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Every Living Room in the Northern Hemisphere : BORDER RADIO Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, foreword by Wolfman Jack (Texas Monthly Press: $18.95; 282 pp., illustrated)

April 10, 1988|Tom Miller | Miller's books include "The Panama Hat Trail," just published in paper, and "On the Border." His compilation album, "The Best of La Bamba" (Rhino Records), will be released in May. and

First, the disclaimer: A few years ago, one of this book's co-authors wrote me asking for research suggestions on the subject of border radio; I lent a hand--actually, more like a finger--and did not see their work until after it was complete. Now, the review.

Fifty years ago you probably would have had just one radio in your home, and chances are at night it would have been tuned to one of the border blasters, those megawatt stations that dotted our 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico. Just as some U.S. manufacturers in the recent past pulled up stakes and settled on the Mexico side of the border to evade environmental strictures, so too, beginning in the '30s, did broadcast entrepreneurs relocate along the same stretch to get around radio regulations. At their peak, these stations reached virtually every country in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing hillbilly music, Bible thumpers, gritty rhythm & blues, and smooth-talking hustlers into homes everywhere. With indefatigable research, two Texans have come up with an encyclopedic look at the history of these stations and the personalities they attracted. "Border Radio" tells the 50,000-watt clear-channel story of the most outrageous and audacious phenomenon to ever hit the airwaves.

Border radio is the story of marketing, medicine, and music, in that order. The first major station in Villa Acuna, Coahuila, was established by John Brinkley of Kansas, the notorious exponent of goat-gland surgery. Tacking the title doctor to the front of his name, Brinkley had developed a harmless procedure whereby the glands of a goat were implanted in the scrotum of a man, supposedly improving the man's ability to maintain an erection, please his woman, and boost his ego a thousand percent. The success of Brinkley's minor surgery lay in the mind rather than the sac, but thousands of patients swore by it.

Brinkley's Kansas clinic was famous from its relentless advertisements broadcast over his own radio station, KFKB. Eventually the American Medical Assn., which Brinkley called the Amateur Meatcutters Assn., and the Federal Radio Commission, forerunner to the Federal Communications Commission, ran him out to the Mexican border where the people of Del Rio, Tex., welcomed him with open arms and empty wallets. Brinkley opened up a goat-gland clinic in Del Rio, and XER, his high-powered blaster across the Rio Grande in Villa Acuna. He advertised his clinic over his new "sunshine station between the nations," as he called it, now beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. Patients, lured by Brinkley's homespun solicitation, flocked from all over, and with them came a measure of Depression-era prosperity for Del Rio. An era of outlaw radio began, full throttle.

In all, the authors count 19 English-language stations in northern Mexico, plus two espionage operations broadcast by the Germans and the Japanese during World Wars I and II, respectively. The smooth-talking pitchmen sold patent medicines, baby chicks, cancer cures, God, hair coloring, "Crazy Water Crystals," glow-in-the-dark Jesuses, tap-dance lessons, roach clips, and country & Western songbooks. Many of these items were bogus, but this didn't stop the pitchmen and their stations from earning millions by taking a hefty cut of the mail-order business. Proponents of the New Deal's Pure Food and Drug legislation pointed to items advertised on border radio to support their cause. Ralph Nader would have thrown up his hands in despair.

Among the colorful charlatans and savvy pitchmen were Norman Baker, who claimed to cure (and later died of) cancer; W. Lee (Pappy) O'Daniel, flour merchant and Texas governor; Dallas Turner, at various times a cowboy singer, announcer, ad salesman, and born-again evangelist, and Bob Smith--better known by his alter-ego, Wolfman Jack, who the authors say "slam-dunked border radio into the '60s 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."

Wolfman tapped into the spirit of America's restlessness at the end of the Eisenhower years, manic in his delivery, shrewd in his business dealings, and impetuous in his chatter. Bribery of Mexican officials, both local and in Mexico City, was the rule of the border radio game, and the Wolfman played according to Hoyle. When he shifted his operations to XERB in Tijuana, Southern California got an earful of the canniest man on the air.

Fowler and Crawford's chapter on Wolfman is by far their best. They let him speak in his own "molasses-coated jackhammer voice," where his entertaining egomania and self-serving chatter sweep away the buildup of cobwebs woven in previous chapters. Unfortunately, for a subject that lends itself so well to color and momentum, the authors often get bogged down in tedium and minutiae. A maddeningly inadequate index compounds the frustration.

Photos of Cowboy Slim Rinehart, Rose Dawn, Rev. Ike, and many others add enormously to the book, but "Border Radio's " real coup is its own sound track, a floppy 33 record that comes with every copy. These rare transcriptions of border radio in the raw include Doc Brinkley himself, Pappy O'Daniel, the Carter Family, and Wolfman Jack, among others.

Border radio died peacefully not long ago, buried by cable television, shopping malls, WATS lines, Mexican law, and common sense. But the pirate spirit lives on--as I write this in mid-March, a group of squatters has just begun clandestine broadcasting, using a gas generator and parts of old TV sets to spread their guerrilla message. The station beams its signal from within a mile of the border, in Nogales, Mexico.

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