S-A-V-E-D

Mar 13, 2020

Gospel and hill billy music drew listeners to evangelists on border radio stations
Credit Victor Talking Machines / Wikimedia Commons

The only tent show I can remember going to what was the Barnum & Bailey circus when it came to Norfolk (say: NOR – fork), Nebraska.

For years, my mother remembered another tent show when I was a toddler and she saved me from being saved after she attended a revival meeting, inside a large tent, taking me with her, having no babysitter.

At some point, they asked for sinners to approach and be saved. I apparently decided to join in, heading down the aisle, fast as my tiny legs could go, to be “saved.” They were apparently glad to get me until my red-faced mother caught up to me.

You wonder what I had done at age one or two that I needed saving. But that is how it works. You get told you have a fault or problem and they claim they have the cure. No matter who you are. Come on down!

In “Border Radio” the radio revivalists in their electronic tents are described in ironic detail. Every bit as good as Burt Lancaster’s rich portrayal of Elmer Gantry. If they were not true, you could almost think the stories were a send up. But the facts write their own parody.

A moonshiner from Wilkes County, North Carolina, George W. Cooper had 27 arrests for bootlegging, four prison sentences and four years on a chain gang. His partner in crime at the time of his conversion was named Hog Head Bolen.

As Cooper listened to radio preachers, he saw himself in a new gig, God’s word. He reverend’ up, but only after three of his old gambling buddies forced him into a prayer meeting.

Quoting Cooper, “When some hear me say, ‘You old beer-guzzling, liquor-soaked, wine-sipping, woman-chasing, bleary-eyed, peanut-brained, red-nosed, whitewashed, galvanized, petrified, dried-in-the-kiln, hypocritical deacon,’ they remark, ‘Oh, George, you shouldn’t talk about the church that way.’ Well, brother, if that’s your church, it’s in bad shape. The Billy goat needs dehorning!”

George Cooper, duly minted reverend, had a flair for flavor.

When a drinking buddy was dying, he asked Cooper to pray for him. “Lord,” began Cooper, “we’re here tonight with poor Ernest Spoon, our brother. Lord, Ernest is badly in need of help. Ernest is mighty drunk, Lord, and …”

“Wait,” Ernest said, “Don’t tell him I’m drunk, George. Tell him I’m just sick.”

Years later, on my first radio job, I learned the competing station in town earned good money from religious programs.  Religious programs were their own sponsor, so to speak, and paid well. There was a lot of money in religion. Still is. Just look at the size of the megachurches on television today.

In the 1930’s the firebrand preaching of Father Charles Coughlin’s populist politics, using his religious program to attack civil issues caused CBS to let his contract expire in 1932 and NBC to have an unwritten policy forbidding preachers to buy airtime. They could be given airtime on the networks but could not ask for donations. That left an opportunity for radio elsewhere.

The border stations could see money in their largely rural audiences who enjoyed hillbilly and gospel music. Mexican law forbade broadcasting “public occasions of a religious character.” But the la frontera stations found that legal bribes in the form of special fees and applications, for English broadcasts, would let them put preachers on the air from the border if they were in English.

Before long fundamentalist preachers headed south to get away from government and network rules. South of the Rio Grande they could broadcast in English back to the places they escaped from and ask for money.

The Reverend Harold Smith was already broadcasting to a large audience over KNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. There the radio stations forced him off the air in concert with the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America who wanted to ban Smith for being a non-denominational fundamentalist preacher. Smith called the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America “the best friend the devil has in America today.”

So, Smith built his own radio station, WBIK. But right away he found an FCC examiner at his door who claimed that Smith owned 1/3 of border station XERF in Mexico. Owning a station in Mexico meant that he was not allowed to own a station in the US. The charge was false, but the aim was to put Smith out of business, especially because he wasn’t preaching an approved fundamentalism.

“I never owned any part of XERF,” said Smith. But losing WBIK sent him south as well. Smith bought time on XERF for $540,000 for  his “Radio Bible Hour” which ran for 50+ years and 61,000 sermons. Smith was straight forward, no nonsense and strict. “Nowhere,” Smith preached, “in the word of God can you find that God is kidding with you or joking with you…” Money rolled in.

Money is still rolling in for the whole industry, on television. Megachurches.