Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


John R. Brinkley pioneered radio broadcasting with numerous innovations that influenced the industry for decades. Brinkley was born in Beta, North Carolina, on July 8, 1885. His father was a mountain doctor who apprenticed to learn medicine, much like lawyers learned their craft in the nineteenth century. The son decided on a career in medicine, receiving a degree from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, an institution of questionable standards and ethics. He began practicing in 1918 in the small Kansas town of Milford and pioneered in glandular surgery, developing a lucrative operation that brought him worldwide attention for rejuvenating elderly men with goat glands. He advertised his unique operation over the new medium of radio.

Brinkley presciently envisioned the potential of radio and received a license from the Federal Radio Commission to operate station KFKB in 1923, becoming one of the first commercial broadcasters in the nation. He pioneered radio programming with a twelve-hour daily combination of country music, news, markets, orchestras, local talent, medical advice, and travelogues describing his world journeys, all directed toward a rural audience. He also experimented with bringing college extension courses into the home, utilizing professors from nearby Kansas State College, and allowing politicians free airtime and a citizens forum during which the civic questions of listeners could be answered. His station, broadcasting at 5,000 watts, became popular over a wide area and in 1929 was voted best in the nation in a poll conducted by Radio Digest. That same year he conceived the idea for a show called Medical Question Box, during which his rustic listeners described their ailments. He read their symptoms over the air, then prescribed remedies available at his pharmacy. After regional pharmacists became upset over this intrusion, Brinkley changed to recommending the prescriptions be filled at his listeners' local drugstore, and pharmacists gave him a cut on each sale.

This competition aroused the ire of the Kansas City Star, which owned radio station wdaf, both because of lost revenues from prescription drug advertisements and loss of the popularity contest to Brinkley's station. The American Medical Association was also disturbed over his lack of ethics in advertising, and the two combined to have both his medical and radio licenses revoked in 1930. Brinkley unsuccessfully ran for governor that year, hoping to name a new medical board for Kansas.

Brinkley then moved south of the border, where Mexico licensed him to operate a powerful "borderblaster" station in Villa Acuña. Living and practicing medicine in Del Rio, where he was licensed in Texas, he continued to experiment, developing the techniques of electrical transcriptions and longwire directional antennas, which are still in use. When Mexico increased his power to 500,000 watts, he could reach listeners across North America. Others imitated his borderblaster techniques, and the resulting jumble in the airwaves led to the Treaty of Havana of 1937, a North American agreement to control international radio broadcasting. For the first time Mexico received some fair share, legally, of the airwave allotments and agreed to bring its rogue broadcasters under control.

Once a millionaire through his unusual medical and radio practices, Brinkley began a rapid descent in 1939 when the American Medical Association successfully won a suit against him and disgruntled patients began lawsuits. He died bankrupt in San Antonio, Texas, on May 26, 1942, but his radio techniques endured.

R. Alton Lee University of South Dakota

Fowler, Gene, and Bill Crawford. Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves. Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987.

Lee, R. Alton. The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

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