Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Radio XER & XERA
The World's Most Powerful Broadcast Station

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840
(830) 703-1554 dbraudaway@swtjc.edu

The story of the world's most powerful radio station begins in 1917 with John R. Brinkley in Milford, Kansas. Dr. Brinkley was the great-grand-daddy and founder of border radio. His station was also one of the first commercial broadcasting successes.1

John R. Brinkley became wealthy in Kansas in the late 1910s and 1920s performing a controversial "rejuvenation" operation in which he implanted slivers of goat glands into the human body. He advertised on radio saying, "A man is only as old as his glands." He was known by millions as "Goat-Gland" Brinkley, or simply, "the goat-gland man." He made enough money with these operations that when his engineers told him of the $36,000 cost to build special tubes for his Acuña station's transmitters, he reached into his pocket and "peeled off 36 $1000 bills." His income was said to be in the six-figures; during the Depression, it may have been seven.2

In 1923, in order to promote his business, Brinkley began operating a radio station, KFKB, "Kansas First, Kansas Best." This preliminary experience would payoff for Del Rio some years later. He also ran for governor of Kansas three times. In 1930, the first time he announced, he had to run a write-in campaign. "Everybody who was politically anybody admitted that the reason Brinkley didn't enter the State House was because of the way the votes were counted--or, rather, weren't counted." Early ballot counts appeared to have Brinkley winning. He was very popular and was even getting votes in neighboring Oklahoma counties. But the win was not to be. "As election night wore on and the politicians' faces grew longer, the order went out from Topeka [his state's capital] to cancel every write-in on which even an i hadn't been dotted. That was legal, and ballots went out every window." Brinkley lost, placing third. The second place finisher lost by only 251 votes out of 600,000, but no one wanted a recount which would risk a Brinkley win. He also lost two later elections, in 1932 and 1934.3

Brinkley came to Del Rio after the 1929 revocation of his radio license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission. Banned from owning American radio stations because of his improper use of the airwaves--advertising being considered improper--he won a permit to broadcast from Mexico. His permit allowed him to build a station anywhere along the border from Ciudad Juarez to Matamoros. The Del Rio Chamber of Commerce found out about Brinkley's desire for a station, contacted him and suggested that he build across the river. The Chamber of Commerce arguments were many: the climate was pleasant, officials from Villa Acuña were willing to provide ten acres of land, Del Rio had an airfield for Brinkley's plane with a big arrow painted on the roof of the Roswell Hotel pointed directly towards it, and Del Rio officials would help get all of the necessary permits.4

In June 1931 he sold his Kansas station, built XER in Villa Acuña and began broadcasting with 100,000 watts, whereas "most radio stations in the United States broadcast over transmitters with about 1000 watts of power." (The Mexican border blasters were all designated with call letters "XE.") In autumn of 1932 he won permission to increase power to 500,000 watts. "XER was easily the most powerful radio station in the world at the time. It boomed a wide swath up the Mississippi Valley to the Canadian border and was heard clearly east to Florida." His broadcasts were also reported to be received "quite dependably" in New York City, and they were very popular. "If there was a sick person between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains who wasn't listening in to Doc, it was because he had no radio set." Furthermore, "the new radio powerhouse had enough juice to blanket any United States or Canadian station operating within fifty kilocycles of its wavelength."

He was also given permission to broadcast on a second wavelength. Mexican officials were generally upset at a 1924 decision between Canada and the US taking the channels for themselves (six for Canada and one-hundred for the US), so they were happy to allow Brinkley to broadcast on top of norteamericano channels, drowning them out. Brinkley did not even have to leave his Kansas clinic; herecorded his broadcasts on records which were shipped south for broadcast. Mexican officials protected Mexican radio listeners by erecting giant steel towers to block the signal.

In 1933, after a second loss for governor and increasing pressure from themedical establishment, Brinkley closed his Kansas clinic and moved his whole operation to Del Rio. He bought and enlarged what is now the Brinkley Mansion on Qualia Drive on the south side of town, and from his backyard he could soak in the sun and see the towers of XER rising into the sky just a very short distance across the Rio Grande. His broadcast tower was called the "Queen of the Air," his station, "The Sunshine Station Between the Nations." And every day Dr. Brinkley invited America to Del Rio "where Summer Spends the Winter."5

Dr. Brinkley was not without troubles concerning his radio station and the government of Mexico and the United States. During the early days of XER the U. S. government prohibited Brinkley from crossing the international bridge into the country. Brinkley responded by establishing a special telephone line from XER to a remote studio in the Roswell Hotel from which he broadcast. The U.S. government then banned telephoning outside the country for rebroadcast back into it. In response, Brinkley pioneered the technology of electrical transcription--the recording of the speech and music on aluminum disks. These "records" were then shipped to the station, played at 33 and 1/3, but from the inside groove outward (like a modern cd).

XER had been broadcasting since 1931, but the station was closed by Mexican authorities in February 1934 under a policy of shutting down the "border-blasters." New regulations prohibited foreign studios from broadcasting in Mexico including all non-Spanish medical programming (without special permission from the government.) A radio inspector from the Mexican capital tried to close XER, but the local officials, locally-based soldiers and Acuña's townspeople threatened to lynch him. When he returned with non-local troops, the citizens finally allowed him to proceed.6

Nevertheless, Brinkley was off the air only temporarily. Brinkley began using XEPN at Piedras Negras and XEAW in Reynosa. He even considered refitting his yacht, the Doctor Brinkley II, as a floating station, but he was soon back in Acuña. After working out a new permit with the new Mexican government of Lazaro Cardenas on December 1, 1935, Brinkley started the station anew with the call letters XERA.

Station XERABrinkley Medicine Bottle

The reopened station broadcast at a rated 500,000 watts but it also used a third antenna to the south that acted as a directional antenna which "shot the signal northward at a red-hot million watts. The signal was so powerful that ranchers received XERA on their barbed-wire fences." In Acuña electricity sparked on water heaters, window screens and dangling wires; so much current was in the air that unconnected wires could light up light bulbs. During this time Brinkley opened a second clinic, in San Juan, Texas, to treat "problems of the rectum." Brinkley advertised 'Remember, San Juan for rectal troubles, and Del Rio for the old prostrate. "On occasion, Brinkley continued to use XEPN and XEAW, both nearly as powerful, and both able to cut further across American wavelengths. As he said, "Radio waves pay no attention to lines on the map."7

The programming for Radio XER, XERA and the others was full of interesting characters who were not generally welcomed by American authorities.8 Among them was Dr. Mel-Roy, Ps.D and Ms.D, the "Apostle of Mental Science," who, with his Book of Dreams and his cape and turban, explained the secrets of the sub-conscious world. Sam Morris, a 1940s "Radio Temperance Lecturer" told Americans about the evils of alcohol and explained the true reasons why nations fell from positions of prominence and power. His voice boomed across the airways:

"For eight months, at the beginning of World War II, French and German soldiers faced each other across the Maginot Line. It was a period of inactivity so far as war service was concerned. Rigid rules were enforced in the German Army against drinking and smoking. The French soldiers reveled in unbridled lust, drink and dissipation. Reliable reports revealed that there were 814 French soldiers confined in one army hospital at one time with delirium tremens. Then the zero hour struck. Germany swept around the Maginot Line, blitzed into France and in a few days it was all over. The French Army, to the amazement of the world, crumpled like a crushed eggshell. America is traveling that same downward course."9

Modern television evangelists have their roots in Dr. Brinkley's border blasters. American networks had adopted policies prohibiting radio religion. Even when preachers could buy airtime in the U.S., they were prohibited from soliciting donations on the air. So they went across the border, bought their time and asked for their donations there, on XERA and its successor XERF. Rev. George W. Cooper, a former moonshine runner from North Carolina, cowboy evangelist Dallas Turner and Rev. Frederick Eikenreenkoetter II (better known as Rev. Ike preaching "get out of the ghet-to and get into the get-mo!") who called himself unreal and incredible to those with limited consciousness all made rounds on XERF and the rest. Dr. Gerald Winrod pushed cancer cures, scripture and attacks on communism, and Brother Mack Watson and Brother David Epley sold holy oil, prayer cloths and even "the hem of His garment."10

Brinkley left Del Rio in 1938 with his career in decline. He moved to Arkansas after several Texas lawsuits and the establishment of a cut-rate competitor, but he commuted back to the city on Thursdays to broadcast on XERA. He opened two hospitals in Little Rock, but judgments resulting from lawsuits began eating into his fortune. Brinkley lost a local libel suit in a 1939 trial held in the federal courthouse in Del Rio; Brinkley appealed but lost that as well. He also lost court cases in Arkansas, and the Internal Revenue Service filed a "Texas-sized claim" against him. After "fruitful conversations" between American and Mexican communications officials and the signing of an international convention regulating broadcasts, XERA was "deleted" from Mexican broadcasting. The American government agreed to clear six frequencies and make them available to Mexico. While in Mexico City to try to renew his permit, Dr. Brinkley received a phone call from his station manager: "Did you know that the Mexican army is tearing down the station right now." On March 29, 1941, radioman Brinkley was off the air--permanent1y.11

As for the Acuña station, former associates of Dr. Brinkley won permits to reopen after the Second World War under the call letters XERF. The similarities to the old call letters and the station operators have caused many people to think XERF was a continuation of Dr. Brinkley’s XERA, but it was not. Don Howard and Walter Wilson approached Arturo C. Gonzalez, who had dual Mexican and American citizenship and the connections to get through the red tape. Gonzalez had handled legal matters for Brinkley and was "an especially effective negotiator." In 1947 XERF began broadcasting at "fifty thousand watts clear channel." The term "clear channel" referred to the fact that the station was the only one broadcasting on that particular frequency. Without other stations clouding the airwaves, the XERF broadcast had better reception across the entire country, even without the huge XER/XERA transmitter which had been taken to Mexico City for Radio XEX. Still, the lower-power fifty thousand watts then carried as far as two hundred and fifty thousand watts in the late 1980s. Radio XERF had "great coverage of the entire USA" at 1570 AM on the dial, but only at night. During the day "you're burning up a lot of electricity just to get to San Antonio." But at night, the signal went on and on.12 XERF featured Hall of Fame announcer Paul Kallinger and Robert Smith, a man who became known to the world as Wolfman Jack. But these are other stories.

Radio XER and XERA were the first of the border-blasters, stations that were heard and known across the United States and around the world. People heard the place "Del Rio" in conversation and remember listening to the station. Recently, a new type of broadcasting has been marketed to car owners: XM Radio. This special tuner receives satellite transmissions so that drivers can hear the same station across the country. What was old is new again! The marketing slogan even says, "Radio to the Power of X." Nice idea. Radio Del Rio was broadcasting the X seventy years ago, and the radio changed the country. It is time for a historical marker, and we are ready to place it.

 

Bibliography--
"Del Rio's Bygone Days," Del Rio News-Herald, January 28, 1988, page 5A.
Gerald Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1960.
Bill Crawford, Gene Fowler and Paul Kallinger, "Border Radio," Presentation at Val Verde County Library, January 24, 1998.
Gene Fowler, "Queen City of the Rio Grande," Texas Highways, March 1995, pages 34-42.
Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio, Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987.
Nancy Krzton, "Dr. Brinkley Era Put Del Rio on Map," Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, page 7D.
Harold Mehling, The Scandalous Scamps, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1959.
Dr. Mel-Roy, Book of Dreams, privately published, [no date].
Tom Miller, On the Border: Portraits of America's Southwestern Frontier, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981.
Sam Morris, Drink and the Downfall of Nations, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1945.
Leslie Schmidt to Doug Braudaway, interview on April 15, 1998.
Robert and Jewel McDowell Smith to Doug Braudaway, interview on June 30, 1997.
Ron Strickland, Texans: Oral Histories from the Lone Star State, New York: Paragon House, 1991.
Charles Taylor, "Radio Station XERF--Ciudad Acuña, Mexico," Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, page 1F.
Wolfman Jack and Byron Laursen, Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal, Warner Books: New York, 1995.

 

Footnotes--

1Crawford, Fowler and Kallinger, "Border Radio," January 24, 1998.
2Mehling, The Scandalous Scamps, pages 44-47; Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, pages 18-19, 24.
3Mehling, The Scandalous Scamps, pages 38-40, 59.
4Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, page 180.
5
 
Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, pages 7, 148; Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, pages 176- 177, 184-186, 195; Mehling, The Scandalous Scamps, pages 60-64; Fowler, Queen City, page 40.
6
 
Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, pages 25,34, 158; Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, pages 184-185, 200; Mehling, The Scandalous Scamps, pages 65-66; Fowler, Queen City, page 40.
7
 
 
 
 
Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, pages 200-205; Fowler, Queen City, page 40; Miller, On the Border, page 78; Robert and Jewel McDowell Smith, interview on June 30, 1997. Brinkley's was not the only border blaster radio station. "Speculation on the border grew, and by early 1934 nine superpowered stations along the Rio Grande were either operating or authorized to begin construction. The aggregate power of these nine stations was a whopping 2,432,000 watts, an astounding figure, considering that the combined wattage of all U.S. stations at that time was a meager 1,700,000 watts. American broadcasters huddled in terror as they anticipated the crushing power of a broadcasting tidal wave from the Rio Grande." Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, page 159.
8
 
Brinkley's stations also broadcast Spanish-language programming, but those hours and programs were not controversial, nor has much been written about them (at least in American publishing). Leslie Schmidt, interview on April 15, 1998, (tape 1).
9Dr. Mel-Roy, Book of Dreams, privately published; Sam Morris, Drink and the Downfall of Nations, pages 8-9.
10Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, pages 220-235; Wolfman and Laursen, Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal, page 108.
11
 
Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, pages 230-250; Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, pages 42-43, 167; Ron Strickland, Texans: Oral Histories from the Lone Star State, page 231; Krzton, "Dr. Brinkley Era Put Del Rio on Map," Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, page 7D.
12
 
Fowler and Crawford, Border Radio, pages 170, 199; Strickland, Texans, page 236; Miller, On the Border, pages 78-81; Taylor, "Radio Station XERF--Ciudad Acuña, Mexico," Del Rio News-Herald, March 20,1979, page 1F.