Borderline Radio

(An archive post from … umm, a bit ago. I am putting together an eBook of my own posts about the military, and thought that the Boyz and fans might find this reminiscence of interest.)

Our local public radio station (which full disclosure impels me to mention that I was employed by their 24-hour classical sister station on a part-time basis until about May, 2008 although now I am so pissed at their general drift that I coldheartedly refuse to support them in their current pledge drive) aired a special some time ago ago about “border radio”— that is, a collection of radio outlets located just over the Mexican border which during the 1950ies and 1960ies— joyfully free of FCC restrictions on power restrictions, or indeed any other kind of restriction— blasted the very latest rock, and the most daring DJ commentary, on stations so high-powered they could be heard all the way into the deep mid-West and probably on peoples’ fillings as well.

My parents were . . .umm, kind of stodgy about radio entertainment, and Mom kept the radio at home always tuned to the venerable Los Angeles classical station, with the result that I may have been the single most-totally-clueless-about -popular-music-military-broadcaster trainee ever to graduate from DINFOS. I knew about Elvis, and the Beatles, of course— JP played the White Album incessantly, and the Beach Boys were omnipresent in California – and I rather liked Simon & Garfunkle, but everything else constituted major unexplored territory. Except for obscure and weird stuff like . . . umm, classical music. And the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. JP was a fan. I actually won money in tech school, betting on the existence of a band called the “Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band”. (They had a single in the AFRTS library— my winning move, going to the index file and triumphantly producing the card for ‘I am the Urban Spaceman’) Otherwise, popular music, country music, all the rest of it was pretty much new news to me. I could be really open-minded about it all, which turned out to be a good thing, in the long run. DJs with strong personal inclinations about genre, decade and groups sometimes had a problem when it came to being ecumenical. (Weekend jazz; no problem. Midnight AOR; no problem, just give me a couple of bottles of extra-strength Anacin. Afternoon drive-time; eh, no problem.)

So I managed to get to that point in my life without ever having heard of Wolfman Jack, the king of the border radio personalities. Raunchy, borderline profane, very funny, the Wolfman was about the most daring DJ in the regular weekly AFRTS package of radio programming for a good long time, which might have seemed even longer to station managers gritting their teeth and crossing their fingers that there might be nothing potentially offensive to the host nation in his show – this week, anyway. Master-Sgt. Rob, the first station manager that I worked for at FEN-Misawa had been around for at least fifteen years before that. MSgt. Rob was one of the old-timers, who had served tours in South-East Asia, a clannish set loosely known as the Thai Mafia, as so many of them had passed through a tour of duty at Udorn. Thailand’s reputation as a sort of sexual Disneyland dates from that time—although I swear Scouts’ honor, (fingers crossed here) that military broadcasters contributed very little to that. (Military broadcasters tended to be a little odd. I’d be willing to take bets that many of them had some mild degree of Ausburgers’ Syndrome). The Thai government was and is extremely embarrassed about this reputation, and sensitive of slight against national honor. So late one night, MSgt. Rob happened to turn on the radio, and of course, the Wolfman was on, and the first words MSgt. Rob heard was a joke: “What’s brown and lays in the forest?” And the Wolfman answered his own question in that deep baritone that seemed especially made to relay the punch-line of raunchy jokes. “Smokey the Hooker!”

MSgt. Rob was aghast, horrified, and already mentally packing up the station, in the full expectation of a firm but diplomatically worded request from the host nation by mid-morning the next day at the very latest, to fold up the radio station and depart, bag, baggage, staff and pre-recorded programming at all. But nothing was ever heard, in the wake of that tactless and potentially offensive host nation sensitivity— probably not the first and definitely not the last. And over most of the rest of the time that I was a military broadcaster, Wolfman Jack cheerfully and profanely trod heavily along the line and frequently well over it, of what was acceptable and what might conceivably ignite the wrath of the host nation and the higher command—neither of them bodies, in my experience, noted for a robust sense of humor, or sense of indulgence. I remember with particular pleasure, a skit on a episode sometime in the mid-80ies, called Beat the Press where representative reporters from the usual press beat were queried as to their S/M preference— “I like it on my tushie!” was one response— and flogged, quirted, and beaten with the method of their preference, all with appropriate sound effects.

We all agreed, with degrees of horror and amusement that it was a very good idea that local nationals who were likely to take offense at this sort of thing and kick up a fuss with their government representative did not understand enough slangy, colloquial English to even be, actually offended. The saving grace of Wolfman Jack in the AFRTS radio package: so much of his comedy was so slangy, allusive, so obscure, so much of it the sort of English which doesn’t make it into the English language textbooks; that a lot of the hair-trigger-offended brigade never even realized what he was going on about. For this, a lot of AFRTS staffers thanked their personal Deity, every week.

He was eventually dropped from the package— a short, terse note from the AFRTS programming center, sometime in the early 1980ies to the effect that “quality concerns” had let to his banishment. Naturally, we all said; “Yeah -of course. (Wink, wink.) So what was it really?” We assumed– based on past experience, that some host nation offense was to account for this. But nothing in the usually dreadfully efficient AFRTS rumor-mill circuit shed enlightenment, until I was bidden to attend an AFRTS programmers’ conference in 1985. The outlets, worldwide, were specifically ordered to send representatives – mid-ranked NCOs who had the responsibilities for doing the actual radio and TV programming at their respective stations.

I am fairly certain that this conference sunk my so-called career as a military broadcaster, due to blunt and straightforward answers to a lot of questions asked of us by the high and mighty. I was in a cranky mood, and not inclined to be tactful or considerate of repercussions. During that conference, though, I did meet up with an old friend, Alice from my DINFOS class, who had finished up eventually as a civilian employee of the programming center in LA. She was the tech who was responsible for editing Wolfman Jacks’ last couple of seasons of shows for AFRTS. And I was surprised as all get-out, when she confirmed that yes, he was bagged from the AFRTS package for quality matters; at the end of it, she could hardly edit 5×55 minutes worth of air-able materiel a week for a show, from what he left on tape, when he came stumbling in to the AFRTS programming center to do a weeks’ worth. Were we all surprised to learn this— we all thought sure he had been dumped for something much more offensive!

So sad, really; he went out with a whimper of poor broadcasting quality, and not the bang of really pissing off some host nation.

(My other military observations as reminiscenses of a sort-of peactime military to be called “Air Force Daze” will be out on Kindle and Nook in a week or so.)

12 thoughts on “Borderline Radio”

  1. I used to listen to da’ Wolfman on XERB while I was pulling all-nighters at college in the mid sixties. I think he came on at midnight or something. Awrite bay-bee. Oooowwwwooooooooo!

  2. Nice story.
    I never realized how big he was on Armed Forces radio.
    When I think of the Wolfman I always go back to the hep, popsicle-eating Wizard of Oz from American Graffiti. In that light, I suppose it’s fitting that he ended up just fading away off the air.

  3. He was huge, Gurray – but kind of nerve-racking for management. Most of the other package deejays were bland to the point of being nonentities.

  4. The Wolfman’s reach was amazing – at night he could be heard even up in Alaska – from an AM station in Mexico

    One of the funniest things I remember was when a caller came on with an exact imitation of the Wolfman – so unexpected that even the Wolfman broke his act and started laughing.

    Then he used to call up unsuspecting people – desk clerks, etc –

    Those were the days.

    You can still hear some of his recordings around the Net.

    This was from Wikipedia:

    “XERB was the original call sign for the border blaster station in Rosarito Beach Mexico, which was branded as The Mighty 1090 in Hollywood, California. The station boasted “50,000 watts of Boss Soul Power.” That station continues to broadcast today with the call sign XEPRS-AM. XERB also had an office in the rear of a small strip mall on Third Avenue in Chula Vista, California. It was not unlike the small broadcast studio depicted in the film American Graffiti (which was filmed at KRE in Berkeley). It was located only 10 minutes from the Tijuana-San Diego border crossing. ”

    I think it was more like 500,000 watts as 50,000 is the highest the FCC allows for US broadcasters.

    XERB’s reach was amazing. All over the western part of the North American Continent – at night.

    I was surprised he was still doing a show in the 80s – his real heyday was the 60s.

    Oh, and a station that offends no one had to be a pretty boring broadcast.

  5. As a kid, I can remeber listening to station KOA, a 50,000 watt AM –don’t think FM was around then, at least not in my neck of the woods [north central Wyoming]. As soon as it got dark, KOA was overpowered by radio KLINT, or KLNT, Texas, with studio claimed to be in DelRio, TX but with their 250,000 watt transmitter across the border in Mexico. They played country and western which my mother hated, but they obliterated station KOA which was over 400 miles south of where we lived in Wyoming.

  6. There are some stations that are allowed 50,000 watts – KBFK in Sacramento, KOA…..all regulated by the guvmint. Non allowed 500,000 as XERB was (for the reasons Morgan states)

  7. Looking back, Bill – I think just about all of the DJs in the weekly package were past their best days – including Wolfman. Charlie Tuna, Roland Bynum, Roger Carroll … there was even one program “The Swinging Years” which highlighted big-band swing, about twenty years after the large cohort of active duty fans of swing would have retired. (We usually aired this at about 2 or three in the morning.) Now and again, we would ask the programming center “Why! Why?” and we would get this embarrassed mumble about how the guy who did it was such a nice guy, and had been doing the program for so long, and no one at the AFRTS Program center quite had the heart to tell him that his contribution was no longer required …
    Looking around the websites devoted to AFRTS now, it looks like they are programming commercial satellite programs, rather than producing in house. Good idea. I knew they would come to it eventually.

  8. Looking at the politics then Sgt – it reminds me of the movie Good Morning Vietnam although I had heard – from you probably – that the real life Adrian Cronauer was a bit more bland than the Robin Williams character.

  9. Oh, yes – altough the real Adrian Cronauer was a bit of a wild and crazy DJ, he was nowhere near as wild and crazy as how Robin Williams played him. And as played by Robin Williams, he’d have been yanked from the air about five minutes into his first monologue. A lot of the local station and military DJs were wild and crazy, and sometimes a little edgy, but they had great rapport with the audience, because they were local. But I remember someone – tech school instructor, I think – telling us never, every to go on air and moan about your horrible day, or how bad you had it, because, guaranteed, there was someone listening who was having a very much worse day than you. Funny, cheerful, up-beat – that was the ticket. All our DJs were all enlisted, contra Good Morning Vietnam. Officers weren’t allowed near the studio, unless they were management cadre, just passing through. We were actually kind of dissapointed in that movie, since practically everything was wrong – and all of us knew personally of things happening at the dets that were way wilder and would have made an even funnier movie. (Oh, and I have finished uploading the eBook that this reminiscence was taken from. Air Force Daze, now on Kindle!)

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