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Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves, Revised Edition Paperback – March 15, 2002
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Nowadays, we forget how important radio was in the history of the 20th Century. America had a largely rural population in the 1930's AM radio not only produced entertainment in the cities, it opened up the world to people living isolated lives on farms. Before Radio, people in rural America would get their news weeks later. Radio was important for other reasons. National leaders such as FDR, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini used radio to communicate their message, often with astounding success, and to consolidate power. It was said that women in Germany would weep with joy at the sound of Hitler's voice. Radio had immense emotional power and significance from 1924 to 1956.
Border Radio arose out of an informal alliance of outcasts. When Canada and the U.S. negotiated agreements on the allotment of radio frequencies, Mexico was excluded from the agreement. John R. Brinkley was being hounded and harassed, for very good reasons, and yet had the resources to fight back and brought with him the money and know how to set up these border blaster radio stations in Mexico. At the time, the American clear channel stations were limited to 50,000 watts. The Border stations transmitting from Piedras Negras, Acuna, and Tijuana were transmitting at night between 3 and 4 times that much wattage. Birds that flew too close to the transmitters were knocked stone dead out of the sky. The stations received mail from as far away as Sweden claiming to hear clear reception. This was an uneasy, unstable, and unpredictable alliance that involved everything from red tape to pitched gun battles. The lawyer, Arturo Gonzalez, was kept busy on both sides of the border for many years.
In the 1930's and 40's, Border radio introduced all kinds of outcast or marginal music to a broader audience and created new stars. Hillbilly music became Bluegrass acts like the Carter Family, Western swing artists like Pappy O'Daniel (who later became a Governor of Texas), Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, and the Delmore Brothers. On the Spanish language side, Tejano musicians such as Lydia Mendoza brought her fine voice and 12 string guitar to the night time radio and audiences as far north as North Dakota. What all the music had in common was a gut level passion sometimes lacking in the polished popular music of the era.
Border radio afforded a platform for nondenominational preachers who had otherwise been driven off the air by organized religious groups. As with the music, these preachers tapped into the passionate needs of the audience and were vital for the financial success of the border radio stations. The most familiar of these figures would be Reverend Ike "Get yourself outta the Ghetto and into the Get Mo."
Last but not least of the characters was Wolfman Jack (Robert Smith.) Wolfman Jack was the only Border Radio act I heard live. He was broadcasting on XERB from Rosarita Beach, Mexico. With three rock and roll stations in Los Angeles in the early 1960's (KHJ, KFWB, and KRLA) competing for the same listeners, they pretty much sounded the same. There was also an R&B station (KGFJ) that played for South Central audiences their top ten records. Wolfman Jack played a wider range of music and weaved his bad boy act into the records; an act that went way beyond what was permitted on U.S. stations at the time. Border Radio tells the story of how Robert Smith became Wolfman Jack.
I really enjoyed this book.
BORDER RADIO is a wonderful history of the border blaster stations. Fowler and Crawford have compiled an exhaustive history of the stations and personalities in a way that captures the flavor of the times. Some of the radio personalities, like the Goat Gland Doctor, were outright frauds, others, like Wolfman Jack, were the purveyors of the exciting, underground culture of rock-and-roll. All hawked their wares on the border stations, making an impression on American broadcasting, popular music, advertising and merchandising that is still felt today.
Superbly detailed, BORDER RADIO covers the evolution of the medium from the early days of the 1930s when hillbilly music and medical quacks ruled the airwaves, to its demise in the 1960s when television and broadcasting treaties silenced the border stations for good. If you love radio and Americana, you won't be able to put this book down. Highly recommended.
While most of us born later than the 1960's have probably never heard border radio, we nonetheless have at least heard of it thanks to ZZTop's classic "Heard It On The X". By Mexican law, all radio station call letters had to begin with the letter "X", hence the title. These stations were situated just across the U.S. - Mexican border and blasted the North American continent with as much as 500,000 or even a million watts! Perhaps the funniest part of the story is the anecdotes by people not far from the tower in southwest Texas near Del Rio, particularly who reported picking up transmissions off barbed wire fences, fillings in teeth and, in the last portion of the book that feautures the late Wolfman Jack, his recalling of birds flying too close to the towers and frying in mid-flight!
It's a wonderful history of preachers, the forerunners of today's televangelists, quack doctors, some genuine musical genius, including a young Bob Wills before founding the Texas Playboys and, of course, the Wolfman himself.
Claims of these AM radio giants being heard world-wide can truly be considered a direct ancestor to the world wide web, complete with its own spam in the form of wild commercials and hawking some truly bizarre health products, prayer cloths and just about everything under the sun.
"Border Radio . . . " is well researched and written with obvious great admiration for a lost chapter in broadcast history. A fine read.