BORDER RADIO OF THE THIRTIES

By Norris Chambers

            Selling by mail flourished during the great depression. Every rural resident swore by the Sears and Ward's catalogs, and did much of their buying by mail. In those days, the catalogs were not only cheaper than the local stores, but offered a much wider selection in just about any category. Farmers ordered everything from plow tools to baby chicks and from harness to Sunday clothes from the catalog. And about this time, the big border radio stations came on the air. These transmitters were located across the river in Mexico , and could broadcast with much more power than the ones in our country. These stations became very popular with mail order artists.

           I worked for awhile for W. Lee O'Daniel, of Lightcrust Doughboy fame, after started his own flour company and was advertising Hillbilly Flour with 8 programs a day on Mexican station XEPN. This powerful station claimed to be the most powerful station in the world at that time. At least it attracted mail from most of the civilized world. O'Daniel, in addition to the 8 programs on XEPN was sending transcribed programs to 3 Texas stations and one in Oklahoma . The demand for Hillbilly flour was far greater than its availability. People who couldn't find the flour actually sent contributions to help keep his great programs on the air. He returned the money with thanks, as he did not believe in accepting any money he did not earn. Later, he did accept contributions for his campaign for governor of Texas . Some of you may remember that he won the race by a landslide.

I was not only surprised, but was completely fascinated by the number of artists advertising their wares, and with the success they were enjoying.

Major Kord sold piano lessons by mail. On his program, he played a little on the studio piano and spent the rest of the time explaining how you too could learn to play and be the life of the party. Rose Dawn sold captivating perfume and other sundries the same way. After hearing her descriptions of the products, few could resist saving butter and egg money and ordering something glamorous. Lonnie Glosson played the harmonica, and would send you a fine instrument along with guaranteed instructions for playing for a dollar. Almost everything sold for $1.00.

It was easy to mail, and was within the reach of most farm folks.

A preacher by the name of Sam Morris talked convincingly against alcohol in any form, and asked for donations to carry on the fight.

The singing cowboy played and sang and sold his own song books. A gentleman with the name of Billy Truehart sold lessons in "tap dancing." I remember him sitting at a desk with two sticks and a board in front of him. He played music and beat a terrific tap dance routine on the board. The mike picked up the sound, and you visualized a Fred Astaire tapping his heart out on a stage. And you could do the same thing by ordering the course from Billy.

What amazed me was the amount of mail these artists received. I saw them hauling big sacks of letters from the post office daily. Most of the letters contained a dollar bill, or more. I began wondering what I could do to get in this great gold rush. Most of the magazines in the 30's had small ads from what was called "matrimonial agencies." These advertisers were in the business of getting interested parties together for a fee. Many husbands and wives were brought together initially by this process. It was simple. When you were ready to start looking around, you sent your fee and received your list. You picked some names and started writing. Sooner or later, hopefully, you found your life mate!

This service was not available on radio. Why couldn't I get it started?

I started writing scripts and contacting stations to see what I could get going. Most of the stations wanted cash, at least at first. But I found one, a little further down the river,  that agreed to let me have fifteen minutes a day for a month with the station keeping 60% of the income, and me getting the other 40%. Beggars can't be choosers, so I accepted.

I had an unemployed friend who was a great singer and guitar player. I wrote him to come at once. He hitchhiked into the village ahead of schedule, and we prepared for our first show. My friend's name was Elbert Hall. I renamed him "Happy Hall" and during our newly composed theme song, introduced him with the senseless sentence: "and now we bring to you from the sunny Rio Grand, that do-or-die, always try, concrete foundation, never-let-you-down, sign-on-the-dotted-line man...that singer of supreme songs, the one and only Happy Hall with all the tunes you like to hear. Let us hear from you!"

Then, between songs, came the money-making pitch. A few brief words from ladies hunting boy friends, and from men searching for ladies. For just a dollar down and dollar a month an endless supply of desirable and charming company as long as you need the service. Guaranteed to be what you have been looking for. The dollars started rolling in. But not to me.  As per my agreement, all mail came to the station and they would pay the percentages at the end of the month. On the strength of the replies, the station advanced us two hundred dollars to keep us from starving the first month. That month was Heaven on earth. We saw great riches staring us in the face.

At the end of the month, the manager called me into his office.

"The program has been a success," he announced. "You have done a good job getting it started. But I have a letter from the station owners. They want to take over the program and pay you and Hall a salary."

This was quite a shock.

"What kind of a salary?" I asked, after realizing that I was going to be robbed.

"The letter says to offer you and Hall a salary of $20.00 each per week.

If you accept, you will continue the program as it now runs. If you do not accept, we will continue with our own announcer and another singer. We have received over $2000 this month, and your share of that, as per our 30 day agreement would be about $800. Take off the $200 that we advanced you, and you would have about $600 for the month."

"It sounds like robbery," was my response, "but I will talk it over with Happy and we'll let you know."

Happy was angrier than I was. "Let's get out of here. We can make that much money picking cotton in west Texas ." I agreed with him. I was tired of Mexico and was anxious to get back among English speaking people. I told the manager that we would take our money and go. He handed me a check for $685 and wished us luck. That night we were riding in the back seat of a "Travel Bureau" car bound for San Antonio , where we would seek another heading further north and west. Later, in a cheap hotel in San Antonio , we heard the radio broadcasting our program without us...but they had recorded all of the programs, and were just rearranging the songs and advertisements, mixed in with some new ones by their own silver voiced announcers.

For many months that station played our music and chatter and got rich off of my idea. It never occurred to me to try to sue them, or even get even. I had many more rivers to cross, and was anxious to get started.

But there is some good news in this story we had a lot of fun doing it! And the moral, if there is one, is if you have an agreement, get it in writing. Anything that seems too good to be true usually is.