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John Romulus Brinkley
Dr. Morris Fishbein,
editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
A view of XER's studio
in the Hotel Roswell
A closeup view of the XER transmitter building
James Weldon in later years, alongside one of the huge water-cooled tubes that was used in the XER 500 kW transmitter.
An XERA QSL card.
Order out of Chaos
United States Congress enacted the Radio Act of 1927, the AM broadcast band had
devolved into complete chaos. With 732
radio stations operating on 89 radio channels, there were too many stations
interfering with one another. Prior to
the radio act, the government did not have the authority to enforce assigned
frequencies and transmitter power, and so many stations were operating in
complete disregard to their licensed frequency and power. Congress charged the
new Federal Radio Commission with bringing order out of chaos, and one of the
ways they chose to achieve this was to eliminate those broadcasters who were
not operating in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”
In the spring
of 1928, the F.R.C. commissioners ordered 164 stations to justify their
existence or cease broadcasting. Among
these, one of their chief targets was the popular station KFKB in Milford,
Kansas, operated by the flamboyant but unscrupulous Doctor John Romulus
Brinkley. The “doctor” (who did not possess
a valid medical degree) also operated the Brinkley Hospital in Milford, and his
signature procedure was the grafting of goat testicles into the genitalia of middle-aged
men who yearned to rejuvenate their youthful sex lives. In the days before Viagra, this was very big
business – albeit totally fraudulent and without any medical basis– and
Brinkley had a corner on the market, amassing a substantial personal fortune in
adversary was Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American
Medical Association, who had built a career out of exposing medical fraud. On several occasions, Fishbein had publicly exposed
Brinkley as a “quack” and made it a personal goal to close down his operation. In the process, he approached the Federal
Radio Commission and informed them that Brinkley was using KFKB to advertise
his goat-gland procedure throughout the Midwest, and was also dispensing
medical advice and prescribing his own patent medicines over the air through a KFKB
program called the “Medical Question Box”.
conducted a formal hearing in Washington in 1930, which resulted in the
cancellation of Brinkley’s license to operate KFKB. Brinkley appealed to the D.C. District Court,
which ruled against him in February, 1931, and was finally forced to sell KFKB
in March of that year. (He sold it for
$900,000 to Farmers Bank. They moved it
to Abilene where it became KFBI. It is
now KFTI in Wichita.) The same year, Fishbein
and the A.M.A. were successful in convincing the Kansas State Medical Board to
revoke Brinkley’s license to practice medicine.
Signals from South of the Border
never the kind of person who would ride quietly into the sunset, looked for a
scheme that would allow him to sidestep the efforts of the two powerful
organizations and keep his lucrative radio and medical businesses. During a 1931 vacation in Mexico, he found his
For a number
of years, the Mexican government had been in unproductive discussions with the
United States over an inequitable distribution of broadcasting
frequencies. Because it had been an
early adopter of radio broadcasting, the U.S. had grabbed all of the available
frequencies for itself, tossing a few to Canada and ignoring Mexico
completely. When broadcasting in Mexico finally
got under way, they discovered that the broadcast band was overflowing with
interference coming from its northern neighbor, whose government was unwilling
to make any accommodations for Mexico. By
1931, increasingly frustrated with U.S. intransigence, Mexican authorities were
more than happy to consider Doc Brinkley’s request to build a powerful new radio
station on the Mexican side of the border.
Brinkley became a valuable pawn in their negotiations, and he also gave
them an opportunity to “tweak the noses” of their adversaries.
Thus it was
that the construction of XER, the continent’s most powerful radio station, began
in Villa Acuña, in the state of Coahila, in the summer of 1931. The towers were just a stone’s throw from the
Rio Grande River. On the opposite side
of the river was the city of Del Rio, Texas, whose city fathers were overjoyed
to have the economic boost the station would bring during the depths of the
depression. Further, Texas authorities
were willing to license Brinkley to practice medicine and open a new hospital
in Del Rio.
contracted with Will Branch, a prominent engineer from WBAP in Dallas, to put
together XER’s 50,000 watt transmitter (it was later rebuilt in 1933 for
185,000 watts). It cost $175,000 to
build, including $36,000 for the tubes alone.
Two 300-foot towers supported the flat-top wire antenna, oriented to maximize
its signal across the border. The XER studios
were located in the Roswell Hotel in Del Rio, and a broadcast-quality telephone
line was installed to carry the programs over the border to the transmitter. Isaias Gallo, a former Mexican radio &
telegraph inspector, became the titular chief engineer, but the job of keeping
the giant transmitter running would fall to a young engineer named James O.
born in Canton, Missouri, and attended Culver-Stockton College, where his
father taught. After completing his studies at the University of Nebraska in
1927, Weldon worked as a broadcast engineer at several radio stations around
the Midwest. One of those stations was
KFKB in Milton, Kansas, where he gained Brinkley’s confidence as a competent
engineer. When Brinkley built XER, he
brought Weldon down with him to Del Rio.
XER’s gala inaugural
broadcast took place on October 21, 1931.
XER was on the air daily from sunset to sunrise, taking advantage of
nighttime atmospheric conditions to extend its signal across North America. Signal
reports quickly came in, indicated that the powerful station was being heard in
every state in the U.S. as well as 15 other countries. Also received were a flood of interference complaints,
as XER’s frequency of 735 kHz was sandwiched right between two powerful
American stations – WSB in Atlanta, and WGN in Chicago. Protests quickly filtered back to the
Mexican government through official channels – Mexico finally had the attention
of the U.S. government! Rubbing salt in
the wounds, Mexico announced in August, 1932, that it had authorized an
increase in power for XER – to 500,000 watts!
bureaucracies throughout the world, the diverse authorities that comprised the
Mexican government did not all see eye-to-eye, and some agencies disagreed with
the communications authorities for having licensed a powerful radio station to
a foreigner. In 1933, the Mexican Health
Department levied fines of 350,000 pesos against station for broadcasting in
English, and also for transmitting program materials that did not conform to
department regulations. Brinkley ignored
the fines and orders to adjust his programming.
Ultimately, everything came to a head on February 24, 1933, when Federal
troops seized the transmitter building and shut down the station.
XER was off
the air for twenty months. During this
time, Brinkley continued to broadcast his medical by leasing time on other
American and Mexican stations. He
dissolved his Villa Acuña Broadcasting Company, and replaced it with Cia.
Mexicana Radiodifusora Fronteriza, a Mexican corporation owned by a Villa Acuña
restaurant owner. In reality, she was
just a puppet owner and Brinkley remained in full control of the company. The new company purchased another “border
blaster” station, XEAW in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.
in December of 1934, a judge in Piedras Negras decided that the “new” owner was
not responsible for fines of previous owner, and ordered Brinkley’s station
returned to the air early in 1935. It
was assigned the new call sign of XERA and given a new frequency, 840 kHz,
where it would now interfere with WWL in New Orleans and KOA in Denver. Brinkley returned to the air with his
powerful 180 kW signal in the fall of 1935.
Rebirth and Super Power
was safely back on the air, Engineer James Weldon busied himself constructing
an entirely new monster transmitter. It
consisted of two 250 kW power amplifiers that were combined for 500,000 watts
of output. It utilized the latest high
power radio technology, including eight of Western Electric’s new 320A high
power vacuum tubes. It was also the
first transmitter to use the new high efficiency “Doherty” amplifier
design. William H. Doherty, the
circuit’s inventor, came to Villa Acuña to inspect the installation during the
XER transmitter was modified and now became a driver for this new high-power amplifier. All construction and test work was done
during daytime hours when the station was off the air, and the old transmitter was
returned to service in the evenings. Finally, on September 20, 1938, XERA commenced
regular nightly broadcasts at 520,000 watts.
Not only was
the new transmitter every bit as powerful as its more famous counterpart at
super-station, WLW in Cincinnati, but Weldon had added a third tower and an additional
parasitic elements to aim most of the signal to the north. This antenna gain effectively doubled the
transmitter power, giving XERA one million watts aimed squarely at the United
States. XERA now rightfully bragged that
it was “the world’s most powerful broadcasting station”.
Pitchmen and Charlatans
next few years, XERA’s powerful signal would blanket the U.S. from coast to
coast every night. XERA had developed
the success formula for “border radio” programming that would thrive on one border
station or another for the next forty years.
In addition to transmitting Brinkley’s medical programs, the station
became a magnet for charlatans and shysters of all kinds who were not permitted
on U.S. stations. At XERA, anyone could
broadcast if they could pay the hourly fee.
Soon, the schedule was filled with astrologists, numerologists, fortune
tellers, mining stock swindles and radio lotteries - and the money poured in
through the mails from American listeners who happily paid for their
services. The typical fee was a dollar,
and there were so many one-dollar envelopes flowing into the post office that
the city gained the nickname of “Dollar Rio”.
Other XERA programs
featured hillbilly and Mexican music, with the performers broadcasting from the
XERA building across the border. In
1938, the Consolidated Royal Chemical Corporation brought “The Original Carter
Family” to Villa Acuña to broadcast two daily radio shows at $75 each per week . That was big money in the days when steady
work was hard to find.
years, Brinkley’s income from his radio station and goat-gland hospital grew
immensely. According to one estimate, he earned over $12 million between 1933
and 1938. He constructed a palatial home
for himself and his wife on a 16-acre parcel near the Rio Grande River, within
sight of his radio towers. The opulent mansion
featured a dozen Cadillacs, a three-story pipe organ, a greenhouse, a foaming
garden surrounded by 8,000 bushes, a zoo full of exotic animals from the
Galapagos Islands, and a swimming pool with a ten-foot diving tower.
The Brinkley Act, NARBA and Other Obstacles
defeated but undaunted, Brinkley’s many enemies now sought new ways to knock
him off the air. As a part of the new
Communications Act of 1934 (which saw the Federal Radio Commission reborn as
the Federal Communications Commission), Congress incorporated a clause that is
still referred to as the “Brinkley Act”.
It forbad the transport of broadcast programs across an international
border, by phone lines or any other means, without the prior approval of the
F.C.C. This caused the XERA program
line between Del Rio and Villa Acuña to be shut off. For its part, Mexico refused to authorize a
visa that would allow Brinkley to cross the border and broadcast from the Mexico
transmitter. Brinkley could see his XERA
towers from his palatial mansion in Del Rio, but he couldn’t get there to do
his broadcasts. But once again
outsmarting his adversaries, Brinkley continued to broadcast by recording his
programs onto the newly-devised method of electrical transcription. The discs were smuggled across the border and
played over the air at the transmitter.
negotiations with Mexico over frequency assignments had been quietly taken
place, and Mexico had finally been successful in pressuring the United States
to reorganize the broadcast band, reserving several choice frequencies for
Mexico. Their occupants would be true
Mexican stations - neither country intended that the Brinkley station or other
border blasters would occupy these channels.
The negotiations culminated in the 1937 Havana Treaty, which created the
North American Radio Broadcast Agreement (NARBA). The treaty completely reorganized the AM broadcast
band and allocated a specified number of “clear channel” frequencies to Mexico,
Canada, the United States and several Caribbean countries. At first, the Mexican Senate refused to
ratify the treaty, but it finally did so in December, 1939. In order to comply with the treaty, most
existing U.S. stations had to change frequencies, and radio’s big moving day
took place on March 29, 1941.
the NARBA negotiations, the future of Brinkley’s XERA had been a critical
bargaining chip. It was understood that
Mexico would make the station disappear from the airwaves as a quid pro quo for
the American concessions. As soon as the
treaty was ratified at the end of 1939, the Mexican government ordered XERA’s power
reduced to 180 kW. A new Mexican channel
plan was drawn up, and there was no new frequency assignment for XERA in the
plan. Finally, on June 19, 1941, Mexican
president Manuel Ávila Camacho ordered the expropriation of XERA because of
“undue influence by foreign elements”, and because it had transmitted “news
broadcasts unsuitable for the new world”.
The huge XERA transmitter was disassembled in July and taken to Mexico
City, where it was installed at XEX.
flew to Mexico City in an attempt to sway the Mexican authorities. On his return trip to Del Rio after
confronting firm opposition, he suffered a heart attack which left him in a
deteriorated state of health.
The stress that
affected his health was not entirely due to the problems at XERA. In 1938, his old adversary, Morris Fishbein
of the A.M.A., had published an article entitled “Modern Medical Charlatans” in
which he exposed Brinkley as “a blatant quack … of the crudest type”. Brinkley responded by bringing a $250,000
libel and defamation lawsuit against Fishbein.
In March of 1939, a Del Rio jury took up the case and ruled against
Brinkley, affirming the veracity of his fraudulent operations. The judgement opened the floodgates to an
estimated $3 million in malpractice lawsuits from injured former patients and
the families of deceased patients of his goat gland surgery. Simultaneously, the Internal Revenue Service
pursued him for unpaid back taxes and the Postal Service began investigating
him for mail fraud. This multi-pronged
attack, carefully orchestrated by Brinkley’s many enemies, caused him to
declare bankruptcy in January of 1941. The
strain on his health continued, and a blood clot in one of his legs resulted in
amputation. Finally, on May 26, 1942, a
second heart attack resulted in his death.
Like most of
humanity’s influential people - both famous and infamous - “Doctor” John
Romulus Brinkley left us with a few legacies worthy of note:
For a few months in 1939, after WLW in
Cincinnati lost its experimental authority to broadcast with “super-power”,
XERA operated as the most powerful radio station in the Western Hemisphere.
- The Carter Family gained national recognition
through their XERA broadcasts, and went on to become country music’s first big
- In 1947, XERA was brought back to life in the
form of a new station, XERF, licensed to Ramon D. Bosquez assigned to 1570 kHz
with 100 kW and transmitting from the original XERA building in Ciudad Acuña. XERF was the classic border blaster station
with its own collection of outlandish and unsavory programs. One of its stars was American disk jockey Bob
Smith, who created the radio persona “Wolfman Jack” on XERF beginning in 1962.
- Brinkley’s wife Minnie continued to live in the Brinkley
Mansion in Del Rio until her death in 1980.
It still stands today at 512 Qualia Drive, now designated as Texas Historic
Landmark number 13015.
- Brinkley’s engineer, James Weldon, became a
renowned expert on high power radio transmission. He went on to form Continental Electronics in
Dallas, where he built high powered shortwave transmitters for the Voice of
America, and powerful radar transmitters for the U.S. military. The company still builds transmitters
- Necessity is the mother of invention. Brinkley was an early adopter of the nascent
technology of electrical transcription recording. It saw regularly used in U.S. radio starting
in the late 1930s, and continued to be popular until widespread adoption of
tape recording in the 1950s.
Radio by Gene Fowler & Bill Crawford, 1987.
by Pope Brock, 2008
Sunshine Station Between the Nations”, promotional booklet, 1932
Birth to the Demise of Super-Power Station XERA” by Durell M. Roth; Proceedings of the Radio Club of America,
Radio Commission report to Congress, June 30, 1927.
Clouds on the Rio Grande Horizon” by Vincent S. Barker – Broadcasting Magazine,
April 1, 1935.
This article appeared in the Spectrum Monitor Magazine, July, 2015.
John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC