This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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A BYTE OUT OF HISTORY
(From Radio Recall, February 2008)
Original transcript of recent FBI radio show, now in the public domain. Your editor was interviewed on this show by Special Agent Neil Shiff of the Office of Public Affairs at FBI Headquarters.
Retired FBI Special Agent Jack French Talks About FBI Cases...On Your Radio Dial!
"You're back in the Magic Carpet Theatre of the air for the last act of "The Arizona Mail Train Hold-Up." This is a dramatization of an actual case from the Federal Investigation Files at Washington, D.C. Tom Vance and his son John were tracked to their ranch by United States Postal Inspector Irwin after the hold-up of the Arizona Mail Train. Bill Vance, another son, is a deputy in the sheriff's office but Tom and John Vance admit making the trail from the scene of the hold-up, claiming it was made the day before the crime, when they were riding the range. Inspector Irwin may have some important clues....he followed the trail carefully, even examining a fire which the man made......Now our second act is about to begin.....Special Agent Five is awaiting instructions from headquarters. (WHISTLE) ON WITH THE SHOW!"
It's a fact: 73 years ago, October 25, 1933, "The Lucky Strike Hour" became the first radio program to dramatize FBI cases on a national network. Which made us ask ourselves: Just what's the history of FBI cases on American airwaves anyway? Neal Schiff, FBI broadcaster of the FBI, This Week radio show since 1990, interviewed former FBI Agent Jack French, a radio historian, to find out.
Mr. Schiff: Jack, from your years in the FBI and your research into early radio, can you talk a little about The Lucky Strike Hour's "Special Agent Five"?
Mr. French: We were glad to participate in this program, Neal, but I don't think we realized at first how it would benefit us and, even more, how it would end up benefiting the public. This first show created a lot of interest in FBI cases and gave us a way to tell the American people about our work and our jurisdiction. Once the public understood what we lawfully could and could not do in closed cases, it was a relatively easy step to ask for help in tracking fugitives in open cases. "Special Agent Five" was a fictitious agent who appeared in some 15 Lucky Strike shows that were based on real cases. Some of these same cases were used again in the Jimmy Stewart film “The FBI Story.”
Mr. Schiff: Tell us about some of the radio shows that followed this one?
Mr. French: "Gangbusters" was a good one. Phillips H. Lord produced it from 1936 to 1957, and it came on strong: you heard screaming sirens, Thompson sub-machine guns blasting, and prisoners marching into their cells at the opening of every show. And, you know, it helped us catch over 100 criminals—all because each show would end with detailed descriptions, locations, and the criminal tendencies of selected fugitives. To my mind, it was really the beginning of a wonderful anti-crime partnership between the FBI and the American people.
Mr. Schiff: Other shows?
Mr. French: Lots of them. "Counterspy," from 1942 to 1957. "The FBI in Peace and War," from 1944 to 1958. "This is Your FBI," from 1945 to 1953, had William Woodson, Frank Lovejoy, and then Dean Carleton narrating crime dramas. "Top Secrets of the FBI" in the 40s. There was also the espionage thriller "I Was a Communist for the FBI" for a short time in the 50s, with Dana Andrews playing undercover agent Matt Cvetic. But I have to tell you, Neal, that the one I really want to talk about is your show.
Mr. Schiff: My show! Okay, but you better have your facts right.
Mr. French: First of all, happy birthday. 40 years old just last month, originally called "FBI-Washington" and in a 5-minute format.
Mr. Schiff: Right—and thanks so much for remembering.
Mr. French: As you know, "FBI—Washington" debuted in 1965 as an interview show with FBI executives...and with a very distinctive interviewer: Fred Foy, that easily recognized golden voice that announced "The Lone Ranger" show. At that time, as you can imagine, we covered a lot of topical issues—not just criminal violations, espionage, and Top Ten fugitives, but civil rights developments, Viet Nam War protests, communist cases, and what were then high tech advances in crime detection.
Mr. Schiff: I didn't come along until the 80s, Jack, and I started as the FBI coordinator of that "FBI—Washington" show when ABC great George Ansbro hosted the show. In fact, he began hosting the show in 1967. It was in 1990 that we adapted it into a one-minute format and called it "FBI, This Week." Since then we've focused on sound bites of FBI Executives, Special Agents, Scientists, and Professional Support employees talking about their areas of expertise—including today's issues of terrorism, economic and national espionage, cyber crimes, other major crimes, laboratory successes, and even fingerprint processing and identification efforts in the Criminal Justice Information Services Division.
Mr. French: You've carried on a great tradition, Neal, and taken it to the next step—not just with FBI, This Week but also with your “Gotcha “series, which highlights some incredibly interesting closed cases in every area of FBI jurisdiction.
Mr. Schiff: Thanks, Jack. And thanks for filling in a fascinating corner of FBI history. Parts of this interview will appear on my show, so I think it's fair to sign off by saying, "I'm Neal Schiff of the Bureau and that's what's happening at the FBI, This Week."