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Border Radio

Booming and bombastic, broadcasts from Mexican soil turned American culture on its ear

In legends of the Old West, desperados rode hard for the Rio Grande and crossed the river into Mexico to hide from the law. In the 1930s, a different kind of outlaw broke for the Mexican border. These desperados were on the run from U.S. broadcasting regulations. Radio renegades built powerful transmitters on the river’s southern banks. Blasting their signals northward, these “super-watt” American stations on Mexican soil beamed their colorful programming from coast to coast, border to border—and beyond.

For half a century, border radio stations had a tremendous impact on American culture, influencing political campaigns, religious broadcasts, musical tastes, health care and, particularly, advertising.

The father of border radio, Dr. John R. Brinkley became internationally famous in the 1920s for the goat gland transplant, a “pioneering” surgical procedure that could be described as an early agricultural version of Viagra. In 1930, after losing both his radio station license and his Kansas medical license, Brinkley ran for governor of the Sunflower State with the slogan, “Let’s Pasture the Goats on the Statehouse Lawn.”

Branded an outlaw for his financial misdeeds and his medical shenanigans, the doctor lit out for the broadcasting badlands along the Rio Grande, opening station XER, later called XERA, across the river from Del Rio in Villa Acuña in the fall of 1931.

Another Midwestern mogul, Norman Baker, followed in 1933 when authorities closed his Iowa station due to the promotion of his controversial cancer treatments. After building his own superstation, XENT, in Nuevo Laredo, Baker, who had no medical training, moved his clinic to the border. His advertising urged patients: “Phone 666 upon arrival in Laredo, Texas.” Texas Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson dispatched Texas Rangers to the border to arrest Baker on an Iowa charge of practicing medicine without a license, but the radio outlaw could not be lured across the Rio Grande.

Mexican authorities accommodated these high-powered media mavericks because the U.S. and Canada had divided up all the long-range radio wavelengths between themselves, allotting none to Mexico. Soon the stations dotted the borderlands, from Tampico to Tijuana. XEPN blasted from Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass. XELO started out in Piedras Negras, moved to Tijuana and finally settled in Juarez. XEG thundered northward from Monterrey. In Reynosa, across from Hidalgo and McAllen, Houston philanthropist Will Horwitz operated XED before he was sent to prison in 1932 for rebroadcasting the state of Tamaulipas lottery into the U.S.

With colossal wattage, border station signals played havoc with American stations. A listener in Philadelphia, for instance, might hear Amos ’n’ Andy muscled aside by Brinkley’s frank discussions of human sexuality. According to legend, Brinkley’s station could be received on bedsprings and dental work. June Carter Cash, who performed as a child with the Carter Family on XERA, said the family’s music could be heard on any barbed wire fence in Texas.

So-called hillbilly and cowboy music were the most popular sounds on the prewar border stations, but Americans also liked Mexican music from the border. “I enjoyed the cowboy songs,” one listener recalled, “but the real highlight of the program for me was Rosa Dominguez singing Estrellita. To this South Dakota farm boy, that sounded like the angels in heaven.”

Fortunetellers and psychics, banned on U.S. airwaves, also broke for the border. Rose Dawn, the “Star Girl” of XERA, journeyed deep into Mexico to gather arcane knowledge for the Mayan Order, the metaphysical radio and mail-order business she founded in Del Rio in 1936. Her monthly magazine, Modern Astrology, achieved national circulation.

In the 1930s, Dallas insurance magnate Carr Collins bought XED in Reynosa, which he renamed XEAW, to advertise his Crazy Crystals. Mixed with tap water, the reconstituted minerals from Mineral Wells in Texas made Crazy Water, the natural tonic from Mineral Wells, “for any condition caused or made worse by a sluggish system.” Collins’ partner in the station was Texas Gov. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel, a radio star from Fort Worth airwaves and Piedras Negras’ XEPN. When Texas stations insisted that the unpredictable governor provide copies of his radio speeches in advance, O’Daniel talked to Texans from his own station in Mexico, accompanied by music from his band, the Hillbilly Boys, and commercials for his Hillbilly Flour.

During World War II, future Country Music Hall of Fame member Hank Thompson, who grew up in Waco listening to Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family on border radio, tuned in the powerful stations on a submarine in the Pacific to introduce his fellow sailors to hillbilly music.

After the war, as hillbilly and cowboy music morphed into country and western, stations like XERF in Ciudad Acuña (Brinkley’s old XERA under new owners) continued popularizing the genre. Despite his stardom on the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry, 1950s hitmaker Webb Pierce declared in 1986, “If it hadn’t been for border radio, I don’t know if country music would have survived.”

Pierce’s music got a big boost from border disc jockeys such as Paul Kallinger, XERF’s “Good Neighbor Along the Way.” Although Kallinger would not let a young Elvis Presley on his all-country show when the lip-twitching King of Rock rolled through Del Rio, the hip-shakin’, wig-flippin’ sound would soon scorch the ether on the programs of wild border DJs including Howlin’ Rooster, Dr. Jazzmo and Wolfman Jack. Country rocker Joe Ely says that listening to the Wolfman’s show was like going to school when he was growing up in Lubbock, introducing him to blues artists John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Ely’s longtime bassist, Jimmy Pettit, a Del Rio native, paid musical dues unique to the borderlands. “Howlin’ Rooster booked my first band to open for the bullfights in Acuña,” he recalls. “And it was broadcast live on XERF, all the way around the world!”

Pettit’s father, Hawley Pettit, was the “diamond man” on XERF, selling “genuine simulated diamonds.” As Kallinger explained, “You practically had to sell ice to Eskimos to keep your job on XERF!” The border stations pioneered a long-winded commercial format, selling everything, including weight-loss pills, weight-gain pills, fishing lures, laxatives, gravestones, burial insurance, plastic ponies, razor blades, baby chicks and the Lord’s Last Supper tablecloths in vinyl.

The radio preachers became a mainstay of the stations. Many were remarkable spoken-word performers, ranting so furiously that listeners truly believed they could raise the dead. Others were sincere in their radio ministries. As Dallas Turner put it, “Some of those preachers were sanctified, and some of them were crank-tified.”

Border radio stations were enormously profitable, and there were numerous shootouts—and some deaths in the 1960s—for their control. The XEPN transmitter building in Piedras Negras was blown to bits in 1938 by one of the two feuding owners.

The Mexican government finally pulled the plug in 1986, seizing the last border station, XERF. Former station owner and Del Rio attorney Arturo Gonzalez said then that the station had been nothing but a headache. Still, before his death in 2012 at the age of 104, Gonzalez wistfully pledged a couple times a year, “I’m gonna get the station back. I’m gonna boost up the power and play rock ’n’ roll.”

Gene Fowler is the author, with Bill Crawford, of Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves [University of Texas Press, 2002].