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+1/2 -- Fascinating subject, so-so writing, poor editing
on March 10, 2009
Border Radio chronicles the "quacks, yodelers, pitchmen, psychics and other amazing broadcasters" that populated the high-powered radio stations once arrayed just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The characters profiled, including the goat-gland transplanting John Brinkley, the cancer treating Norman Baker, the flour peddling soon-to-be Texas governor Pappy O'Daniel, and a parade of singing cowboys, astrologers, patent medicine salesmen, soul-saving preachers, and late-night DJs, are colorful, to say the least. So to were the battles fought over, around and between the stations, owners, operators, performers, competitors, politicians, and regulatory agencies, both within Mexico and between Mexico and the U.S.
Yet as rich as is the book's subject matter, the authors' historical account isn't nearly as engaging. The book's timeline meanders back and forth, failing to provide a through-line of the medium's development, and there's insufficient context to really understand how border intertwined with its more conventional brethren and within depression, war and post-war society. At times the narrative wanders from the primary subject, such as a lengthy discourse on Pappy O'Daniel's career as a politician, and the same material pops up in different sections. For the most part, the failure is in the hands of the book's editor, who failed to mold the author's extensive research into a compelling story with a coherent structure.
Though the authors conducted extensive new interviews, the copy still reads like a patchwork of researched sources, seeming to fall into recitation without offering specific quotes. The narrative feels detached, rarely getting inside the characters. None of the writing, for example, communicates the intense creepiness displayed in the photo of Dr. Brinkley in a 1930s operating room. The authors have done their research and know their subject, but their knowledge is inadequately served by their writing. That said, as the only book in print on the subject, this is worth reading, even if it doesn't always live up to its promise. 3-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]