Psychics once ruled the airwaves thanks to the Texas-Mexico border and the magic of radio
A new book includes details of how powerful radio stations along the border helped former vaudeville actors reach larger audiences.
In the 1920s and '30s, some of the most popular radio programs in the United States featured radio psychics. The most successful among them made hundreds of thousands of dollars reading the minds and predicting the futures of eager listeners. To do it, they took advantage of a new and mysterious medium: radio.
Georgetown-based author John Buescher dove deep into this history in the book “Radio Psychics: Mind Reading and Fortune Telling in American Broadcasting, 1920-1940”. He told the Texas Standard many of these programs originated at so called border blaster stations located on either side of the Texas-Mexico border, in an effort to avoid regulation.
Listen to the player above or read the transcript below to hear more of this under-explored history.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Why was radio such a natural medium for the supernatural?
John Buescher: It was because there had been a lot of speculation for several decades before commercial radio began in the early 1920s, having to do with the technology of radio. The technology was construed by many people to be a kind of mystic invisible force that would eventually allow even such things as telepathy and universal mind reading.
So who were these radio psychics?
These were actually mostly skilled vaudeville magicians who did this at first on the stage, live. It was a kind of a specialty of magic as opposed to doing tricks.
Why did Texas become a place for radio psychics?
Throughout the '20s and early '30s, the federal government did whatever it could do to push these people off the air. A few entrepreneurs, Dr. John Brinkley, for one, and Norman Baker for the other decided, well, if they won't let us on the air in the United States, we'll just step right down to the border and set up huge broadcasting stations down there. The studios would be on the Texas side and then the actual transmitters pointed north would be on the Mexican side.
The most famous one was in Del Rio, but there was one in the Eagle Pass, there was one in Laredo, there was one in McAllen, there was one in El Paso and there were a couple down south in Brownsville. Some of these stations were, in fact, the strongest, most powerful stations in the world. The one in Del Rio, XERA, eventually was broadcasting at a million watts. With that, you could essentially broadcast all over the continent.
Your book documents the history of a few dozen radio psychics. Do any in particular stand out to you?
There was a pair of psychics, man and wife, eventually, who broadcast from XERA. One of them was named "Koran," or at least that was his stage name; his real name was William Perry Taylor. He used to be on XERA practically every day and would accept letters from people and try to answer them. His wife was named "Rose Dawn," at least that was her stage name. She specialized more in astrology. He specialized more in plain mind reading, and I think you'd have to call it counseling. Maybe you could imagine Ann Landers with spooky music behind her. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars.
He would say, well, send in your questions and I'll answer them for free. But of course, he could only answer six or seven during a single program. So I think in order to juice the operations, most people would send in a buck or two. He spent a lot of time in Texas. He wasn't just a visitor. They bought a property in Bandera. It was called the Mayan Dude Ranch. Koran convinced himself that he was a real psychic and that these powers could be developed by anybody. For some reason, a lot of these radio psychics, who were nicknamed as a group, "The Spooks," they retired into Texas. Koran and Rose Dawn retired to San Antonio, along with a few others. Texas was really, as you said, ground zero for all of this work.
Why and how did the prevalence of radio psychics diminish?
I think it went away because the economics was such that you just couldn't sustain an operation of a million watts indefinitely. The owners of these stations got into trouble in various ways and finally had to give up the stations. Another reason is, I think, the act itself became less and less plausible. But it's never something that was completely eliminated. When they got pushed off the air, finally, a lot of them went back and continued to travel, to tour before live audiences.
What made you decide that radio psychics was a development in radio history that you wanted to dedicate to sharing with others?
It's really something that historians of radio have neglected. It was a huge portion of every day radio life. If you turned on your radio, there was no way that you could avoid hearing one of these people. More than 250 local stations in the United States were running these shows between the mid-'20s and the mid-'30s. I think the historians were afraid of it, the subject, or they just simply dismissed it as some kind of oddball kind of thing. But one of the things the book shows is how important this was, not only just in itself, but in putting some kind of rod up the FCC's [Federal Communications Commission] back in order to gain regulatory power in order to force these folks off the air.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.