I Heard it on the X: Radio and Revelation in the American Borderlands
When Dr. John Brinkley spoke, people listened. They couldn't help it, really. Everyone in America was listening to the radio, and Brinkley had the most powerful presence on that most popular platform. He built it himself to make sure everyone had the opportunity to buy what he was selling. However, he had to cross the Mexican border like a western movie outlaw to do so. Dr. John Brinkley was a new kind of rogue whose flawed personality and single-minded quest for greatness would unintentionally transform American media and art.
During the 1920s, America became obsessed with radio. The medium was so unique and captivating that consumers would listen to anything they could. Quickly, radio announcers gained the fame of movie stars, maybe greater. For the first time, people weren't just listening to someone speak; they were inviting that person into their home. Radio was a revolution in media and marketing.
Radio broadcasting originated in the United States, which shared its knowledge with Canada. However, the United States didn't want to share the radio spectrum with Mexico, which lagged behind the United States in radio technology. Mexico solved this problem by ignoring its bossy neighbor to the north and broadcasting on any frequency it wanted. U.S. radio programming expanded so rapidly that standards couldn’t be established. Any station could broadcast on a given radio frequency. If another station starts a broadcast on that same frequency, however, the more powerful transmission would dominate that frequency. The United States government saw the need to regulate this new medium and try to add some organization to the process. In 1924, congress passed the Radio Communications Act. Subsequently, the Federal Communications Act created the Federal Communications Commission to serve as the regulating agency for the radio industry. There was only one problem--radio waves didn't respect borders. All it would take was one creative person with means to thwart that entire regulatory scheme. That person would appear as a physician and failed politician from Kansas with something questionable to sell.
Dr. John Brinkley was a salesman at his core. Born in the hills of North Carolina, he grew up in an era of vaudeville and patent medicines. He struggled to complete medical school but eventually began practicing medicine in Arkansas. John Brinkley also had grand dreams. He confessed that he saw himself "freeing the slaves…illuminating the world…facing an assassin’s bullet for the sake of his people…healing the sick.” Brinkley’s delusions of grandeur coupled with his low-to moderate medical competence meant that he needed an idea he could sell. One day a farmer appeared at Brinkley’s office seeking medical help for his lack of “male vigor.” The farmer is reported to have lamented to Brinkley that he wished he had the vigor of a billy goat.
The farmer ended up having Brinkley implant the testicles of a goat into his scrotum. Dr. John Brinkley had found the perfect scheme. Brinkley identified a problem that was critical to its victims and a “fix” that was quick and didn’t cost Brinkley much to perform.
Over time, Brinkley would perform thousands of these operations. Brinkley became at once a master of public relations and one of the most famous doctors in America. Brinkley soon learned about the power of radio and received a radio broadcasting license for station KFKB on September 20, 1923. Three times a day, between the music, the church services, and other programming, Brinkley preached his medical gospel of goat-gland rejuvenation. Soon thousands converged on tiny Milford, Kansas seeking Brinkley’s operation. Brinkley was so successful that he had to build his own hospital.
The president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Morris Fishbein, thought Brinkley was a quack. He went after Brinkley and his goat gland empire. Between lawsuits and negative press, Brinkley ended up without a broadcasting license, without a medical license but with an urgent need to move on. Brinkley decided to try his luck south of the border. He needed a place where he could use radio to rebuild his medical practice. Mexican officials were too happy to discuss the possibility of this wealthy American medical "outlaw" setting up shop in northern Mexico.
Brinkley settled on the town of Acuña for his new enterprise. Acuña is in the State of Coahuila, right across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. The city of Del Rio, Texas, rolled out the red carpet and assured the famous doctor that his medical practice would be welcomed, though Texas had threatened his medical license.
Brinkley hired an experienced engineer named Will Branch to construct his monster. Branch created a 50,000-watt amplifier by installing six Western Electric vacuum tubes on a parallel circuit. He then built an antenna measuring 24 feet long by 8 feet wide. This antenna was suspended between 2 towers, each 300 feet tall. Shortly thereafter, Branch would add 2 more tubes to increase the output to 65,000-watts as well as a reflector on the antenna that would amplify the signal toward the United States. The result was a station that could be heard anywhere in the United States and in fifteen other countries. At the time, a radio station’s popularity was measured by the amount of mail it received in response to its programming. In early 1932, XER received an unheard of 27,717 pieces of mail in one week!
Freed from the watchful eye of American regulators, Brinkley used XER to funnel thousands of "old weaklings” to his Milford hospital for treatment. Brinkley also featured more traditional radio programming, as he had on his Kansas station. Fiddlers, yodelers, astrologists, and Mexican orchestras appeared on Brinkley's new “border blaster.” Brinkley became tremendously wealthy. He had planes, a yacht, and a vast 16-acre estate in Del Rio known to this day as the “Brinkley mansion.” American authorities approached Mexico to negotiate a deal to reign in the border-blasting XER but to no avail. Shortly after that, Brinkley negotiated an agreement with the Mexican government to authorize XER to broadcast at an astonishing 500,000 watts, making it one of the most powerful radio stations in the world. After some legal entanglements with the Mexican government, Brinkley restructured his radio enterprise under the call letters XERA.
During this period, America was in the depths of the depression and the music and other programming on XERA could transport listeners away from their troubles. Quite unintentionally, Brinkley's radio station, and others like it, would change the course of American music forever. The audiences for XERA were predominantly rural. By blanketing the country with its powerful signal, XERA reached everyone but was often the only signal reaching rural America. Consequently, it often featured what was then called "hillbilly" music for its country listeners. In late 1938, a family from the hills of Virginia came to Del Rio to appear on XERA. A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle were known as the Carter Family in musical circles. Twice a day, XERA and the Carter family delivered folks from their troubles, if only for a short time.
The power of radio as a medium coupled with the extraordinary reach of XERA launched the Carter family as American music icons. The music heard on XERA would become the bedrock of the country music genre. In fact, one Arkansas six-year-old who first heard the music on XERA (and would later marry June Carter) was country music icon Johnny Cash. Their time on XERA led the Carter Family to Nashville and into country music history. On a more local level, XERA gave traditional Mexican music an audience it would never have otherwise had. One of the early stars was La Alondra de la Frontera, the "Lark of the Border," Lydia Mendoza. After getting her start on border radio, Lydia Mendoza was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts in 1999.
Another border blaster had the call letters XERF. Established later than Brinkley's XERA, this "X" station played an essential role in the advent of rock and roll. A DJ named Bob Smith grew up listening to XERF as a child in New York City. He was determined to get on border radio and did so at XERF, taking the on-air name "Wolfman Jack." The Wolfman spun rhythm and blues and rock and roll, introducing America to a new kind of music.
Musically, you can draw a straight line through blues, country, and rock and roll. When doing so in Texas, you must include the Norteno music of the Mexican border. The border blaster radio stations drew that line for their listeners, one of whom combined what he heard into a 50-plus year career with world renowned rock band ZZ Top. Guitarist Billy Gibbons grew up hearing the music that would influence his own on border radio. Gibbons recalled, "…I guess it’s fair to say that what was coming across the airwaves, loud as a police call, was all of that craziness on that first powerful Border Blaster radio station…the blues you would hear on these border blasters influenced the members of ZZ Top.” The border blasters contributed to the unique combination of musical styles that can reasonably be called "Texas music."
Despite its impact on American society, the border blasters were not destined to last. But for a time, Dr. John Brinkley and others who copied him on border radio were on the cutting edge of mass media. Radio was the first mass medium in America. Radio brought the world into the living room of the listener. Like the telephone, television, and the internet, radio dominated media consumption and radically changed the population's lifestyle. When showmen like John Brinkley created the border blasters, they dominated the medium, thereby dominating the market. For better or worse, the content delivered on the border blasters was the dominant content of the age. From quack medicine to timeless music, the borderer blasters changed American culture forever.