I was cranking up some ZZ Top on the ol’ Victrola the other day… and one of the tunes. “I Heard It On The X” got me to thinking about a chapter of broadcasting history that had mostly died out just before I started in radio.
When radio was still a newfangled contraption, the Feds decided it would be a good idea to put a few rules in place to keep the airwaves from becoming an aural trainwreck. The way they did this was by forming the Federal Radio Commission in 1927. One of the first regulations was a cap of 50,000 watts of power that a commercial AM station could transmit.
So what’s a fella to do when he wants to build a radio station with enough power to be heard on Alpha Centauri? Simple! Plop your station just across the Mexican border, crank the transmitter knob up to 11, and break it off… because though the U.S. had restrictions on wattage, Mexico at the time, did not. So while American stations had to be content with blanketing their area, or their state, or sometimes even most of the U.S., the AM stations that became known as “Border Blasters” could pump out enough signal to be heard anywhere in North America, and in some cases, as far away as Australia. These stations used their massive amounts of power to hawk miracle tonics, mail-order baby chicks, genuine simulated diamonds, and… goat glands? (Don’t ask.)
One of these border blasters even has a rather dubious Iowa connection. XENT, in Nuevo Laredo, was operated in the 1930s by one Norman G. Baker from Muscatine. From XENT, Baker shilled his fake cure for cancer. Baker also owned and operated KTNT in Muscatine, as well as a phony cancer hospital in Muscatine. (Well, the hospital was real enough… but the cures were as fake as a $3 bill.) He also published a magazine called “TNT” where he railed against cattle TB tests, water fluoridation, vaccinations, and also claimed that aluminum cookware caused half of all cancers. Baker even ran for Iowa Governor in 1932. In his Muscatine “hospital”, he would fleece desperate patients out of their life savings while basically just letting them die. He was, to put it mildly, not a nice guy.
After the folks in Muscatine run him out of town, he opened up another hospital in Nuevo Laredo, and border blaster XENT, whose sole purpose was to flog Baker’s wonder-cure. He also opened up a third hospital at the old Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Eventually, Baker was shut down by the feds and did some time in prison. He died in Florida of cirrhosis in 1958. He’s buried next to his sister in Muscatine’s Greenwood Cemetery.
There’s a wealth of information on this guy’s Wikipedia page here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
By the way, the Crescent Hotel which was one of Baker’s hospitals in the early 1930s is now operating (no pun intended) as the Crescent Hotel, and is promoted as a popular destination for ghosthunters.
Fast forward to the 1950’s… Rock ‘N Roll is born, and the border blasters were quick to hop on the bandwagon. One of the DJ’s to broadcast this new music to teenagers across America via border blaster XERF, was Robert Weston Smith, better known as…
As the Wolfman howled, and an eclectic blend of music from artists like John Lee Hooker, Elvis, Muddy Waters, and “Stick” McGhee thundered out of the dusty desert, kids across America were electrified by this new music.
And speaking of being electrified, these stations were pumping out ridiculous amounts of juice. There were stories of people nearby picking the border blasters up on their dental work and toasters. One fellow claimed he couldn’t sleep because The Wolfman was coming out of his bedsprings.
Then there were the flaming birds. It was claimed that birds flying too close to the transmitter would burst into flames and drop out of the sky, the field around the base of the tower littered with charred bird carcasses.
Whether these stories are true or not, they add to the mystique of the border blasters. In the 1980s, the last of the border blasters went silent, closing this fascinating and sometimes dubious chapter of radio history.
So next time you hear ZZ Top’s “Heard It On The X”, Wall Of Voodoo’s “Mexican Radio”, or “The WASP (Texas Radio and The Big Beat)” by The Doors, you’ll know the border blasters were their inspiration.
See y’all next week!