He added that he would rather return to being a men’s-room attendant.

Click the link below to hear his resignation.

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer

WNEW-FM  > France

By November 1967 WNEW-FM, hired Rosko  where he stayed for just a year.

It was in August 1968 that Rosko read the anti-war piece you hear over today’s blog entry. It was a new time in radio and Rosko was at that DJ forefront.

In 1970 he moved to France for five years and worked for the Voice of America.

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer
Back in the USA–Still principled

He returned to the US and was heard during the 1980’s on WBLS-FM and WKTU-FM. In 1985, Mercer quit WKTU-FM while on the air, because of a reported dispute with the station’s hierarchy.

In 1992, when he learned he had cancer, he refused chemotherapy, turning instead to alternative medicine.

He died on August 1, 2000: NYT obit

Full recording of Rosko on My Lai

WNEW Bill Rosko Mercer
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Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

AM Radio

I grew up in the 50s and early 60s listening to New York City’s pop radio stations WINS-AM (Murry the K), WABC-AM (Cousin Brucie), and WMCA-AM (B Mitchell Reed). In the hope of avoiding another advertisement and finding a hit song,  my constant switching of stations drove my parents crazy.     

The birth of FM rock stations in the late ’60s rescued and weaned me from that non-stop barrage of advertising and rapid chatter. 

Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

FM Rock arrives

It may seem like FM’s wonderful days of diverse music and sensible DJ commentary are long gone, but like Mom’s adage that if we “go looking for trouble, we’ll find it,” if you go looking for radio stations that still provide that satisfying mix of old, new, borrowed, and blue, you’ll find them.

And with today’s access to the internet, that search is not limited to the 30-mile circumference around your ears.

During the early summer of 1966, I saw a billboard about a new station. An FM station. WOR-FM. I found it and thought I’d found radio heaven, particularly since for the first few months of its existence there were no DJs…union issues. Just song after song after song. It set list was a lot like AM, but I didn’t know what was coming. 

A year later WOR decided that their DJs didn’t need choice. One of them, Rosko, resigned on the air. Shortly later, he moved to WNEW-FM which had become the station of choice for most Boomers seeking radio nirvana.

WNEW-FM and its amazing family of DJs are gone, but Woodstock Radio (located in Bearsville, NY — why is it that so many “Woodstock” things aren’t actually in Woodstock?) is a great choice today.

Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

April 29, 1980

WDST first aired on April 29, 1980 and described itself as  “public radio with commercials”. Though CHET-5 Broadcasting bought the station in 1993, Radio Woodstock continues to provide a great mix of music with DJs who don’t get in the way, but still have a voice.

In keeping with its famously known name associated with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (held in Bethel, NY, not Woodstock, NY), WDST celebrated its 25th anniversary with the first Mountain Jam. Held every year since the first festival in 2004. That festival was a single day with a single stage. Nowadays, the event typically has three stages and takes place over 4 days.

Radio Woodstock Mt Jam

Mountain Jam 2019

This year’s Jam will run from June 13 – June 16. 

The BIG news is that it has moved from Hunter Mountain, to, wait for it, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts!

Some of the artists who are there will be:  Willie Nelson & Family, Gov’t Mule, The Avett Brothers, The Revivalists, Alison Krauss, Toots  & the Maytals, Amy Helm, The Allman Betts Band, and of course many more. See line-up for the complete listing.

The music you love is still out there. Like finding trouble, just go look for it!
Happy birthday Radio Woodstock!
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