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What Are We EVEN Talking About?

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This is PJ Pronger from Amarillo with an HPPR Radio Readers BookByte. The third and final selection for this season is “Border Radio” by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford. Subtitled, “Quacks, yodelers, pitchmen, psychics, and other amazing broadcasters of the American airwaves”, this breezy and easy-reading book focuses on the years in radio broadcasting when people were beginning to see huge commercial potential in it, but regulation was behind the curve.

This book is worth picking up for one chapter alone. Entitled “Del Rio’s Dr. Brinkley – the Big Daddy of Border Radio”. With what amounted to a mail-order degree in medicine, Brinkley was a combination preacher, surgeon, and entertainer. The biggest contributor to his financial success was a surgical technique for implanting goat testicles into men. Now at this point in the story, my daughter would say, “Dad, what are you EVEN talking about?”, but yes, you heard right. He implanted goat testicles into men who had, shall we say, suffered a decline in their masculinity. Without going too far into the particulars, this gives you an idea of the outlandishness that was being marketed through radio generally, and by Dr. Brinkley in particular.

Brinkley started his so-called medical career in Kansas, but the advantages of the Mexican border soon became apparent due to the limits on the power an American radio station was allowed. In Mexico, those limits didn’t exist, and it soon became accepted practice to build radio transmitters just across the border that were capable of reaching all of the U.S. and, in some instances, practically around the globe. Brinkley eventually built the most powerful radio transmitter in the world in Acuna, Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio. In doing so, he transformed the economic fortunes of both Del Rio and Acuna.

His success was astounding. In today’s world, its common to measure the effectiveness of websites by counting the number of visitors they draw, what is usually referred to as “eyeballs”. In Brinkley’s day, radio effectiveness was measured by “mail pull”, or how many letters a radio station received. Brinkley received some 27,000 letters a week, which is nothing short of amazing considering the effort required to hand-write and mail a letter. His success was apparently fueled by three factors: he was quick to see the potential for marketing through radio, he had a gift for connecting with people on a personal level, and he had no scruples about pushing his agenda. That combination made him wildly successful and rich on a grand scale. With the lighting and fountains incorporated into its design, the house he built in Del Rio could have served as the inspiration for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Brinkley had no compunction about flaunting his wealth. He wore big diamonds, owned an entire fleet of Cadillacs, threw lavish parties, and cruised extensively on his private yachts.

He wasn’t without his detractors, of course, but as history bears witness, people who are brash enough and blustery enough can get away with a lot. These types tend to have committed supporters who are riding on the economic wave that is created. Apart from the largess he brought to the communities he inhabited and the radio entertainers he employed, pharmacies across the country were making money selling Dr. Brinkley’s medicines. Many people had a vested interest in Dr. Brinkley’s success. (For a modern-day example, look up Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.)

But all good things must come to an end. I’d like to tell you that a goat shortage spelled his downfall, but that wasn’t the case. In the end, it was mainstream media, the American Medical Association, waves of lawsuits, and even discount imitators that finally brought the gravy train to a stop and the world’s most powerful broadcasting station went silent.

In an attempt to recover his life, Brinkley thought politics might be a logical refuge. It was something he had toyed with over the years. But he suffered a heart attack and a blood clot in his leg, and it wasn’t long before he passed away in San Antonio in 1942.

This has been PJ Pronger for Radio Readers Book Club.