How ball implants helped launch early blues and country music.
It’s easy to forget, but at one time radio was the cultural lifeblood of America, bringing music, news and entertainment into people’s homes across the country. Kids and adults used to struggle to tune in to distant stations to pick up programming.
You didn’t have to struggle to hear Radio XER. Located just south of the Mexican border in the town of Ciudad Acuña, this independent station flouted FCC rules in the early 1930s with an antenna capable of blasting a staggering million watts of signal into the States — much higher than any US radio station, which at the time averaged about a thousand watts.
People as far away as Florida, New York City and the Rocky Mountains could hear broadcasts from XER. Mexico permitted the station to broadcast on channels overlapping US stations, which found themselves drowned out by the station’s beefy signal. There were even reports of ranchers being able to listen to XER on their barbed wire fences.
Who was the brain behind this border buster of unimaginable power? A humble businessman named John Brinkley, who used his radio empire to promote his bizarre business of implanting goat testicles in human men and women.
You can read that last sentence over again. I’ll wait.
John Romulus Brinkley opened his first clinic in Milford, Kansas with a medical diploma from a mail-order university. Brinkley was successful in treating victims of the great influenza epidemic of 1918, but his true calling came a year later, when a patient complained of decreased sexual vigor.
When Brinkley’s eyes caught on the immense, swollen scrotum of a nearby goat, he had an idea. For $150, he implanted the goat’s gonads into the impotent man and proclaimed a medical miracle when the man’s wife later gave birth to a baby boy.
This was a simpler, dumber time, and it wasn’t long before men all over the country were traveling to Kansas to be treated by Brinkley, who quickly quadrupled the price. Of course, the operation was a placebo at best: men’s bodies simply absorbed the foreign matter that Brinkley implanted, broke it down and disposed of it. His patients didn’t know that, though, and Brinkley quickly became the richest man in town. (He used some of that money to enrich the community, too, sponsoring a baseball team called the Brinkley Goats.)
After a trip to California, John Brinkley became aware of the incredible selling power of radio. He launched the station KFKB, from which he would broadcast music and advertisements for his procedures all day long. Brinkley’s reach expanded, but with publicity came problems. The Kansas City Star investigated the worryingly long list of deaths in his operating room — which reportedly numbered in the hundreds — and in 1930, Kansas authorities revoked Brinkley’s medical and broadcasting licenses.
No longer welcome in Kansas, John Brinkley headed south and settled in the Texas border town of Del Rio. From there, he petitioned the Mexican government for a broadcast license, and XER was born just over the Rio Grande in Ciudad Acuña.
XER wasn’t just a mouthpiece for a quack doctor. It was a vital force in the development of early American country and roots music, broadcasting performers far beyond their rural origins and making them nationally famous. Brinkley brought in musicians from all around the country, spreading a wide variety of regional sounds like Tex-Mex and bluegrass to the nation. The Carter Family, one of the most influential folk bands of all time, got their big break on XER when Brinkley hired them to perform live weekly in the studio.
The US government wasn’t happy about Brinkley violating his broadcasting ban, so it passed a number of laws trying to shut XER down. First they forbade Brinkley from crossing the border into Mexico, so Brinkley installed a telephone line that ran from his home in Del Rio, Texas to the XER studio in Mexico, and which allowed him to take to the airwaves that way. When a ban on rebroadcasting telephone calls was passed, Brinkley started recording his shows on aluminum disks and having a driver take them across the border to the radio station. Radio was key to spreading the word about his gland transplants and other shady procedures, and he wasn’t about to let it go.
XER burned brightly, but not long. The Mexican government took the station from Brinkley in 1933 after pressure from the US government became too much to ignore. The doctor cut a deal with XER’s new owner to continue operations, but an avalanche of lawsuits and IRS investigations for tax fraud left Brinkley penniless and he died in 1942.
The legend of the insanely powerful radio station lived on, though. XER stayed on the air, continuing to broadcast America’s new vernacular music to the nation. It inspired other “border blasters” to do the same, bringing the airwaves out of the control of Northern corporate interests and paving the way for the rise of country and rock & roll. If it wasn’t for John Brinkley’s love of goat balls, the world of music as we know it would be completely different.