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Telling History: CB Radios

Breaker 1-9, this is Big Red, you got a copy on me, Sugar Bear - Don’t feed the bears on I-5-5; do that double nickel. There’s a Kojak with a Kodak at 111. Now if you don’t speak fluent CB, just slow down because there’s a speed trap on Highway 55 at the Fruitland Exit and I’d prefer you not get a ticket. That’s just how we talked during the 1970s CB radio craze. So, get your ears on, good buddies.

The Citizens Band (or CB) is a short distance radio for personal communication – like its cousin the walkie-talkie – that for a few years in the mid-1970s spawned a social phenomenon with its own distinct culture, community, and language.

Although CB radios had remained relatively obscure since their introduction in World War II, Americans bought 25 million between 1974 and 1977 – effectively one-in-five adults owned a CB.

Part of the reason for the CB’s meteoric popularity was technology. Transistors allowed for smaller, cheaper sets and the FCC set aside 40 channels on the radio dial for citizen’s use.

A second, more immediate reason for the CB fad was the 1973 oil crisis. With gasoline scarce and prices at the pump soaring, truck drivers used CBs to locate service stations with cheaper gas. When Washington imposed a 55-mph speed limit to ration fuel, truckers took to the airwaves to organize convoys and alerted motorists to speed traps, helping citizens keep one step ahead of the dreaded Smokey Bear – or police – so-called because of the Highway Patrol’s distinctive wide-brimmed hat.

Seemingly overnight, Americans joined the conversation, adopting informal nicknames - or “handles” – and learning the vast language of what became something like a quasi-anonymous nationwide chatroom. Here’s a quick CB primer:

Breaker 1-9 – I’m seeking permission to talk on channel 19.
Do you have your ear on? – Are you listening?
Roger – yes
Negatory – no
What’s your 20? – Where are you?
I’ll catch you on the flip side – See you later.

The 1975 chart-topping hit, “Convoy” by C.W. McCall – arguable the finest song of the rock era (or at least the only 45 record I ever wore completely out) sparked CB-themed magazines, books, television shows like Dukes of Hazzard, and that hunky Burt Reynolds in those Smokey and the Bandit movies. And of course, t-shirts proclaiming I’m a Certified CB Nut or Old CBers Never Die, They Just Go 10-7 (meaning off the air)

Yet, beneath the bona fide pop culture fad, is a more profound impulse. CB radios were part of a broader quest for community during the narcissistic Me Decade.

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone in the 1970s danced to disco in polyester leisure suits or streaked naked through the supermarket. With the nation seemingly adrift after Vietnam and Watergate, double-digit unemployment, divorce rates doubling and the number of people under 35 living along rising 200% - many Americans coped with the era’s malaise, loneliness, and alienation by searching for an authentic, sense of community; a way to feel rooted and connected in a rudderless, transient, and disposable world.

Often this took the form of bonding with others who shared their religious views, ethnic identity, historical roots, or those radio channels on a not-so-distant ancestor of social media.

The CB radio craze offers another clue that curiously enough the 1970s just might be the decade that made us who are.