New York Clashes with the Heartland

part 1, 2

New regulations gave Washington the ability to shut broadcasters down.

"One of the first people is a guy named Dr. John R. Brinkley and he had a station called KFKB, Kansas First Kansas Best, which was one of the most popular stations in the Midwest," says Bill Crawford, co-author of "Border Radio." "Dr. Brinkley had made a fortune doing something he called 'the goat gland proposition.' An early form of Viagra in which he would take a sliver of a goat gonad and insert it, transplant it, into a man's personal equipment. He claimed it would make 'any man the ram what am with every lamb.'"

Brinkley did thousands of these quack operations. They were shockingly popular. He built the station at first to entertain recovering patients waiting to get back on their feet and give their new virility a test drive. He also found it was a great way to advertise all sorts of novel procedures and patent medicines. Federal regulators were falling all over themselves to shut him down.

"So Dr. Brinkley looked for a place where he could reestablish not only his radio station but also his medical practice," says Crawford. "If he was broadcasting from Mexico, he was beyond the reach of American broadcasting regulation. He could broadcast whatever he wanted at whatever power he wanted to."

Bill Crawford in front of XERF, the station that Dr. Brinkley built in Ciudad Acuņa, Mexico. Now owned by the Mexican government, it broadcasts a mix of programming targeted to rural Mexicans and the Mexican diaspora in the United States. On a good night, you can hear the station in Seattle, Washington. - Photo by Nate DiMeo

And he could sell whatever he wanted to. Bunk medical cures the U.S. government was cracking down on north of the border. Things like expensive crystals that would supposedly dissolve in water to make water more "water-like."

"They designed antenna figurations which boosted the power of the stations to more than a million watts of effective radiated power," says Crawford. "So these stations were enormously powerful. They were so powerful that folks who lived by the station didn't need to pay for electricity. There was so much energy that light bulbs would go on by themselves. Folks near the station could hear the stations being picked up on barb wire fences, bed springs and even on their dental work."

But more importantly, people as far away as the Arctic Circle could hear it almost every night

"The core of Dr. Brinkley's programming on the station was music," says Crawford. "This was music that wasn't played by the networks in New York which looked down their nose at these rural sounds because they saw it as their moral duty to uplift America from out of this kind of uneducated form of entertainment into a more educated, sophisticated environment."

The networks needed dozens of small stations to make sure their national message was heard from coast to coast, but Brinkley didn't. His XERF and the other border stations that followed his lead were like networks unto themselves. And while NBC and CBS were making stars of people Bing Crosby, XERF was making the biggest stars in country.

The Carter Family, the first family of country music, paragons of middle-American virtue, owed their careers to thousands of goat testicle operations.

The Carter Family album cover. Maybelle, A.P. and Sara Carter. - Courtesy Wikipedia

"The Carters represented the domestic tradition, they sang about the family and God and home, all of those things. They'd sell 100,000 recordings or more of some of their hits, but to saturate the culture, that took border radio," says John Rumble. He says the music on Border Radio and the Opry helped define what it meant to be a rural American in the 1930s. "You had a kinship with other people who listened. Those things reinforced what we would think of as traditional values. Faith in God, devotion to family, hard work, devotion to country. Those things were part of the cultural glue."

In 1937, NBC gave its seal of approval to George D. Hay's vision of rural America. The Opry could make the network money. The show's mix of country crooners, singing cowboys, minstrel acts, and southern Christian values was sufficiently packaged and homogenized for the network to take it nationwide. This move helped solidify what you can think of as a sort of shadow mainstream. A cultural parallel track that Louis Kyriakoudes says still runs through the country today.

"The Opry has been there, one of the longest, continual playing radio programs, broadcasting to a middle-American sensibility and defining, for these people, what life and culture and popular entertainment are and it has been doing that consistently," says Kyriakoudes.

In March of 1974, the Opry celebrated its 50th anniversary in 70s rhinestoned, butterfly-collared style. George Hay was dead. Singer Roy Acuff had taken over the host's mic. It was the opening night of the theater at Opryland - a mammoth complex with a hotel, and an amusement park on the outskirts of Nashville. The Opry had come of age.

"But you know," Acuff said that evening, "I never dreamed that a night like this would ever come to Roy Acuff. So I'd like to say to the world that's listening in, from our new home in Opryland U.S.A., ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Richard Nixon."

President Richard Nixon waving to the crowd on the opening night of the Grand Ole Opry House, March 16, 1974 - Courtesy Grand Ole Opry Museum

President Nixon came on stage and approached the mic.

"Country music radiates the love of this nation. Patriotism. Country music therefore has those combinations which are so essential to America's character at a time that America needs character," said Nixon. "But it's going to depend on our willingness to not only wear the flag but stand up for the flag and country music does that."

Four months after this appearance, Nixon would resign in disgrace. His presidency was under siege. The Vietnam War was in some of its darkest days. He was in the throes of Watergate.

But that night, in the house that George D. Hay built, Richard Nixon got a standing ovation.

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