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.