The World’s Most Powerful Broadcast Station – Radio XER & XERA (Condensed)
By Doug Braudaway, Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840
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.
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.” In 1923, in order to promote his business, Brinkley began operating a radio station, KFKB, “Kansas First, Kansas Best.” This preliminary experience would pay off for Del Rio some years later.
Brinkley came to Del Rio after the 1929 revocation of his radio license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission.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.
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.
Furthermore, “the new radio powerhouse had enough juice to blanket any United States or Canadian station operating within fifty kilocycles of its border. In 1933, after the second loss for governor and increasing pressure from the medical establishment, Brinkley closed his Kansas clinic and moved his whole operation to Del Rio.
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. Later, Brinkley pioneered the technology of electrical transcription–the recording of the speech and music on aluminum disks.
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.” 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.
Brinkley began using XEPN at Piedras Negras and XEAW in Reynosa. After working out a new permit with the new Mexican government of Lazaro Cardenas on December 1, 1935, Brinkley started the station a new with the call letters XERA. 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!
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 prostate.
Modern television evangelists have their roots in Dr. Brinkley’s border blasters. American networks had adopted policies prohibiting radio religion. Brinkley left Del Rio in 1938 with his career in decline.
After “fruitful conversations” between American and Mexican communications officials and the signing of an international convention regulating broadcasts, XERA was “deleted” from Mexican broadcasting.
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, radio man Brinkley was off the air–permanently.
As for the Acuña station, former associates of Dr. Brinkley won permits to reopen after the Second World War under the call letters XERF. In 1947 XERF began broadcasting at “fifty thousand watts clear channel.”
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.
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.
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