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. . . and you'll be free.
—"Turn Your Radio On," hymn sung by Rhubarb Red and His Rubes, adapted from a song written by Albert E. Brumley and broadcast over XEG, Monterrey, Mexico, 1940s
In the Old West, it was not unusual for outlaws to make a break for the Mexican border. More than a few rebellious souls took refuge in her sleepy villages and desert oases. Decades after the last desperado splashed across the Rio Grande, a new breed of "badmen" crossed to the river's southern banks. The radio "outlaws" who built and operated the superpowered broadcasting stations just south of the border between 1930 and the mid-1980s stood in this tradition. The men and women who created border radio were frontiersmen of the ether, imaginative experimenters who came to la frontera seeking freedom from the restrictions of the American media establishment. By building huge transmitters and testing new and untried formats, these pioneers created a proving ground for many of the technical, legal, and programming aspects of today's broadcasting industry, and they managed to be quite entertaining as well.
At the turn of the twentieth century, America's airwaves were a virgin communication wilderness, barely touched by Guglielmo Marconi's recent discovery, the wireless. The transmission of voices through the North American airwaves began on Christmas Eve, 1906, when Reginald Aubrey Fessenden fired up his experimental radio station at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Wireless operators on ships off the East Coast, listening on their headsets for the short electronic burst of messages in Morse code, were astounded to hear a woman singing. They called in ship's officers and other technicians to experience this wireless miracle and thrilled to the sound of a violin soloist performing "O, Holy Night." With this successful experimental broadcast of his own violin performance, Fessenden displayed one of the most important capabilities of Marconi's invention: the capability of sending the human voice out through the heavenly ether.
Following the lead of this media trailblazer, hundreds of amateur radiophiles leapt into the world of the wireless, which soon became known as radio—short for radiotelegraphy. They filled their attics with wires, Leyden jars, and the other paraphernalia necessary to transmit and receive the magical radio signals. They watched sparks flash brilliantly across homemade receivers and tweaked tuning crystals with thin wires called cat's whiskers as they strained to hear the secrets of the airwaves. When one devoted band of radio enthusiasts heard a musical broadcast for the first time, they called in the neighbors just to make sure "that not a single one of us was having a daydream." Some spent their evenings searching the electromagnetic spectrum, trying to make contact with ships at sea, while others tuned in faraway time signals and marveled at "the ability of man to conquer distance." In 1912 the U.S. government passed the first laws concerning radio broadcasting. Within five years, more than 8,500 transmitting licenses had been issued, and a chorus of radio voices was creating an "amateur clamor" in the American heavens.
World War I brought an end to the squawking, as the Navy ordered all transmitters off the air to keep the airwaves clear for the vital function of ship-to-shore communication. At the close of the war, the Navy tried to maintain control of all broadcasting, arguing that the medium was too important to be managed by private commercial interests. But when the doughboys returned from France, radio amateurs returned to the ether, and federal officials decided to let free enterprise determine the fate of American broadcasting.
America's fascination with radio soon turned into an obsession. In the first issue of Radio Broadcast magazine, published in 1920, the editors commented on the growth of the new medium, writing that "the rate of increase in the number of people who spend at least part of their evening listening in is almost incomprehensible." Colleges, churches, newspapers, department stores, radio manufacturers, hundreds of enterprising individuals, and even stockyards started their own stations. Jazz bands, poets, starlets, and elephants broadcast live in a rush of largely unrehearsed programming. The number of stations mushroomed from just 8 in 1921 to 564 in 1922, and investment in radio equipment zoomed from $60 million in 1922 to $358 million in 1924.
It is difficult for our video-glutted generation to imagine what radio meant to Americans in the twenties, thirties, and forties. Radio was the housewife's companion, the friendly voice of consolation that brightened the world of cooking, washing, and child rearing with music, romance, and understanding conversation. Radio became the center of the family entertainment circle, as children, parents, and grandparents gathered by the Grebe, Radiola, or Aeriola set and marveled at the sounds they heard transported mysteriously from faraway lands.
Radio was hailed as the world's greatest source of knowledge, the creator of international harmony, and the invention that would stop all wars. Those who had radio sets spent the better part of their days and evenings tuned in to the voices from the ether. Those who wanted to buy sets, according to a contemporary chronicler, often "stood in the fourth or fifth row at the radio counter waiting their turn only to be told when they finally reached the counter that they might place an order and it would be filled when possible." By the mid-twenties, America was truly a country crazy for radio.
Listeners who bought radio sets were sometimes disappointed, though. Shrieks, grunts, groans, and cross talk ruled the airwaves, which were described by some as a hertzian bedlam. Broadcasters jumped frequencies and boosted power in their efforts to be heard over the babble. Farmers complained that the conflicting radio waves caused their cows to give sour milk. As early as 1923, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover found the chaos of the air intolerable, froze the issuance of licenses, and assumed the power of allocating different frequencies to different radio stations. He was not able to restrain the runaway broadcasters, however, until passage of the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Federal Radio Commission, forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission. In 1934, Washington legislators passed the more far-reaching Communications Act and created the Federal Communications Commission, which managed to rein in the radio stampede and regulates the American airwaves to this day.
While Hoover was trying to bring order to the radio mayhem, broadcasters were trying to figure out how to make money out of it. Advertising was not considered to be a particularly lucrative use of the new medium and was actually opposed by powerful figures in the broadcasting world, who saw radio as nothing more than an extension of telegraphic services. A national radio conference in 1922 recommended that "direct advertising in broadcast radio service be absolutely prohibited." Critics compared radio advertising to "a grotesque, smirking gargoyle set at the very top of America's skyscraping adventure in acquisition ad infinitum." Secretary of Commerce Hoover declared, "I believe the quickest way to kill broadcasting would be to use it for direct advertising." In 1924, more than 400 of the 526 existing radio stations refused to accept sponsors, and as late as 1927 most of the radio stations in America served as publicity vehicles for newspapers like the Detroit News, retail stores like Gimbel's and John Wanamaker, and hotels and manufacturers. AT&T viewed radio as an extended telephone system with limited potential and put the operation of its radio stations under the direction of its byproducts services division.
In 1926 three of the nation's biggest equipment manufacturers—Radio Corporation of America, Westinghouse, and General Electric—joined forces to bring some order to the cluttered market arena of radio programming. To do that, they created the National Broadcasting Company, or NBC, and established two radio networks, the Red and the Blue, for the dissemination of programming. The networks were groups of stations that were joined by telephone lines and agreed to play programs produced at flagship stations WEAF and WJZ in New York City. According to Fortune magazine, NBC began its broadcasting network merely to sell radios, figuring that "if it could stimulate the sale of radios perhaps it would not be necessary for it to make any profit at all on broadcasting." The magazine added, "This stimulation of sales was done on a very high ethical plane."
NBC projected a highbrow aura, building a reputation as a defender of enlightened cultural programming. Fortune magazine explained that the company viewed itself as "the guardian of radio, the Great Red and Blue Father, a 'service' organization interested in the dissemination of culture to the masses." That philosophy was clearly expressed in the advertising for the debut of the NBC networks, which was billed as "the most pretentious broadcasting program ever presented." Network executives provided their listeners for the most part with live performances of conservatory music, described by one program director as "potted palm" music. Tin Pan Alley tunes that found their way onto the networks had to undergo the close scrutiny of censors. "Whatcha doin', honey? I feel so funny," a line of the song "Pettin' in the Park," was changed to "Dad and Mother did it, but we admit it" before network officials would allow it to be performed on the air. Action series like Gangbusters and serials such as Stella Dallas and Just Plain Bill eventually came along to brighten up the orchestral format somewhat, and comedians such as Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor tried to spice up their audiences' listening hours, but broadcasting executives, joined later by federal government officials, kept a tight rein on programming directors. During the first decade of radio, some stations took themselves so seriously that they refused to broadcast saxophone music, saying that it had an immoral influence on its listeners.
At first, the networks showed some discrimination as to the products they advertised, in tune with their highbrow profile. NBC, for example, turned down a massive contract from one of America's largest manufacturers of toilet paper, refusing to advertise a product so intimate. That sensitivity soon gave way to the bottom line, however. A November 1932 issue of Broadcasting magazine ran the headline "Taboo on Delicate Ads Removed by Networks: Ex-Lax Signs with CBS." Network officials lured advertisers with statements like "the quickest way to a woman's lips is her ears," pointing out that drug and cosmetic radio programs constituted the largest group of advertising on the air. In 1934, radio grossed $72,887,000 in advertising, more than 80 percent of which went to the advertising of drugs, foods, and other convenience items. Stations sold Marmola, a fat reducer composed of thyroid extract and bladder wrack, which caused headache, delirium, and fever in some unfortunate overeaters. Many other stations sold Kolorbak, a lead-salt type of hair dye that caused lead poisoning in overusers anxious to restore their youthful appearance. Koremlu, another big radio advertiser, was a depilatory made from thallium acetate, a rat poison that caused abdominal pain, nausea, and blindness as well as the loss of all body hair, sightly or unsightly. Radio stations in the United States touted Lysol as an effective and safe douche, and stations ran hundreds of hours of ads for Bromo-Seltzer, even though medical experts at the time warned that Bromo-Seltzer, if used frequently, might lead to serious physical and psychical disturbances, not the least of which were sexual impotence and bromide intoxication.
The explosion of advertising brought with it a tidal wave of public criticism of broadcasters and their practices. The U.S. Senate considered a resolution that would limit advertising to a simple mention of a product as a program's sponsor. Dr. Arthur J. Cramp of the American Medical Association published a book on dangerous personal products entitled Nostrums and Quackery, in which he maintained that the public is much less likely to be carried away by false or fraudulent claims made in cold type than it is when similar claims are made by a plausible radio announcer. Under Secretary of Agriculture Rexford Guy Tugwell tried to introduce a bill to force the listing of all ingredients on labels. The Proprietary Association, a group of patent medicine manufacturers, called the bill "grotesque in its terms, evil in its purposes, and vicious in its possible consequences" and fought hard to maintain the American people's constitutional right to self-medication. The broadcasting establishment was also firmly opposed to such a bill and lined up powerful friends in Congress to work against the impending legislation. Josiah Bailey of North Carolina became known as the Senator for Vick's VapoRub, and James Mead of New York became the Congressman for Doan's Kidney Pills. Despite the opposition of the radio industry, legislators managed to pass a food and drug law in 1938 that increased the effectiveness of the Food and Drug Administration, which in 1931 employed a mere sixty-five inspectors to monitor more than 110,000 products.
The radio industry also ran afoul of consumers and government bureaucrats in its promotion of radio stargazers. CBS featured astrologer Evangeline Adams, a seer who could solve any personal problem sent to her by mail, as long as it was accompanied by a Forhan's box top. The Voice of Experience, sponsored by Haley's M-0 and Musterole, was another extremely popular CBS program. The Voice, alias M. Sayle Taylor, used a system of numbered prescriptions to take care of 10,000 to 20,000 correspondents a week who wrote of all kinds of emotional and physical distress. The Voice went so far as to operate the Voice of Experience Investigation Bureau, which looked into cases further to make sure they had a satisfactory outcome.
In 1937 the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry group originally created to win broadcasting concessions from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, first distributed a pamphlet entitled "Standards of Practice for Radio Broadcasters of the United States of America." In the publication, the radio industry addressed the issue of appropriate programming for the American ear, stressing that radio should be used to promote "spiritual harmony and understanding of mankind" and urging that broadcasters limit advertising sales to individuals and firms who "comply with pertinent legal requirements, fair trade practices, and accepted standards of good taste." The pamphlet added, "The advertising of fortune-telling, occultism, spiritualism, astrology, phrenology, palm reading, numerology, mind-reading or character-reading is not acceptable."
The self-regulation of the industry by the NAB was evidence that radio had matured. By the thirties, the radio world was no longer a wide-open free-for-all inhabited by wild-eyed individuals with big ideas and intense motivation. Rather, the broadcasting industry was controlled by large corporations working closely with federal regulators to maintain orderliness. Tasteful advertising and potted-palm programming was the order of the day, sounds that were uncontroversial and profitable but decidedly unadventuresome.
Given this environment, border radio blasted like a blue norther across the American airwaves, inspiring the radio pundit Walter Winchell to comment that the border stations offered the best entertainment available in the wee hours. The men who first moved to the border began their broadcasting careers when the federal regulatory agency was but a twinkle in Herbert Hoover's eye. These media trailblazers deeply resented the monopolistic power of the networks and the increasing government interference in their activities. They traveled from the hinterlands of Iowa, Kansas, and Brooklyn to a territory beyond the pale of American law, a sparsely populated land of ocotillo, grapefruit, and Angora goats—la frontera, the border.
Border radio operators came up with a unique method of sidestepping U.S. broadcasting restrictions: They built their stations just across the border, in Mexican territory, and worked out special licensing arrangements with the broadcasting authorities in Mexico City, whom they found to be much more agreeable than the stuffed shirts at the Federal Radio Commission. Like all radio stations licensed in Mexico, the border stations were given call letters beginning with XE, a brand that added to their mystique. To compete with the wide coverage of the established multistation networks, these operators created what were essentially single-station networks, stations with such extraordinary power that their signals could cover much of the United States and, in some cases, most of the world. Border radio operators accomplished this feat by hiring expert engineers to build special transmitters. While most radio outlets in the United States broadcast over transmitters with about 1,000 watts of power, border stations boomed their programming across America with transmitters humming at as much as 1,000,000 watts.
The sky-wave or ozone-skip effect enabled the signals of these superpowered stations to travel incredible distances. AM radio waves bounce or skip off the atmosphere surrounding the globe in much the same way as a rock skips across a smooth pond. Because of the sky-wave phenomenon, listeners in Dallas, San Francisco, and even New Zealand could tune in to the border stations, oftentimes with astonishing clarity. Thus, over the years, border radio developed an international reputation, and the sounds of the big X stations became familiar to listeners in Ulysses, Kansas, as well as Uppsala, Sweden.
At sunrise every morning in the mid-thirties the Pickard Family greeted radio listeners tuned to the border radio stations located just south of the silvery Rio Grande, "the center of romance in America." Bub, Ruthie, Charlie, and the rest of the family asked their sleepy-eyed listeners the musical question, "How many biscuits can you eat this morning?" Accompanied by the Hillbilly Boys, W. Lee O'Daniel, the future governor of Texas, described the cure for the country's economic woes and sang about having "that million-dollar smile." Brother Bill introduced A. P., Sara, Maybelle, Jeanette, Helen, June, and Anita—the original Carter Family—who admonished those listening to "Keep on the sunny side of life." Cowboy Slim Rinehart and "America's number one singing cowgirl," Patsy Montana, assured their audience that they were "happy in the saddle again," and Doc Hopkins shouted out down-home dance calls to the tune of "The College Hornpipe." Russ Pike and the Modern Pioneers, Mainer's Mountaineers, and Doc and Carl, among others, joined in for the Good Neighbor Get-together, "four hours packed solid with fun and music," while Paymaster Pete Malaney and the Riders of the Rio Grande let out whoops and hollers to the fiddle tune "Whoa, Mule, Whoa."
Listeners to border radio stations could find a solution to almost any ailment—physical or spiritual—that could possibly be imagined. Bub Pickard exhorted his listeners, "Don't let gray hair cheat you out of your job and cause you a lot of worry.... Get a bottle of Kolorbak from your nearest drug or department store." On other mornings, Bub told his extended radio family about "a fine and dandy offer we know each of you will want to take advantage of." Bub offered listeners "a liberal test bottle of the famous Peruna Tonic, which folks everywhere are now using to help build cold-chasing resistance to knock out the torture of colds." And the liberal bottle was sent absolutely free, along with "valuable information on colds."
Another authoritative voice from the border informed listeners of some basic biological facts: "Water is the greatest of all cleansers.... It furnishes the medium by which impurities in the body may be carried away.... A man may live without food for forty, sixty, or even eighty days, but deprive him of water for five or six days and he'll die a horrible death." The speaker went on to describe the "many people in the world who are troubled with some condition that was caused or being made worse by a sluggish system," and he offered a solution, provided by "kind Providence": "If you'll add a teaspoonful of Crazy Water Crystals to about a large glass of water, preferably warm, and drink it thirty minutes before breakfast for the next three weeks, I'm just confident that it will help you."
The lavender-suited and velvet-tongued Norman G. Baker offered talks on the mind, the digestion, and the benefits of driving on Tangley tires, while noted specialist Harry M. Hoxsey, N.D., promoted his surefire cancer cure developed by his great-grandfather, a well-known horse doctor. Other healers, like the famous goat-gland specialist Dr. John R. Brinkley, were a regular feature of border radio, offering long-suffering radio listeners cures for everything from hemorrhoids to halitosis. "Just because you're not seriously sick does not make it so," warned Dr. Brinkley. He described his special "x-ray and microscopical as well as chemical examinations" designed to diagnose properly "the disease that's in your body, the disease that's destroying your earning power, the disease that's causing you to keep your nose to the grindstone and spend every dollar that you can rake and scrape." He pleaded with those listening, "You men, why are you holding back? You know you're sick, you know your prostate's infected and diseased.... Well, why do you hold back? Why do you twist and squirm around on the old cocklebur ... when I am offering you these low rates, this easy work, this lifetime-guarantee-of-service plan? Come at once to the Brinkley Hospital before it is everlastingly too late."
Those in need of spiritual insight listened to Rose Dawn, Marjah, Koran, Rajah Raboid, and other "spooks" who migrated to the border. M. N. Bunker, president of the American Institute of Grapho-Analysis, made startling predictions based on his listeners' penmanship. "Remember, friends, your future is written in the stars," intoned Dr. Ralph Richards, Ms.D., Ps.D., a metaphysician and the Friendly Voice of the Heavens, who invited, "Send me the date of your birth and one dollar, and I will search the stars to learn your future." Other border radio fans tuned in to a soft female voice cooing, "Maybe one of you big, strong, handsome men would want to meet me and love me and maybe spend the rest of your days with me? I'm just one of thousands of beautiful, warm, affectionate women who are members of the Hollywood Four Hundred Club."
For those more interested in the Bible than the needs of the flesh, the Wilburn Family sang familiar hymns, sweetly coaxing listeners to tune the radio receivers in their souls to "radio station S-A-V-E-D.... Direct from heaven, from the glory land on high, where there is no interference, no static in the sky." The Reverend Sam Morris, the Voice of Temperance, preached his most famous sermon, entitled "The Ravages of Rum," over the air. "Young men start takin' nips and totin' flasks to be smart and show they're regular fellas," he testified. "They often show up behind bars or in the gutter without friends or a future." The fate of young girls who sampled alcohol was just as bleak: "Often they end up as social outcasts, unmarried mothers, gangster molls, and pistol-packin' mamas."
As America entered World War II, Mexico and the United States signed a broadcasting agreement that many thought would mark the end of border radio. It did not. Some stations shut down temporarily, and others changed ownership and frequency, but when the dust settled along the Rio Grande, the stations were still there, as popular as ever with listeners who still tuned in to them for hope and entertainment. The Bell Family promised in high-pitched harmony to "keep \'em flyin'," declaring that "Uncle Sam is with us, and God above, We'll keep \'em flyin' for the land we love." Arnaldo Ramírez, the future mayor of Mission, Texas, hosted La Hora del Soldado (The Soldier's Hour), which was aimed at the Spanish-speaking workers who came to the factories and bases in the Southwest to assist in the war effort.
In the boom times after the war, border radio became the most important national outlet for the emerging genre of country-and-western music. The deep rich voice of Paul Kallinger, Your Good Neighbor along the Way, introduced Webb Pierce, Eddy Arnold, Ernest Tubb, Hank Thompson, Red Foley, Jim Reeves, and other country greats who entertained audiences with songs like "The Wild Side of Life," "There Stands the Glass," and "Filipino Baby."
Border radio advertising in the fifties was nothing short of amazing, as companies like All-American Radio Program Sellers and Federal Home Products tempted listeners with incredible bargains. The Blade Man offered "an amazing free gift offer" of a "slim, streamlined, modernistic pocketknife" for each order of one hundred of the "finest-quality, extrasharp double-edged razor blades for only one dollar." Announcer Randy Blake offered "an amazing easy way for every man, woman, and child to earn lots of spending money"—motto cards. "These mottoes sparkle like diamonds in the daylight, and they glow like stars in the dark," Blake declared, "and contain popular verses such as the Lord's Prayer, 'Mother of Mine,' and 'Kneel at the Cross.’" Entrepreneurs pitched oil wells, real estate deals, lottery tickets—all spectacular opportunities for enrichment, and 100 percent guaranteed. Other advertisements told of "the most amazing family life insurance offer ever made" and the "amazing fountain pen" that "writes almost fifty miles of words without a refill" complete "with an amazing lifetime guarantee." And for those whose nerves suffered from the overabundance of amazement, the golden-throated Del Sharbis had the answer. "In this age of atomic weapons, worry, and stress," he explained, "scientific research has produced a substance to help calm and soothe worried and nervous people. Such a substance is in the sleep aid Restall."
"Wherever ya are, and whatever ya doin', I wantcha to lay ya hands on da raydeeooo, lay back wid me, and squeeeze ma knobs. We gonna feeeel it ta-nite.... OOOOOOWWWWWWOOOOooooooooo." Wolfman Jack slam-dunked border radio into the sixties with his fast-talking, sly jive and his taste for white-hot rhythm and blues. From midnight till dawn, the Wolfman sat below the Rio Grande and filled the heavens with the sounds of James Brown, Freddie King, and other sizzling comets of soul. Amid tequila parties, shoot-outs, and high-level diplomatic negotiations, Wolfman and his cohorts pitched sex pills, diet pills, record packages, baby chickens, and even life-size photos of Wolfman that glowed in the dark.
In the sixties and seventies, border radio became a mecca for electronic evangelists who broadcast, in the words of one station's jingle, "From early evening till late at night, The gospel voices to help you think right." The Reverend A. A. Allen played tapes recorded live at his Miracle Restoration Revival services, specially designed for those "who are tired and disgusted with cold, dead religious form and tradition" and who sought "salvation for the soul, healing for the body, salvation from demon powers, nicotine, alcohol, dope, witchcraft, spirits, and the curse of poverty." Dr. C. W. Burpo, director of The Bible Institute of the Air, told listeners, "Our heavenly Father loves you. Yes, he does, and I do too." The Bishop A. H. Holmes, "your man of God," told the mothers listening to "sit back, relax, and put the pot on low simmer while the Bishop walk that walk and talk that talk this morning." "Right now there's a plague has hit this nation," shouted Brother David Terrell. "Minnesota is being eaten up by caterpillars, and Canada is five inches deep in caterpillars." The Reverend Frederick Eikerenkoetter II, better known as Reverend Ike, told his audience that "the lack of money is the root of all evil. Don't be a hypocrite about money," he urged. "Admit openly and inwardly that you like money. Say, 'I like money. I need money. I want money.' If you know you're a lost ball in high grass," he said, "if you're tired of short stakes and bad breaks, write me a letter." For decades, border radio was full of the spirit, supported by the love offerings of those who found hope in the prayer cloths, holy oil, and bacteriostatic water treatment units offered by the border preachers.
Like the tales of southwestern gunfighters, drifters, and cattle rustlers, stories of the border radio desperadoes have fascinated listeners for decades. Writers have penned numerous articles about border radio's preachers, healers, and hucksters. Filmmakers have told the border story on celluloid, and musicians from Asher Sizemore to ZZ Top have sung about the exploits of the great superpowered broadcasters. This book is a collection of just some of these tales, the chronicles of a few amazing individuals who made their way to the tall antennas rising from the rugged countryside of northern Mexico and left their mark on the mysterious, elusive, and always entertaining sliver of the American electromagnetic spectrum designated by the letter X.