Plot or Premise
Subtitled “Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves”, this book recounts the history of Americans setting up rogue radio stations across the Mexican border and blasting their shows all over the world.
What I Liked
I first heard about rogue radio stations from ZZ Top. They released an album way back in ’75 that included the song, “Heard it on the X”, and it’s referring to one of these stations. It was an “outlaw” station, which has that immediate appeal to it…subverting the rules, blasting rock ‘n’ roll, etc. And so the legend is quite attractive.
But the reality is way more magnificent than the legend. The book gives a great account of attempts by various people to establish radio stations and build a business empire with it. Some of it was pure snake oil sales, cancer cures, etc. Others were the start for mainstreaming hillbilly music, R&B, country and western, and later rock ‘n’ roll too. Individually, any of the chapters are fascinating. International conferences to try and deal with it, duels, armed gangs taking over stations, politicians running for election, bigger and bigger transmitters, FCC investigations, it has it all.
I particularly enjoyed the sections dealing with early rock ‘n’ roll, and Wolfman Jack.
What I Didn’t Like
The organization of the book is terrible. It appears that many of the chapters were originally released individually for journals and newspapers. As such, they cover a particular person’s story arc, their rise to fame and their regular drop to ignominy. However, for the next chapter, they frequently have to repeat some of the information from a previous chapter. Almost every chapter covers 1920 to 1950, and thus, many of these people were broadcasting at the same time, tripping over each other with the same issues, mostly competing but sometimes collaborating. After the first chapter, I wanted to rip the book apart and put it back together completely chronologically. Too often, I was reading a segment and thinking, “Oh, wow, that was the same experience as person X a few chapters back”. Then I would flip back and go, “Oh, no, it isn’t; it’s the SAME story, same person, slightly different name and intro”. So I didn’t recognize them. Then later, I’d see the same story, assume it was a repeat, only to realize no, this time it was actually someone new. If it was told in chronological order, I probably would have given it a 4 or 5 stars. In its present form, it gets 3 for content, and about a 1 or 2 for frustration. And I wanted WAY more about the rock ‘n’ roll era in the 60s and 70s.
The Bottom Line
Come for the music, stay for the snake oil shenanigans