Border Radio

The 1990s and Pirate Radio

Oct 16, 2020
Colin Dale / Creative Commons

Screaming Lord Sutch broadcast on 194 metres from the south tower of Shivering Sands. According to Bob LeRoi, the transmitter, from a Handley Page Halifax bomber, was powered with a cascade of car batteries, a scaffold pole with a skull-and-crossbones flag as an antenna The transmitter, from a Handley Page Halifax bomber, was powered with a cascade of car batteries, a scaffold pole with a skull-and-crossbones flag as an antennaCredit Colin Dale / Creative CommonsEdit | Remove

This is Leslie VonHolten of Strong City, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte. 

Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford is a rollicking, knock-along journey through the early days of radio when innovators, hucksters, scam artists, hillbilly musicians, businessmen, and anyone with gumption could throw their voices onto the airwaves and land in any kitchen and garage in the land. While reading it I found myself laughing out loud, sometimes holding my breath. It’s a super fun read.  

The “sure, whatever, let’s try it” nature of Border Radio also gave me a pang of nostalgia for the early 1990s and pirate radio stations. Remember those? I say that as if they don’t exist anymore—the probably do—but there was a pre-internet, DIY heyday back then.  

Beauty of the In-Between

Oct 16, 2020
Orange County Archives / Creative Commons

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.

Public Domain

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte. 

“Quacks, yodelers, pitchmen, psychics, and other amazing broadcasters of the American airwaves.” That’s the subtitle of Border Radio, this fun and expertly crafted history of early radio personalities who broadcasted along the Mexican border. Authors Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford deliver on that title—after each chapter, I was convinced that Wow, that had to be the zaniest character of that era. Only to be shown otherwise in the next chapter. 

In this election year, however, I was especially struck by the story of W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel and his rise and fall as the Governor of Texas. I am sure this is a tired tale in the Lone Star State, but up here in Kansas—well, we just haven’t had showmen on that scale. And we even had the Goat Gland Doctor himself, Dr. John Brinkley! But Pappy O’Daniel—he was a cut above on the entertainer front, hands down. His chapter of the book, titled “Please Pass the Tamales, Pappy,” was my favorite. 

An accomplished businessman, Pappy O’Daniel shined bright amid the old, dowdy politicians of his time with his showmanship and his ability to saturate the airwaves. His advertising and his down-home words of insight were set off by the jazzy old-time music of the now-legendary Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. (At the time, they were the Light Crust Doughboys, because Pappy was in the flour business.) The chapter reads like a rapid river, with Pappy and all of Texas riding the whitecap waves straight to the governor’s mansion. 

What's a Border to Do?

Mar 30, 2020
Wikimedia Commons

“Border Radio” is a riot of a book, covering not only great memories of a time when radio seemingly had more color, more sheer flavor than now, but also an appreciation of the grand irony in real life, no joke writers needed. The border across into Mexico was not just an escape for bandits in western movies. The border was also more than an escape from troubles in the US with a chance to continue or expand whatever had drawn the ire of authorities north of the border. The border was a way to reach across the line of division to work together as combined communities.

Along the way we are given accounts of paired border communities which think of themselves as an entity, divided only by a river and the politics of a line on the map. It is the people who don’t live in those paired communities who tend to believe in large differences, even hostile possibilities

The paired communities themselves come together for mutual financial, social and civic goals. We can ask the purpose of any boundary. Certainly, there is always the need to determine services such as water, sewers, roads and so forth, as well as who pays and how - along with the distribution of services. Those are practical concerns.

What Are We EVEN Talking About?

Mar 25, 2020
Wikimedia Commons

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.

Lessons of History

Mar 20, 2020
Border Radio Research Institute / Facebook

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. 

Radio's Version of Reality TV

Mar 18, 2020
Border Radio Research Institute / Facebook

Hi, I’m Valerie Mendoza, a Radio Reader from Topeka. I’m halfway through Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford and wanted to share some thoughts.

S-A-V-E-D

Mar 13, 2020
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.

Glandular

Mar 11, 2020
Kansas Memory / Kansas Historical Society

“Border Radio” starts with Dr. John Romulus Brinkley. Brinkley pretty much gave birth to border radio. He is very much a Kansas character, starting his world-renowned clinic and his first radio station in Milford, Kansas.

In 1917, long before Viagra was even a twinkle in some researcher’s test tube and advertiser’s joy, Dr. J. R. Brinkley let the world know about his goat-gland proposition in which he placed slivers of Billy goat gonads into human scrotums. For that restorative operation he was known by some as “the Kansas Ponce de Leon” and by others as a “loquacious purveyor of goat giblets.”

Radio Readers BookByte: Knit Together by Radio

Jan 29, 2020
Wikimedia

This is Leslie VonHolten of Strong City, Kansas, with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

The characters of Paulette Jiles’s Stormy Weather are knit together by radio—that medium that brought solace to an anxious nation during the Great Depression, and of course is dear to our hearts here at HPPR.

In the book, it is Bea, t

Radio Readers Bookbyte: 40 Years of Public Radio Waves

Jan 13, 2020

Hello, Radio Readers and Radio Reader wannabees! I’m Jane Holwerda from Dodge City KS. We’re celebrating public radio on our High Plains. Did you know? This year marks the 40th year of High Plains Public Radio broadcasts!  

2020 also marks HPPR Radio Readers’ fourth year of successful book club series.  So. Welcome to HPPR Radio Readers 2020 Spring Read: Radio Waves!