< The X Factor


Friday, July 04, 2008

For half of the 20th century, beginning in the early thirties, radio in the United States faced some of its fiercest competition from high-powered stations operating just south of the border. Known as "border blasters," or "X stations," they offered a refuge for renegade broadcasters looking to evade regulation and sometimes the cops.

Capitalizing on Mexico's willingness to look the other way, some of the strangest characters ever to grace the airwaves drew millions of fans from the American heartland and around the world. They also changed the shape of American broadcasting. On the Media's own Jamie York first told this story in November 2007.


WOMEN SINGING: Turn your radio on, turn your radio on, and listen to the music in the air. Turn your radio on -


JAMIE YORK: If you were lucky enough to own a new wireless radio receiver in 1923 in small-town Milford, Kansas, there was only one local broadcaster speaking directly to you.


GROUP SINGING: Get in touch with God. Get in touch with God. Turn your radio on. Turn your radio on.

JAMIE YORK: Dr. John Brinkley, graduate of the Eclectic Medical School in Chicago, had recently opened a clinic downtown and he'd also started one of the first radio stations in the Midwest. Brinkley wasn't only a broadcasting pioneer, he was enjoying runaway success with a medical procedure he'd invented.

BILL CRAWFORD: One of the first patients, he had no sexual vigor left. He was flat as a tire.

JAMIE YORK: Bill Crawford is co-author of a history titled Border Radio.

BILL CRAWFORD: Dr. Brinkley, looking out his window, with this patient in his office kind of jokingly saw a Toggenburg goat and joked with his patient, boy, if you had some of them glands in you, you wouldn't have this problem at all. And, according to Dr. Brinkley, the patient said, put 'em in me, doc, put 'em in me! I need those goat glands.

JAMIE YORK: Brinkley installed the goat gonads in his patient and nine months later his wife gave birth to a boy. They named him Billy. The goat gland procedure was a sensation. President Lyndon Johnson, who grew up in the heyday of border radio, was recorded joking about it.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: You got the authority, you got the power, you got the money. Now, you may not have the glands.

MAN: The glands?


MAN: I got plenty of glands.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: All right. I need Dr. Brinkley, myself.

MAN: Yeah.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: And those goat glands.

JAMIE YORK: Desperate patients arrived on Brinkley's doorstep daily to pay 750 dollars for their piece of the goat. Among them was Los Angeles Times publisher and early radio broadcaster, Harry Chandler.


He inspired Brinkley to launch his own radio station to entertain his patients and to create more of them.

DR. J.R. BRINKLEY: You're again listening to the voice of Dr. J.R. Brinkley out of the Brinkley Hospitals. And you know you're sick. You know your prostate's infected and diseased, and you know that unless some relief comes to you that you're going to be in the undertaker's parlor on the old cold slab being embalmed for a funeral.

JAMIE YORK: He invited listeners to write in with their maladies, which he diagnosed on the air, recommending patent medicines in stock at Midwestern pharmacies, with whom he split the profits. That is, until the American Medical Association convinced the fledging Federal Radio Commission to yank his broadcasting license.

MAN: And about that time, Brinkley received a letter from the Chamber of Commerce in Del Rio, Texas, inviting him to come down and build a radio station across the river from Del Rio in Old Mexico in a town, at that time, which was called Via Acuna, a very, very tiny border-crossing town.

JAMIE YORK: Mexico was chafing against broadcast rules negotiated by the United States and Canada in the late 1920s that seized most of the valuable spectrum for themselves. Mexico saw in Brinkley an opportunity to stick it to their greedy neighbors.

DR. JOSE ORTIZ: There is a saying, the border radio stations are the stick most useful to beat Washington.

JAMIE YORK: Dr. Jose Ortiz is professor of communications at Pan American University in Mexico City. He says Brinkley's timing was impeccable. Mexico embraced the broadcasting outlaw with open arms.

DR. JOSE ORTIZ: And Mexican government said, okay, you have the same station that had been closed down because of what you were doing in Kansas. Do it here. You will have no problems with us.


JAMIE YORK: Brinkley's station was licensed at 500,000 watts, ten times more powerful than the most powerful station licensed in the United States. But it was built to blast at twice that. Brinkley's station and its message that you're only as old as your glands could be jacked up to one million watts of radiated power.


Locals saw it electrocute birds in mid-flight. Electric lights would turn on by themselves. It could be picked up on barbed-wire fences and bedsprings. The physics of AM radio ensured that border radio had no borders.

MAN ON RADIO, ON AIR: From coast to coast, border to border, wherever you are, wherever you may be, when you think of real fine entertainment, think of XERF.


BILL CRAWFORD: When you crank up these transmitters to super high powers at night, the signals actually go up and they bounce off the ionosphere. So you can see that they would cover the globe. They're doing this and hitting points all over the earth.

We have people who heard them on ships in the South Pacific, people who heard them in Scandinavia. We heard tales that the KGB in Moscow tuned into XERF to learn the English language.

JAMIE YORK: In America, most radio in the late '20s and '30s was still dominated by the big cities on the coasts, trafficking in light sophistication, like orchestral or big band music and family-friendly dramas.

Brinkley opened the world's most powerful station to what his patients wanted to hear, performers from vaudeville, carnivals or old-time medicine shows.

DR. J.R. BRINKLEY: That means you're listening to XERF, Via Acuna Coahuila in the Republic of Mexico, your clear channel station that covers every state in the nation. And howdy-do, friends and neighbors.


BILL CRAWFORD: This was the era where people were really figuring out that radio and the broadcasting media was a one-on-one media. This was the era where FDR figured out about the Fireside Chats.

JAMIE YORK: But, says Crawford, border radio circumvented government or corporate control over the media.


BILL CRAWFORD: It was programming that spoke directly to the farmer in the Dust Bowl, to the small town merchant in Minneapolis. It was programming that went direct to the heart of the American people, and it sounded a whole lot more interesting to them than what they could get from the regular radio stations.

JAMIE YORK: Brinkley had struck upon the mainstays of border radio programming - health, sex, music and religion. Preaching became a staple and radio stations got a cut of the preacher's profits.

RADIO PREACHER: Meet me on my knees, on your knees, Friday night at 7: 30. And listen now. My friends, the prayer power is open. The prayer power is open right now. You that need prayer, my God, the prayer team are sittin’ by the telephones right now to pray.

JAMIE YORK: In the early '30s, most religious broadcasting was banned by the national radio networks, and asking for money was strictly forbidden, but not on border radio. Preachers pulled in ears, and that boosted sales of all kinds of products - like baby chicks.

MAN ON RADIO: Well right now, friends, the famous Allied Hatchery is offering you listeners 100 of the regular five dollar and 95-cent baby chicks for only four dollars and 95 cents per hundred, if you get your order in right away. Now, at this low price –


JAMIE YORK: The always-popular chicks created a kind of hostage situation at post offices across the country.

DALLAS TURNER: Roy Acuff said he went in to the post office to mail some letters on a tour one time and he heard all of these chickens from — for people to pick up. They sent them C.O.D., I guess. You had to, you had to get them out.

JAMIE YORK: Dallas Turner was a border radio personality for over 40 years, as a yodeler, a singing cowboy, a mentalist and a pitchman.

DALLAS TURNER: Boy, we sold everything that you can think of. You know, I sold false teeth by mail. Aphrodisiacs, erection enhancers, feminine hygiene equipment, with the free enema attachments because you ordered before midnight tomorrow night — lonely hearts clubs, hemorrhoid medicine, a rectal itch formula. And believe it or not –


DR. J.R. BRINKLEY: In this age of atomic weapons, worry and stress, scientific research has produced a substance to help calm and soothe worried and nervous people. Such a substance is in the sleep aid RestAll.

JAMIE YORK: Brinkley helped the pitching go down easier with some of the most influential performers ever in country music. Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe and Woody Guthrie all did stints on border radio. And the first family of country music, the Carter family -


- spent winters at Brinkley's station. This is where Johnny Cash first heard his future wife, June Carter, while listening to the radio in Arkansas.


DR. J.R. BRINKLEY: Now, the Carter family wants to know when you're coming down to Monterey, and the custom authorities will do everything possible to cut all the red tape, make it easy for you to get across the border.

JAMIE YORK: Like a magnet, border radio drew money, followed by a steady stream of performers, outcasts, entrepreneurs and fugitives. Norman Baker was a faux doctor claiming to cure cancer with his laying on of hands. Baker also broadcasted medical hokum and anti-conglomeration screeds from his high-watted station KTNT, Know the Naked Truth, in Muscatine, Iowa.

Following run-ins with medical and radio regulators, Baker, like Brinkley, decamped to the border and built himself a blaster station.

BILL CRAWFORD: He dressed all in purple. And one way he got inspired in the broadcasting booth was to put a bed in there, and he would lie down on the bed with his paramour, Madame Tangley, and make love while speaking over the radio about the evils of the radio networks. It puts all the shock jocks right in their place. Pikers! Mere pikers.

JAMIE YORK: Like other dishonored entrepreneurs before and since, both Brinkley and Baker had run for office. Both lost before heading to the border. But in the 1930s, one business-minded broadcaster finally won. W. Lee "Pappy" "Pass the Biscuits" O'Daniels, depicted in the film O, Brother, Where Are Thou?


ACTOR PLAYING PAPPY O'DANIEL: We ain't “one at a time-in’” here. We're mass-communicatin’!

MAN: Oh, yeah.


JAMIE YORK: The real O'Daniel sold flour in Texas, where he reluctantly agreed to sponsor a country music group on the radio.


The group, including future country star Bob Wills, was a hit, and O'Daniels grabbed the mike to plug his flour. He never let go, riding his folksy, flour-pitching popularity to two terms as Texas governor.

Governor O'Daniels had electrical transcriptions made of his addresses - and flour ads - made in the statehouse for broadcast from a border blaster he co-owned in Mexico.

In 1941, O'Daniel ran for Senate in a race that included two other border radio moguls and a congressman, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Pappy won again, dealing LBJ his only electoral loss.

PAPPY O'DANIEL: And how do you do, ladies and gentlemen, and hello there, boys and girls. This is your United States Senator W. Lee O'Daniel of Texas, speaking to you from your nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and sending you -

JAMIE YORK: By the 1950s, border radio was struggling with competition from television, with legal troubles. When Brinkley finally lost his station during World War II, it was amidst rumors that it had been infiltrated by Axis powers broadcasting propaganda.

But just as it was faltering, it was resurrected by an unlikely Brooklyn boy named Bob Smith.



Hey, for those of you want to dig on the Wolfman tomorrow night, I'll be back here, same stand, man, right here on the big XERB. 50,000 watt clear channel...

JAMIE YORK: Smith had run away from home to be a deejay and he eventually made his way to the border stations he'd heard as a kid.


The Wolfman played rhythm n' blues, so-called "race music," exotic for a lot of white listeners. And he sounded like rock n' roll. Arriving on the dial starting at midnight, his howl sounded like nothing else.

WOLFMAN JACK: Oh, you're definitely going to find the action over there because you're going to be able to dance rock n' roll, carry on and also find yourself somebody who is deeply in love with you, man! [LAUGHING, CACKLING]

BILL CRAWFORD: People didn't know whether he was black, he was white, he was Mexican or that he was Martian! It was just a continuous weird blast. And it was wild, it was fascinating.

JAMIE YORK: Among the fascinated: a young George Lucas. His film, American Graffiti, would be about the influence of the Wolfman, on a generation of California teenagers.


YOUNG WOMAN: I just love listening to Wolfman. My mom won't let me at home, because he's a Negro. I think he's terrific. You know that he just broadcasts from a plane that flies around in circles?


JAMIE YORK: The Wolfman sold record collections, he sold roach clips - for catching little baby roaches - pills and patent medicines, and, yes, baby chicks.

WOLFMAN JACK: Imagine all the fun you're going to have with these little babies. You just lead ‘em around on little leashes, you give ‘em little names. And then, of course, as they grow up and comes wintertime, you cook ‘em and eat ‘em. It's gonna be just fun for you. We're going to give you


JAMIE YORK: The Wolfman eventually wound up in Hollywood. And though border radio saw a new crop of preachers and pitchmen, the writing was on the wall. Its broadcasts in English were over by the 1980s.

Bill Crawford says that whenever he hears someone condemning the so-called media elites, whenever he listens to pop music, whenever he gets Viagra spam mail, when he hears Morning Zoo deejays during drive time, he hears the echoes of border radio.

BILL CRAWFORD: Border radio pioneered popularizing American popular music, country music, rock n' roll, hillbilly, gospel music. Border radio gave a place where your outspoken men of vision, both religious and political, had a place to let their vision be heard before it was allowed on the regular media.

JAMIE YORK: For over 50 years, border radio was the embodiment of Mexican anger at its neighbors to the north. But it paid off. Mexico finally got what it wanted - the right to broadcast to itself. Most of the former border blaster transmitters are now Mexican, broadcasting for Mexicans. They no longer need to punish the U.S. with the likes of Dr. Brinkley, Norman Baker and Wolfman Jack.

But Bill Crawford says that doesn't mean we've seen the last of the renegades.

BILL CRAWFORD: All of these things come back again and resurface. They resurface in the Internet, and they continue resurfacing whenever new forms of communication, whenever new media are pioneered and allowed to run free.

JAMIE YORK: Border radio was a legal loophole, a fluke, and yet, somewhere the next loophole is opening up, and the entrepreneurs, entertainers and outlaws are waitin, to walk right through.

For On the Media, I'm Jamie York.



When I get to reminiscin' I always get to missin' those sweet money-makin' days of long ago, when I got my things in order, when I landed on the border to sing and yodel on the radio.