Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Interview With OTR Historian Jack French

1. You were an FBI agent. What type of cases did you work on?

I worked nearly every type of case in my 23 years as an FBI Agent. I started out in Dallas Division and worked deserters, car thieves, bad check passers, impersonation cases, etc. But most of my time there was spent working on the JFK Assassination which occurred five months after I got there. I was next assigned to the St. Louis Division and handled fugitive cases, stolen property, assaults on federal property and then later extremist groups, Black Panthers, Weather Underground, and destruction of draft boards and federal buildings. At FBI Headquarters, where I finished my career, I worked Freedom of Information Act requests, inspected FBI Field offices, and handled assistance to authors and historians.

2. When did you first get interested in Old Time Radio. (I suppose it was “new time” to you!)

Well, as a kid during WW II I listened to the radio very much, generally juvenile adventures as Tom Mix, Captain Midnight, Superman, and Jack Armstrong. My entire family listened to True Detective Mysteries, Quick as a Flash, The Shadow, The Whistler, and Twenty Questions. Radio was my primary entertainment until I got to college in 1954 where I listened to the last drama programs, including Gunsmoke and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Not until about 1970 did I learn that many of these programs still existed in audio form. My FBI secretary in St. Louis for my birthday gave me a 33 rpm record which had four kid's shows on it: Tom Mix, Superman, Hopalong Cassidy, and Captain Midnight. Based upon that, I started searching for more shows, both from OTR dealers and from radio clubs, primarily North American Radio Archives. I eventually became editor of the latter's quarterly journal, NARA NEWS.

For the past forty years I've been researching and writing about the Golden Age of Radio. My articles have appeared in over a dozen different publications, including Nostalgia Digest (out of Chicago) and many of my pieces can be found on the Internet.

3. You help out OTR collectors today, on such internet resources as the OTR Bulletin board.

The hobby's main bulletin board, the Old-Time Radio Digest, which I've been a subscriber to for the past ten years, is a sounding board and info-sharing pool of hundreds of collectors and fans, primarily throughout North America and Europe.

When I was working on my book, Private Eyelashes; Radio's Lady Detectives from 2002 to 2004, I frequently got email (and snail mail) from people I didn't even know, who told me they knew of my interest in feminine sleuths so they were sending me an article on an obscure lady detective, or a cassette of a show I couldn't find, and sometimes even a script or two. A gentleman (and a stranger) from Germany sent me a CD of some missing Time For Love, the mystery adventures of Marlene Dietrich, which were only available in the Berlin Museum. Another man (also a stranger to me) send me some previously unknown materials from Australia that related to the detective series It's a Crime, Mr. Collins.

Until it ended this October, the Friends of Old Time Radio (FOTR) Convention in Newark, NJ was the best event for meeting the stars of the Golden Age of Radio and listening to them perform live on stage, using old scripts, but with live sound effects and musical cues. Over the years, I've meet and heard virtually every important radio performer including: Mason Adams, Bob Hastings, Jackson Beck, Win Elliot, Ed Herlihy, Ken Roberts, Alice Reinheart, Grace Mathews, Florence Williams, Raymond Edward Johnson, Fred Foy, Parley Baer, Frank Nelson, Veola Vonn, and dozens of others.

4. As an aside, did you ever meet the Tom Corbett actors, Frankie Thomas, Jan Merlin and so on?

Yes, virtually the entire cast of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet was assembled at the 1993 FOTR convention. So I met Frankie Thomas, Jan Merlin, Ed Bryce, Al Markim, Jackson Beck, and George Gould and listened to them re-create with live microphones and sound effects one of their great radio adventures.

5. You wrote Private Eyelashes: Radio’s Lady Detectives for Bear Manor Media. What was the genesis and process of writing that book?

I've always been interested in feminine sleuths. As a kid I read Nancy Drew more than the Hardy Boys. When I started collecting audio copies in the 1970s one of the first lady private eye shows I heard was Candy Matson, YU 2-8209. I started looking for more and found a few: Meet Miss Sherlock and Sarah's Private Caper.

Several pals in the hobby sent me information on more of them and I wrote a few articles on the dozen or so series I had found. When these articles appeared in OTR hobby magazines, I received more information on ones I'd missed. Finally about 2002 I was contacted by Ben Ohmart of Bear Manor Media who publishes books on vintage radio, TV and movies. He'd read some of my material on the Internet and asked me if I wanted to write a book on female sleuths. I said "Sure" and he asked me how many there were. "Well, I've found 19 so far" I responded. "Not enough for a book" he countered, "How about including the wives of the detective, like Pam North, and the gal-Fridays who helped their bosses solve cases, like Margot Lane."

I said I'd do further research on the genre and when I had found over 40 such ladies, Ben and I signed the contract for what would be Private Eyelashes; Radio's Lady Detectives. When it was released in the spring of 2004, it received enormous praise from both the OTR community and the mystery hobby, gathering two favorable reviews in Mystery Scene magazine and eventually winning the Agatha Award for Best Non-Fiction at the Malice Domestic Convention. The book has since gone into its second edition and is available in both paperback and Kindle now.

6. You give speeches on OTR and such other topics as Women in aviation books to this day.

Like many authors, I research and write about what I like. In the case of OTR, I really enjoy all lady detectives, Tom Mix, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, all the Royal Canadian Mounted Police radio shows, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, and any series relating to the FBI.

I've been fortunate to be chosen by Radio Spirits, Inc. to write the program guides for several of their excellent CD boxed sets of vintage radio shows (all re-mastered.) For this NJ firm, I've researched and written the program guides for Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, Mr. and Mrs. North, Defense Attorney, Frontier Gentleman, Fort Laramie, I Was a Communist for the FBI, Hopalong Cassidy, and several others.

For my research, I try to rely on primary sources if available, which would include listening to audio copies of the show, reading the scripts, interviewing people who worked on the show, reading contemporary accounts of the show in vintage periodicals, etc. By now I can rely on a large group of friends and associates who can usually steer me in the right direction. I frequently dip into any of the 120 reference books I have in my library. If a star's memory differs from some established record I've found, I use both versions and let the reader make what they think is a logical choice.

7. What other OTR organizations do you belong to. SPERDVAC?

At present, I only belong to the Metropolitan Washington OTR Club and edit its journal, RADIO RECALL. Anyone can learn about our club and read articles from past issues by going to our web site,

About 15 years ago, I convinced the editors of other OTR journals and newsletters that we should exchange our publications with each other gratis, and as far as I know, we all do this now. So while I'm not a member of these other clubs, I receive every copy of their publications so I am very familiar with SPERDVAC, Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound, OTR Radio Club of Western NY, Radio Historical Association of Colorado, The Chattanooga OTR Club and other similar organizations.

Selected Links
Listen for Free:

Acquire Shows From:
Radio Spirits:
Radio Showcase:

OTR Organizations (Jack's organization)


  1. Jack has been a friend for many years and I can tell you that if you share any interest in old time radio, especially, detective-genre, his book is a must read. His knowledge of the subject as well as others has been an inspiration to many including me to research subjects of similar interest. Thanks for the interview.

  2. Jack is a fabulous resource to anyone looking for information on old radio shows. If he doesn't know something (rare), he'll know someone who does know it. He's a treasure to the hobby!