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Lessons of History

Border Radio Research Institute

In reading Border Radio from a sociological perspective, I am once again reminded of how media technology interacts with society, shaping and shaped by the cultural trends created by media technology. 

This book is a fun read, as well as being a very useful and interesting review of the history of radio’s evolution, both as a medium and as a social influence. 

As a reminder, radio was the Internet of its day, allowing people to connect with each other, and communicate, all over the world.  My maternal grandfather and both my uncles were all telegraphers and radio hobbyists, the tech-heads of their day.  Often, I heard my family talk about the excitement of hearing foreign languages, accented speech, and messages from around the world. 

During both World Wars, wireless communications, or radiotelegraphy, became pivotal in gaining an advantage during an attack.  Soon shortened to simply “radio”, it became a way for people to feel connected to others throughout the day, regardless of geography. 

In the wake of war, radio quickly became commercialized.  Since regulations tend to lag considerably behind technology, radio enjoyed a certain amount of freedom, until its unfettered messages and outright fraud forced regulations to ensure consumer protections. 

After regulations kicked in, radio personalities were very creative in side-stepping these imposed regulations.  Many of these early media trailblazers hailed from “hinterlands” of Iowa, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, throughout the Southwest USA, Mexico, and even in off-shore venues. 

Their messages included an array of wares, services, and ideas including evangelical preachers, fortune-tellers, banned music, and even questionable medical advice shows, including the famous goat-gland promoter, “Doctor” Brinkley.  Until he was finally shut down, his products and surgeries promised his audiences guaranteed virility and a second lease on life.  His methods for radio promotion, however, became the model for the media trailblazers who followed.

These marginalized, yet powerful, “X” radio stations also shaped and reflected our cultural musical tastes over the last century, ranging from Hillbilly, Western Swing, Folk, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll, and Punk.  The fact that these border radio stations had such an impact on American popular culture, beliefs, music, and dance, is an under-appreciated and under-researched phenomenon. 

Why is this book an important read? 

Understanding the history of how our media technology has evolved gives us a model, a perspective, on how the stages that every new communication medium seems to go through before being fully integrated into society.  Learning the stages that media has gone through in the past can give us insights into how to deal with today’s new media issues.  As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Enjoy reading! Again, this is Nicole English from the Sociology Department at Fort Hays State University wishing you happy Book-Bytes!