CONMAN AT THE BORDER
Long has the snake oil salesman promised miracle cures, vast fortunes and spiritual curiosities on the odd chance he could trick the most gullible among us into lining his own pockets with gold. And the most talented conmen provided exotic and expressive storytelling, music, and oratorial performance to seduce these poor citizens to suspend their disbelief and follow them with their wallets wide open.
But alas, like the Wizard of Oz before them, they would eventually get found out and chased out of Kansas, only to set up shop again in a different town, with a different story, yet with the same snake oil that either caused physical or financial harm, and in the best case scenarios, didn’t do much of anything at all. And eventually, when things aren’t going so well, some of them just pick up and head down to the border hoping to avoid the realities of civilized society, the FDA, the FCC, and the long arm of the law.
So while the Mexican border, outlandish behavior, and truth in advertising are certainly on everyone’s minds right now, it’s interesting to examine the outlaw days of border blaster radio and its cultural implications in terms of a search for unregulated markets, invented personalities, freedom of expression and its borderline relationship with propaganda. In his new piece, Chris Adams takes us down to Del Rio, Texas, once again, where the symbiotic relationship between the towns on either side of the Rio Grande play into his review of the glory days of XER radio, these border blaster stations.
“The Texas-Mexico border has now become synonymous with divisive, phantom, illicit immigration and drug cartel violence, but this too is just modern day propaganda. Although the border is a hot topic among Americans nationwide, for those residing in border cities, immigration is not a major cause for concern. And at one point in time, it had some of the most innovative radio technologies and radio personalities in the country.” Read Border Blaster here.
So while America was on the brink of the Great Depression, one particularly dangerous conman headed down to Del Rio, where he could live on the edge of Texas, and also have a preposterously powerful megaphone to sell his goods. “The first of these personalities to arrive at the Rio Grande in the ’30’s was a seemingly ingenious, medicine-practicing Kansas conman named John Romulus Brinkley. The border radio operators were pushing back against the revocation of broadcasting licenses by U.S. authorities due to the consequences of their unscrupulous practices on the radio.
So, many of them fled to the border for radio salvation. In 1931, he was granted a radio license from the Mexican government launching the most powerful station on the border, XER, at 50,000 watts, but was soon allowed to increase it to 150,000 enabling his programming of preacher sermons, hustlers trumpeting their goods, and hillbilly music to be heard over a wide swath of America.” And just like that, the infomercial was born.
Culturally, the accidental impact of these stations was enormous, as it allowed not just for swindlers and shady medical practitioners on the airwaves, but also for new forms of not yet acceptable music (like what would eventually become country and western, R&B, and rock 'n' roll) to reach audiences as far away as New York City. As the ‘50’s came to a close, social change could be seen on the far horizon. Then along came a young Brooklynite named Robert Smith, a man magnetized by the XER sound. He showed up on the border seeking radio fame and fortune. “I began to listen to XERF as a little kid in New York. That station was so strong in those days, man, that it used to come into New York like a local. The thing that fascinated me was that it was the most powerful commercial radio station in the world.”
So in 1960, Smith, now better known as Wolfman Jack, arrived in Del Rio, Texas with some east coast demos of past radio gigs and battled his way onto XERF, eventually becoming station manager and turning a profit of $150,000 per month. The Wolfman sold items and dreams like the former peddlers on border radio and included religious programming too, but he added a slot for a Spanish hour to appease the Mexican government as well as hosting a 90-minute country show. It was after midnight when the jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and of course, rock 'n' roll, were rolled out. The power emanating from XERF, a border blaster in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, was so strong that if one walked between the transmitter and tower with a light bulb it would illuminate! He was free to develop his outrageous style, while cross-pollinating these underground sounds across Middle America and into the radios of kids everywhere that needed to connect with a different kind of preacher.
All this current talk of borders, walls, and manufactured crises maybe not so coincidentally butts up against our story of Mexican Radio and the outlaw nature of those who co-opted it for their own personal acts of defiance. Radio, in general, let all forms of popular music out of their regional closets, allowing them to sail along into the mainstream. Specifically, it took two countries without a highly politicized trade agreement to facilitate this historical act of culture. And arguably, border radio was the most profound airwave platform, because it enriched American life while operating without any boundaries.
Slightly after the announcement that video had killed the radio star, Wall of Voodoo released a song sounding somewhat like an ode to the border radio personalities themselves. And while Mexican Radio was by no means a Billboard smash, it somehow took hold of a generation of music fans, though, ironically, not through radio at all but by that other old school medium: television. Thanks to MTV and its limited number of videos it had to play at the onset, any band that could throw together an absurdist little visual drama all of the sudden had endless airplay and captive audiences.
They’d play around 10-12 music videos on repeat, mostly by bands on shoestring budgets; something Wall of Voodoo benefited from greatly. And after a certain time of night things could get exceptionally weird, and this one hit wonder’s video was no exception. During a specific time in the early 1980’s the New Wave loving gods of MTV made this song and its accompanying video utterly inescapable.
The quirky song takes us south of the border with lyrics such as, “I wish I was in Tijuana/Eating barbecued iguana...” Though certainly not poetic genius by any means, its absurd imagery and quick cuts between lead singer Stan Ridgeway on a radio mic and out of focus scenes shot in Tijuana are what truly made it, if not iconic, at least memorable. Meaning, there’s literally an iguana being grilled over the fire, or at least, there’s maybe a fake plastic toy iguana being grilled over a fire. Does it really matter? The rapid shots of Mexican culture paired with the lyrics accidentally captured, in a very uniquely strange way, the culture of border radio during a time when it was slowly going extinct. It’s truly one of those things that can only be described as “so weird it’s good.” Take a look for yourself.