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.
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.
The station has been revived by Mike Venditti, who was recruited to fix the broken transmitter, is anchored just over the border from Del Rio, Texas, in Ciudad Acuna. Mr. Venditti, a born-again Christian with a unique blend of religious and business ideas, has leased the station from Del Rio's Inter-American Radio Corporation, which in turn leases broadcast time from the Mexican company that actually owns the station, Compania Radio Difusora Coahuila. (The ownership of radio stations in Mexico, by law, must be Mexican. But station management at all X-stations contacted was secretive about ownership.)
Mr. Venditti's plans for the station include developing commercial sales that will take advantage of XERF's wide scope. He says, however, that his approach will be toward more conventional advertising rather than the station's sometimes oddball mail-order promotional style that occupies a unique spot in industry legend.
While XERF's fortunes have ebbed and flowed with its transmitter's power and the creativity of its management, its past advertising success provides a glimpse of its potential today.
Wolfman Jack - that wild man of radio innovation - got his break on XERF in the 1950s, where the ''outlaw'' spirit was alive enough, and cheap enough, for him to purchase broadcasting time from midnight till dawn.
XERF's nighttime clear channel and 250,000 watts powered the Wolfman's babble (''Dis is da Wolfman talkin' atcha'') and greasy rhythm and blues and rock-and-roll right into the hearts of the white middle-class teen market across the US - a feat more squeamish American stations of that era would never have allowed. The Wolfman later moved to another border station, XERB in Rosarito Beach, south of Tijuana.
There is an outlaw spirit to the legends of Wolfman's time here; stories about the mordida (bribes), the shoot-outs with Mexicans over control of the station. The Wolfman's XERF tenure is interlaced with the station's success as a mail-order pusher. The Wolfman didn't work for a salary but for a 50 percent commission on all the rock-and-roll record mail orders he sold on his program.
From its beginning in 1947, XERF made its money off the mail-order business, explains Paul Kallinger, a longtime XERF announcer, whose successful radio promotion of country western music landed him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Mr. Kallinger, known on the airwaves as ''your good neighbor along the way,'' still does part-time mail-order announcing for the station. He says the station had a spicy reputation for selling everything under the sun.
''We sold baby chicks in those days (100 for $2.98), we introduced d-Con rat poison to the nation, we sold the first ball-point pen long before it came into stores. We sold the daylights out of a plastic bronco pony. . . . We sold everything, and were even accused of selling autographed pictures of Jesus Christ,'' he reminisces with a laugh. At that time, during the late 1940s and early '50s, ''the mail-order business was tremendous; we'd get 10,000 orders a day. We offered something to rural America they couldn't get in the stores and we were paid per inquiry - about 60-40 (percent) of the profit,'' he says. The station got the 40 percent.
Mr. Venditti aims to weave some of the gutsiness of XERF's past with more modern marketing.
He says he is aiming at major advertisers with a concept that goes this way: ''If you wanted to buy a program on a local station in three large towns you'd wind up paying as much or more than on XERF which covers all three. You can do it all in one place.
''The places where people are listening to us is on the Interstate and remote areas. Our audience may not be as big (as in urban centers), but we've got 100 percent of it,'' continues Mr. Venditti.
''The fact that we cover the whole nation means that with one buy you can cover the whole nation. If you bought locals (advertising on local stations) in the top 100 markets you'd still miss half the surface of the US - 40 percent of the population,'' he reasons.
The station's largest source of income continues to be its evangelical programs: ministers buy 15-minute spots five days a week for $3,500 a month, according to Mr. Venditti. Advertising rates cost about $100 a minute, or $75 for 30 seconds - comparable to other radio advertising rates.
''It's like competing in a boxing match and suddenly the referee hits you upside the head,'' says Jim Price, general manager of KGB-AM and FM, two of San Diego's top-rated radio stations.
He's talking about the advantage local competition believes border blasters have by operating under different rules of the broadcasting game just south of the border.
It's true, some powerful punches are being packed in the San Diego market - and the biggest one is coming from south of the border. According to the Arbitron ratings survey, XTRA-FM (known as 91-X) doubled its ratings in just a six-month period last winter to pass its two top rock-and-roll competitors, KCBQ and KGB, in the ratings with what industry officials call a ''phenomenal'' 6.2 share of the FM market. (KCBQ had only a 3.5 share and KGB a 5.4 share in the latest surveys, according to Bill McDowell, Arbitron's southern California representative.)
The FM side hasn't nearly the broadcast power of its sister station, the 50, 000-watt XTRA-AM station (690 on the AM dial). But the FM station's local success is due largely to its sophisticated programming approach. Although no dollar figures are available, the money that Noble Broadcasting, XTRA's American lessee, appears to have pumped into the AM and FM stations may give a clue to just how lucrative the Mexican radio business is.
Management has hired on Rick Carroll, a Los Angeles radio consultant currently prominent in the industry because he has pioneered a new-wave, experimental rock format that has pushed other stations out of the popular album-oriented rock format and way ahead in ratings. Station 91-X is operating with his new format, and its rapid rise in the ratings is attributed to his guidance.
On the AM side, the ''Mighty 690'' snared a 3.5 share of the local market in addition to coming in clearly night and day in the Los Angeles market, 100 miles to the north. It takes a smaller market share, compared with its FM counterpart's, but it is no less phenomenal considering the larger, more competitive AM market.
There is some irony to the pendulum swing of XTRA-AM's success, which comes on the heels of a long stint as a ''beautiful music'' station. XTRA-AM was the first station to introduce the all-news radio format that has become standard in major US markets. Yet today, because management has deemed it dead weight, there is not a stitch of news on XTRA-AM. Instead, listeners as far away as Santa Barbara to the north and Arizona to the east get nonstop top-40 rock music, interspersed with major advertising.
''Most stations have gone to talk, sports, and oldies,'' explains Mr. Lynch, general manager at XTRA, which does business on the American side of the border but broadcasts from south of it. ''We provide a unique AM service to broadcast only music. We feel that if someone's interested in news, there are 26 other stations (in the San Diego market) where you can hear news.''
Mexican stations are able to get away with this kind of programming without being saddled with the responsibilities of FCC regulations, complains the US competition in the San Diego market. Competition as well as tempers has heated up in the local market with XTRA's recent successes.
Mr. Lynch counters the complaints of local competition: ''Mexican regulations are more stringent (than in the FCC rules), inspections are more stringent, we can't carry religious programming, and in addition we respect and obey all the rules of the American FCC.'' (XERF management claims it can carry religious broadcasting because it has special government permission.) Further, he says, the power allowed to Mexican radio stations is part of a treaty signed by the US.