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     XER - THE KING OF THE BORDER BLASTERS

        By John Schneider, W9FGH

 

www.theradiohistorian.org
Copyright 2015 -
John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC

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(Click on photos to enlarge)


Brinkley

 Dr. John Romulus Brinkley


Fishbein

 Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Weldon

James O. Weldon,
XER's transmitter engineer


XER artwork
Cover page from an XER promotional brochure


Hotel Roswell
A postcard view of the Hotel Roswell in Del Rio, Texas - home of the XER studios.


XER studio

A view of XER's studio
in the Hotel Roswell
 


XER transmitter building

A closeup view of the XER transmitter building


postcard
A postcard view of the XER building and towers in Villa Acuña, Mexico 

XER transmitter
The original XER
50 kW transmitter.


Tubes
XER transmitter interior, showing the eight water-cooled vacuum power tubes
.

Transformers
The ransformers and motor generators that supplied power to the XER transmitter.


XER antenna
Diagram showing configuration of the directional antenna that aimed XER's signals to the north


XERA building
A view of the building a few years later, when the station was renamed XERA.

XERA building
Another view of the XERA building, probably taken in the late 1930s.


Weldon with tube

James Weldon in later years, alongside one of the huge water-cooled tubes that was used in the XER 500 kW transmitter. 


XERA QSL Card
An XERA QSL card.


 

 

 Order out of Chaos

 When the 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 the process. 

 Brinkley’s lifelong 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”. 

 The F.R.C. 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

 Brinkley, 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 answer.

 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.  

 Engineering Geniuses

 Brinkley contracted with Will Branch, a prominent engineer from WBAP in Ft. Worth, 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. Weldon.   

 Weldon was 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!

 Government Intervention

 But, like 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.

 Eventually, 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

 Once XERA 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 testing.

 The original 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

During the 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.    

During these 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

 Temporarily 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.

 Meanwhile, U.S. 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.

 Expropriation

 Throughout 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.

 Brinkley 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.

 Postscript

 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 music dynasty.

  • 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 today. 

  • 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.

 


 

PARTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Border Radio by Gene Fowler & Bill Crawford, 1987.

Charlatan by Pope Brock, 2008

“XER, The Sunshine Station Between the Nations”, promotional booklet, 1932

“From the Birth to the Demise of Super-Power Station XERA” by Durell M. Roth;  Proceedings of the Radio Club of America, 1996.

Federal Radio Commission report to Congress, June 30, 1927.

“Radio Clouds on the Rio Grande Horizon” by Vincent S. Barker – Broadcasting Magazine, April 1, 1935.

 


ADDITIONAL READING:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_R._Brinkley

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brinkley_Act

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XHRF-FM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfman_Jack

http://www.contelec.com/history.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carter_Family

http://www.leagle.com/decision/193171747F2d670_1472.xml/KFKB%20BROADCASTING%20ASS%27N%20v.%20FEDERAL%20RADIO%20COMMISSION

 


 NOTE:  This article appeared in the Spectrum Monitor Magazine, July, 2015.


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John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
Copyright, 2015