XERF was “border blaster” radio station AM 1570 out of Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, across from Del Rio, Texas. The call letters were registered in 1947 and transferred to the Instituto Mexicano de la Radio in 1986. Beginning in the 1930s, high-powered radio stations operated from just across the Mexican border where they were not subject to American broadcasting regulations regarding power, frequency, and content. Along with its competitors, XERF’s high-wattage transmissions could be heard across the United States and well into Canada. From the 1940s to the 1980s, XERF’s strong signal and expansive programming helped promote a broad range of artists and musical genres, including country, rhythm-and-blues, and rock-and-roll.
After World War II, longtime border radio men Don Howard and Walter Wilson joined forces with prominent Del Rio attorney Arturo González. In 1947 they acquired a Mexican radio license allowing them to begin broadcasting under the call letters XERF. With its transmitter in Ciudad Acuña in Coahuila, Mexico, XERF's business office was established for a time in the Roswell Hotel, across the Rio Grande from Acuña in Del Rio. (It was not uncommon for the stations, though their transmitters were in Mexico, to have their business headquarters across the border on American soil.) Following a series of disagreements and legal battles with his business partners, Arturo González emerged as the primary owner of XERF in the 1950s. González kept the station running until 1986.
XERF initially used a 50,000-watt transmitter. By the early 1950s, the transmitter had been upgraded to a powerful 250,000 watts, which carried XERF programming to Korean War servicemen stationed at sea. The signal’s range allowed disc jockey and radio personality Paul Kallinger to achieve national recognition as “Your Good Neighbor Along the Way.” In addition to talk radio, the “Good Neighbor” promoted “hillbilly” and gospel music, both of which were emerging as mainstream genres in the 1950s. Kallinger promoted a number of prominent 1950s country singers including Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, and Johnny Horton. In 1979 Kallinger was inducted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in Nashville in recognition of his influence on the development of country music.
XERF broadcast other types of programming, as well. For example, it sold airtime and advertising to mass-media evangelists who sought a larger audience than could be reached from conventional revival tents. XERF’s evangelists and disc jockeys were also salesmen; the station generated revenue through large numbers of mail orders for a variety of quack medical products and cheap trinkets.
In 1963 disc jockey Bob Smith gained a national following on XERF, where he developed his now legendary on-air personality, “Wolfman Jack,” a figure immortalized in George Lucas’s 1973 movie, American Graffiti. Without American FCC regulation to police content, the Wolfman’s program included racy chatter and howling along with R&B and rock-and-roll songs. As a salesman, Wolfman Jack peddled mail-order merchandise, such as a hundred-pack of baby chicks, but he also sold rhythm-and-blues music collections, which, at the time, could not be found in most White-owned record stores. Using XERF’s powerful signal, his unconventional program stretched the limits of acceptability and introduced Black music to a broad American audience, especially teenagers. The Wolfman worked at XERF for six months before he moved on to another border blaster in Tijuana, citing the pressures of the dangerous border environment, mordidas (bribes) paid to Mexican federales, and gangster activities. In his autobiography, Have Mercy!: Confessions of the Original Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, Wolfman Jack described the XERF station as the location of shoot-outs and violent conflicts with both Mexican authorities and labor organizations. In a later interview, station owner Arturo González fondly recalled the Wolfman’s on-air charisma but denied that most of these wild events had ever occurred. Though shootouts for control of XERF did result in at least one death, González explained that Wolfman Jack's accounts of the battles were likely a product of his fertile imagination and that the deejay was not a participant.
Because XERF suffered tax-related problems in the 1970s, control of the station was transferred in the 1980s to the Mexican government’s public radio division, the Instituto Mexicano de la Radio (IMER). In 1986 the United States and Mexico signed the North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement, the last of a series of radio frequency compromises. This agreement allowed each country to utilize the other’s clear-channel frequencies for low-powered local stations during night-time hours, effectively stifling the border blasters. González subsequently turned the radio station over to IMER.
AM 1570 continues to operate under IMER as the Spanish-language station “La Poderosa.” After years of being plagued by equipment breakdowns and a small reception area, the station installed a new transmitter in 2004. Still located in Ciudad Acuña, the station now operates at 100,000 watts, allowing broadcasts to reach a large, dispersed audience in both Mexico and the United States. According to its programming statement, La Poderosa works to promote Mexican heritage and identity for its listeners who include Mexicans working in the United States.
Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002). José Luis Ortiz Garza, Una radio entre dos reinos (México: Ruz, 2010). Houston Chronicle, February 23, 2003.
Business, Promotion, Broadcasting, and Technology
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