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CB Radio

CB Radio

The Citizens Band Radio, familiarly known as the CB, was a device that enabled free mobile communication up to a ten mile radius for those who owned the requisite microphone, speaker, and control box. Although the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) first introduced it in 1947, the CB did not experience its heyday until 30 years later, when hundreds of thousands of automobile and tractor trailer drivers installed them in their vehicles.

In order to popularize the device among individuals for their personal use, the FCC, in 1958, opened up part of the broadcasting spectrum originally reserved for ham radio operators. This Class D band enabled the manufacture of higher quality, less expensive CB sets that were useful and affordable to ordinary people. By 1959 the average set cost between $150 and $200, but there were only 49,000 users licensed with the FCC. From 1967 to 1973, the FCC registered about 800,000 licensees. Although one did not need to obtain a license to operate a CB radio, the number of licensees shot up dramatically from 1973 to the end of the decade, when more than 500,000 people were applying for licenses each month in direct response to cultural shifts at the time. The Vietnam War had ended with America less than victorious; the Watergate scandal rocked the Nixon White House; and the oil crisis from 1973 to 1974 led to a capping of national speed limits at 55 miles per hour. The CB afforded people—many of whom were distressed by recent governmental decisions—an opportunity to create their own communities over the airwaves.

The CB, as a "voice of the people" and the fastest growing communications medium since the telephone, rekindled a sense of camaraderie during an era when people felt oppressed by a seemingly monolithic federal government and looming corporate control. Although manufacturers encouraged people to use CBs for emergency purposes (broadcasting on channel 9) or to relieve the stress and boredom of long automobile trips, the CB transcended these practical functions and became a tool of empowerment, enabling each person to be his or her own broadcaster on the 40 channels of airwaves.

Like all small communities, CB culture developed its own language and sensibility. People liked these devices because they could use them to evade the law by communicating with drivers up ahead to find out the location of speed traps and police. They also liked the CB because it allowed for mobility, anonymity, and a chance to invent oneself. For example, instead of using proper names, CBers (or "ratchet-jaws," as users called themselves) had "handles"—nicknames they would use while on air. They also utilized a very colorful vocabulary, which included words like "Smokey" for police (so named because of their Smokey Bear-type hats), "Kodiaks with Kodaks" for police using radar, "negatory" for "no," "10-4" for message received, and "let the hammer down" for speeding. Broadcast sign-offs were equally baroque: people would not just say goodbye, but rather phrases such as, "Keep your nose between the ditches and the Smokeys off your britches."

An essential component of the growing CB popularity was the acknowledgment and celebration of a "trucker culture," summed up by the ubiquitous phrase of the time, "Keep on Truckin'." Tractor trailer drivers had been using these radios to communicate among themselves over the long haul for decades, and in 1973, the CB was an integral device that enabled truckers to organize strike activities. Soon after, ordinary people began to identify with the trucker, who represented a freedom, heroism, and rugged individualism on the open road. But this trucker culture was not just confined to the roadways and airwaves. It also appeared as a recurring theme in the popular media. "Convoy," by C.W. McCall, was a novelty song about a trucker named "Rubber Duck" who leads a speeding pack of trucks across the country, avoiding police along the way; it hit number one on the Billboard chart in 1976. "Six Days on the Road" was another trucker-inspired song. The film industry also became enamored of truckers and their CBs: Smokey and the Bandit, a film directed by Hal Needham and starring Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, came out in 1977, and in that same year Jonathan Demme directed Handle with Care, another trucker film. In 1978 the song "Convoy" was made into a film with the same title, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. And television enjoyed BJ and the Bear during this same period.

While the American public's love affair with the CB radio and truckers did not last long—the glamour and glitz of the 1980s made truckers seem backward and unhip—it did have lasting repercussions that made people more accepting of new communications technology. Cellular phones and the Internet were just two examples of the continuation of the CB sensibility. Cellular phones offered a portable means of communication that people could use in their cars for ordinary needs and for emergencies. Internet chatrooms, while not offering mobility, did offer a sense of anonymity and group camaraderie and membership. The CB was the first technology that truly offered Americans their contradictory wishes of being part of a solidified group while their personae remained wholly anonymous if not entirely fabricated.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Hershey, Cary, et.al. "Personal Uses of Mobile Communications:Citizens Band Radio and the Local Community." Communications for a Mobile Society: An Assessment of New Technology. Ed. Raymond Bowers. Beverly Hills, Sage, 1978, 233-255.

Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. Jane and Michael Stern's Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. New York, Harper Perennial, 1992.

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