(as featured in West Country Life- June 2018)
Mention ‘CB Radio’ to most people and they will instantly mime holding a mic and spew phrases like ‘breaker-breaker-9’, ‘big 10-4 rubber duck’ in a bad US accent or even start singing the theme tune to ‘Convoy’. Interestingly for a craze that burned out over 30 years ago, the social and linguistic paraphernalia of the CB world continues to live on strongly even today.
Citizen Band Radio (or CB for short) was effectively invented in 1945 by the inventor of the Walkie Talkie Al Gross and the US Navy. Navy high-command recommended a Citizens band width be set up for the use of the returning Veterans to help them continue networking with their new friends. The war had trained up lots of new radio operators and combined with the general pre-war interest in hobby electronics and radio in general, it seemed like a sensible suggestion. In the US the range of 27mhz was given over for amateur transmissions but as other countries followed suit they often opted for different ranges instead.
On the technology side Gross’ Walkie-Talkie short wave technology that had transformed battle-front communication during the war, was quickly readapted by Motorola and others for use by the Police and taxi firms. There were sets created for amateur use, but on the whole they were prohibitively expensive.
It was not really until the early 1970s that the CB craze would kick off in earnest. Solid state technology had rapidly brought down the price of radio equipment and the Oil Crisis of 1973 created a meaningful public catalyst. The Oil Crisis had hit the US economy hard creating widespread national petrol shortages, and in response the government set a nationwide 55mph speed limit which was actively enforced by the Police. Of everyone affected, haulage firms in particular were feeling the squeeze and as CB radio was in common use by most truckers at this time, many took to the airwaves to help create a grass-roots response. Not only did they share which Fuelling Stations did and didn’t have petrol (as well as warn of approaching speed traps), they also set up roadblocks of their own in protest over the rising prices and organised for convoys of trucks to travel together for sheer practicality. This act of solidarity quickly hit the national and international media.
As the crisis intensified into 1975 a novelty Country and Western singer who penned under the alias of C.J. McCall, released a highly catchy tune called ‘Convoy’. Telling the tale of a group of rogue truckers battling to get their loads delivered, the song instantly topped both the US country and pop charts in Jan 1976 and ignited the CB touch-paper. The song created an instant surge in sales and use of CB Radios by the US public which was sweetened when the government also lowered the licence fee from $40 to $4. By 1977 there were estimated to be over 20 million CBs in use in the US alone. Soon others artists and movie producers were jumping on the CB bandwagon as well, with the most notable being the movie version of ‘Convoy’, The ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ movies, ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and a song titled ‘The White Knight’ by Cledus Maggard.
In the UK CB usage didn’t really become popular until it began to die down in the US. The US Government had widened the number of available stations in the late 1970s to 40 to alleviate the now overcrowded airwaves, but this created knock on effects. The format was now just too popular and as the manufacturers rushed to create new 40 station radio sets, they were left with a glut of unsold 20 station machines. One of the new markets to sell them off cheaply was the UK. CB use was illegal in the UK until November 1981 when a public outcry changed the rules here. But while it was unlawful to use the imported US sets, it was not illegal to sell them. In the UK the underground CB scene flourished during the late 1970s but again as everything became legalised and standardised after 1981, public interest began to wane. With the birth and growth of the mobile phone industry in the mid 1980s and then subsequently the internet in the mid-1990s, CB’s days were numbered. Today you will still find a few loyal followers filling the amateur airwaves, but nothing like the traffic of 40 years ago.
It is easy to laugh off the CB radio boom as just another novelty craze, but in truth it was an important step along the path of our global telecommunications revolution. Prior to the release of the first mobile phones in 1983 phones and communication were static for most people. The CB radio suddenly gave everyone the chance to chat to friends or even complete strangers for free while on the move. Because it was an offshoot from the truckers it acquired an unofficial code of conduct about the use of language verbal abuse as well as good practice for efficiently sharing the radio-waves. Just like texting today, CB would create its own unique simplified language of acronyms, common codes and standardized forms of address. It would invite exemplary public citizenship through things like the REACT service that monitored one channel 24/7 for emergencies, and it would draw people together under a common brotherhood.
Also just as interesting are some of the problems that CB use created. With strong parallels to the internet its popularity and anonymity created genuine problems around proper conduct and accountability, and in parallel to the social media of today, news travelled fast and could not be effectively monitored by either the government or Police Forces. When the craze did finally die out it was in part because new better technology had taken its place, but also because excessive popularity had made it far less enjoyable for many. In the end although there was supposed to be no commercial use of the bands, people would use it as a personal radio station transmitting music for many hours or would illegally boost their own signals to reach as wide an area and audience as possible effectively spamming the airwaves. The use of offensive language ultimately did increase and the stations were so full of chatter you could sometimes hardly get a word in edgeways.
When we think back on CB it is to the early pioneering spirit of the mid-70s that we are naturally drawn. This lost world of flares and Cowboy hats where every polite stranger was a ‘good buddy’ and every female passenger a ‘seat-cover’ plays well against the ‘Convoy’ theme tune and a romantic backdrop of endless US highways. It was the first global device to put the responsibility of communication into the hands of the public and I only wonder if in years to come we will be able to reminisce so vividly and colourfully about the early days of the internet?