Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen...

Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves, Revised Edition (2002) presents an historical account of the development, rise, and eventual decline of Border Radio stations (i.e. mega-wattage stations set up along the U.S.-Mexican border that broadcast deep into the American and Mexican - and sometimes Cnadian and European - airspace).

The book is divided into as a series of profiles that exemplify some of the personalities, experiences, and battles that took place between the late 1920’s and the 1980’s related to Border Radio (also known as X-Radio stations and Border Blasters). These profiles (many of which which rely heavily on oral interviews) are a big part of what makes the book interesting. As you might guess from the title, there are lots of crazy characters and stories to choose from.

While the book does not explicitly draw from mass communication and geography theory it presents some of the themes that we've discussed in class. In particular, the book shares a connection with Communication and Empire and Soundtracks. Overall, the book presents the confluence of technological, social, legal, economic, political factors that led Border Radio to emerge and thrive when and where it did. It also places Border Radio within the larger context of the development of American radio in general. Because you don’t need to read the entire book to make these connections, a few selections from the book would serve nicely as an optional reading during a discussion of music and geography and/or international communication.

The author’s major arguments, which they make most strongly in the introduction and conclusion, is that Border Radio was important in that it: 1) pushed the technological development of radio by pushing engineers and owners to develop new technological solutions to meet their increasing wattage needs; 2) presented opportunities for owners, radio personalities, and advertisers to experiment with programming and format. For an extreme example, you can read about the broadcaster who had sex over the air. In part, the experimental programming was made possible because the border stations were able to avoid federal laws and oversight (e.g., laws related to decency and wattage levels) that regulated U.S. stations. They were not entirely free, however, in that they still had to follow Mexican broadcast regulations and were under U.S. jurisdiction in other ways; 3) provided a testing ground for the use of radio as a political and religious mouthpiece; 4) helped bring country music onto the national and international stage.

Here are some things that I think the book does well:

1) Interesting stories and well written accounts – lots of interviews with the actual players
2) Uses compelling stories to exemplify some of the key themes
3) Contextualizes the rise of Border Radio around the confluence of factors that led to its development - versus simply sticking to an economic analysis
4) Makes some interesting arguments about the role that Border Radio played in the development of radio broadcasting as a whole.
5) Makes an argument for the role of Border Radio in the growth of country music

Some things that the book does not do so well:

1) Analysis is mainly in the first and last chapters and does not draw from mass communication or geographic theory.
2) Mythologizes the border and the personalities (mavericks / “us vs. them” theme)
3) Writes sympathetically of the personalities (vs. being critical of the damage that some of them did)
4) Does not dig into the wider experience of Border Radio (What about the not so glamorous stuff? What was the day-to-day experience of the technicians, musicians, etc.)

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