I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer from Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk a little about this month’s Radio Readers Book Club selection, which is called Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves. The book recounts the history of the so-called “border blasters,” radio stations that popped up on the Mexican side of the Texas and California borders in order to evade US broadcasting regulations. Many of these stations were so powerful that they could be heard as far away as Chicago, England, and even Australia, as the AM signals bounced off the Earth’s nighttime atmosphere.
As the title suggests, these stations were home to all manner of kooks and weirdos, as well as some future stars. Perhaps the most famous border radio personality was Wolfman Jack, the legendary rock n’ roll DJ who growled and howled into the microphone for hours every night, scandalizing timid souls in the American heartland. There were also the psychics, like the fortune-teller Rose Dawn, who scandalized Texas border towns by driving around in a pink Cadillac with her live-in lover, a mysterious man known simply as “Koran.” And there were the purported holy men, like prosperity gospel preacher Reverend Ike, who proclaimed himself “the first chocolate minister to preach positive self-image psychology.” And then, of course, there were the doctors, including the renowned Dr. Brinkley of Del Rio, who nightly blanketed a continent with impassioned talks on the healing powers of goat testicles.
As I read Border Radio, I couldn’t help thinking about the nature of borders. I am from the Texas Panhandle, where it is believed that good fences make good neighbors. Lines are firmly drawn in nearly every aspect of life, from delineating property lines, to defining who is a man and who is a woman, to dictating who is and who is not an American.
But as I read Border Radio, I kept thinking how much life there was on those border stations. Some of those characters were certainly unscrupulous. But many were just looking for a place to be themselves. And it occurred to me that, throughout my life, I have always found the most interesting people dwelling in the borderlands. I’m not just talking about the actual divides between countries, though that’s true too. but I’m also talking about the blurry places, the places that seem to straddle two domains. I mean the world’s dark corners and murky outposts, where people who aren’t easily definable go to be themselves.
At one time, the High Plains was such a place—an inhospitable land where peculiar homesteaders made lives for themselves. Many of us are descended of those oddballs, folks who didn’t fit in back home, so they settled in this flat, windy land. Some might have been running from the law. Some were fleeing debts. Yet, these settlers were also deeply American, in their way—because they had the courage to define themselves and not let anyone else define them.
The radio personalities on the border were like that. They didn’t fit into normal society—often they were even forced to leave their homes. But, in the bizarre in-between of the border, they found their voices. And they somehow became more American for it. Was there anything more apt, as rock n’ roll stormed the American countryside, than Wolfman Jack screaming “Have Mercy” into the microphone while blasting Sam Cooke records? What would America have been without Woody Guthrie—who sang his protest songs over XELO in Tijuana—or Bob Wills, who changed music forever while pitching Light Crust Flour from the border.
My point is, during this time when we’re holing up in our houses and drawing firm boundaries around ourselves, let’s remember the people who thrive in the in-between places. Because all too often, we need them to show us who we are.