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John French, his father's broadcast 'tagalong,' retires his own accomplished mic

After supper, a young John French read aloud from the newspaper as his father listened. Jack French's main objective was to improve his son's word comprehension. But another lesson crept into the daily ritual. "He wanted me to read clearly and en...

John French
Local radio celebrity John French is turning off his microphone after 47 years in the business. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

After supper, a young John French read aloud from the newspaper as his father listened.

Jack French's main objective was to improve his son's word comprehension. But another lesson crept into the daily ritual.

"He wanted me to read clearly and enunciate properly," John French said. "For instance, he taught me to say 'get' instead of 'git.'"

Although many lessons were handed down from one generation of broadcaster to the next, there was one thing father didn't need to teach son. About his resonant, baritone voice, John French said, "I was blessed with that."

That working voice retired Nov. 20, when its owner turned 62. For the first time in more than 60 years, a French won't be heard over the airways.

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"Hey, my dad was the radio pioneer. I was just a tagalong," French said.

Two radio generations

Jack French came to Grand Forks in the mid-1940s to work at KILO, then one of only two radio stations in town. He was widely regarded as the city's first disc jockey and later became the city's first television sportscaster. He moved into ownership two decades later.

In 1962, at age 14, John joined his father at KRAD as a janitor and copywriter. Two years later, he was an on-air talent.

"I was terrible because I was as nervous as a guy could be," he said. "My dad fixed that by having me on the air 12 hours on Saturdays and 11 hours on Sundays. After a few hours, you're too tired to be nervous."

The one thing he learned from his father, more than his grade-school diction lessons, was "to be enthusiastic. Radio is show business. And Dad was the ultimate showman."

At one county fair, the DJ stayed on the air for 127 consecutive hours, then was hauled away in an ambulance. At another, the station trumpeted that they had an exhibit of Mike the Mole, a human who had tunneled his way to Grand Forks from the Pembina Hills. "People lined up around the block to see Mike the Mole," French said with a laugh.

Without the mass media options of today, radio used to be glamorous work. He has the photographs to prove it on his studio walls, with him posing alongside Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Buck Owens and George McGovern, among others. Fresh out of high school, he had lunch with a polite Presley, who called him "Mr. French."

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He took two unsuccessful stabs at college but realized both times that the call of the microphone was too strong.

A new job

John was in the radio business for 26 years, including a stint as an owner, at radio stations with call letters spanning the alphabet. Then, in 1988, he formed John French Productions, which does mostly voiceovers in television and radio advertising.

Although he's not in the public realm as he was before, his voice is heard here and across the nation on commercials.

His two biggest local clients are Rydell GM Auto Center and the Carpet Garage, which have stores in many states.

"The Carpet Garage commercials are a bit corny with the frogs dancing around, but it grabs your attention," French said. "All of my commercials are hard-sell, high-energy. I think my enthusiasm got me further than my talent."

Also helping was his distinct voice, seemingly unharmed by 40-plus years of smoking cigarettes. Its deepness has a ring of authority, yet it's still pleasant and welcoming. Advertisers obviously love it since he has carved out a living from his Belmont Road home's sun-porch studio, with the 40-year-old control board. Advertisers prefer Midwestern deliveries because they don't carry an accent.

He's also done narrations for documentaries and industry films that pitch products. He did a video touting North Dakota tourism that was voted the best of the 50 states.

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"I rarely have been on camera because I have a perfect face for radio," he said.

He played a horse-riding cowboy in the video. One of the bits was in Northwood, where the script called for the townspeople, upon cue, to pour out of the stores onto an otherwise deserted Main Street as he rode into the downtown.

"That was fine, but no one told the horse. It spooked, reared up and almost stomped a kid," French said.

Bringing outdoors to kids

Retirement figures to be more peaceful. He and Lorie, his wife of 45 years, have a new granddaughter to visit in Arizona.

John, an avid sportsman, wants to expand his efforts to introduce children to the outdoors. He helped to organize the local Hooked on Fishing program for youth. And he has plans for a similar type of program for hunting.

"There are a lot of single-parent mothers out there who don't know how to teach their kids to hunt," he said. "I'd like to do that."

With his commanding voice, chances are they will be attentive students.

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to rbakken@gfherald.com .

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