'Border blasters' blitz US airwaves from Mexico
Interstate 8 near the California-Arizona border
Cowboy preachers. Fast-talking mail-order salesmen. Nonstop music. They're the loudest and clearest voices out here on the open road late at night. Tunneling through the darkness on the Interstates passing through Anytown, USA, drivers, in the green glow of their dashboards, routinely twist the radio dial for a little companionship.Skip to next paragraph
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The nighttime airwaves are full of quips and ditties and advice and familiar tunes, but some of the clearest, most persistent programming comes from Mexico's high-powered ''border blasters.'' Whether you're in downtown Los Angeles, halfway to Minneapolis, or, in the case of one powerful border blaster, nearly anywhere in the world, your radio is a target for the Mexican X-stations.
Poised like cannons along the Mexican border, some of the world's most powerful radio transmitters aim their programming north to the rich United States market. The border blasters are a melding of American marketing and programming and Mexican equipment and regulation.
The Mexican X-stations - XERF, XROK, XTRA, for example - have had a colorful history, launching such radio phenomena as Wolfman Jack and the all-news radio format. They have the potential to reach millions of people, but are largely unknown to all but the management of the stations they do battle with.
While border blasters function with differing success all along the 2,000 -mile Mexican border, the formula is always the same: Americans in business offices north of the border operate the Mexican-owned stations for an American audience, using American advertising, and even taping programs in US studios. Meanwhile, the actual station and transmitter are nestled just out of reach of US broadcasting regulations.
Border blasters aren't new, but their visibility is. The potential has always been there, but it has not always been fully utilized.
The key to border blasters is their power. ''Power is everything'' in the radio broadcasting business, says John Leader, executive editor of Radio & Records magazine. And border blasters have it. As another industry observer concludes, border blasters ''have more power than there is . . . enough to be able to hear them on your dentures.''
The general perception by station managers north of the border in the Southwest is that Mexico has fewer broadcasting restraints than the US Federal Communications Commission imposes, making border blasters a more lucrative operation. The Mexican stations retort that the regulations they operate under are as tough as or tougher than those in the US. They also claim they aren't making a lot of money, though they release no business statistics save their advertising rates. The fact is, stations south of the border are frequently licensed for 50,000 watts or more of power, while 50,000 watts is the maximum any commercial US radio broadcaster is allowed.
Two of the Mexican X-stations stations stand out, for different reasons: XERF for its sheer power and the potential to use that power, and XTRA for the marketing magic it has performed with its power.
* Like a broadcasting phoenix, radio station XERF pulses out of the dusty Texas-Mexico desert on 250,000 watts of power. An unassuming giant that has less dazzle today than it did in its checkered past, XERF can rightfully say that the whole earth is its market. It's said that no other commercial station has as much power, and, as if to squelch any doubt, station management has plans to pump its power up the full half-million watts it is licensed for by the Mexican government.
The station has only recently regained the full power of its voice after several years during the 1970s operating at just 50,000 watts because of a broken transmitter. Operating on a clear channel at night, on the far edge of the AM band at 1570, XERF's adult contemporary music and evangelist programs now reach all corners of the United States. And if the station's mail is to be believed, XERF also reaches such far-flung points as the Soviet Union, South Africa, and New Zealand.