December 31, 2019

CB Radio Fad of the Mid 1970's

In the mid-1970's, mobile phones weren't even invented yet. The few who actually had "car phones" at the time had special, analog radio phones, but those were so large they had to be hard-wired into the car and so power-hungry they needed access to the car’s alternator for power. Mobile service was controlled by the Ma Bell monopoly and the cost was prohibitively expensive. Plus, no one was carrying them around in their pockets. But, there was kind of an analog alternative: the Citizens Band Radio, better known by the acronym CB radio. Originally started in the 1940's and used by truckers, these inexpensive radios also made various forms of chatter over the public airwaves possible. CB radio communication wasn’t private, but neither were old party line telephones which had only been phased-out in the last parts of the country just a decade earlier.

Partly because of the 1973 oil crisis caused by the OPEC Oil Embargo of that year, and a new, nationwide 55 mph speed limit meant to save U.S. fuel consumption, the use of CB radios served a genuine need. Truckers found their CB’s to be very valuable in to help organize blockades and convoys in protest to the newly-imposed 55 mph speed limit. CB’s helped truck drivers locate service stations that actually had fuel available for sale, and also to warn other drivers of speed traps ahead. Remember: GPS was unavailable outside of the U.S. military at the time. But CB's were really enabled by the advent of solid state electronics technology which emerged and became commonplace starting in the early 1970's, which also enabled prices of the radios themselves to plummet and made them feasible as a mass market item which was not possible previously.

CB radios also enabled drivers to alert and/or seek assistance in case of an emergency. Ordinary people soon discovered that CB radios were also a great way to find where to get the cheapest gas, plus communicating and cooperating with other drivers on the road. They were adopted by the masses as part of a temporary (but big) fad during that period of time. In fact, they had become so popular that more than 2 million CB radio licenses were issued in 1974 alone. Eventually, there were so many idiots clogging the CB airwaves that more channels were needed, so 40 channel models were released instead of just 23.

Along with this technology came adoption of common user protocols, most notably the use of the relevant lingo or slang that existing CB radio users were already accustomed to using. Virtually all of this originated with truck drivers. "Breaker 19" was a way to introduce yourself to the people tuned into channel 19, whereas "That’s a 10-4" meant everything was OK and you understood, and "What's your 10-20?" meant someone was asking what your location on the road was. A much longer list of CB radio slang is currently available online at or at if you're interested in reading more.

But as the CB radio technology became more widespread, soon the unique vernacular made it made its way into pop culture, including in broadcast radio, movies, television, news and even pop music.

Handles were what people called themselves over the airwaves without giving out their real names. Anonymity made it easier to evade police enforcement for telling others about police speed enforcement locations. Handles were akin to what screen names were in the era of internet chat rooms which are also now history. In fact, even former First Lady Betty Ford got into the act back in the day, admitting to using the handle "First Mama," while voice actor Mel Blanc (known as the voices in many original Warner Brothers and later, Hanna Barbera cartoons) talked over the airwaves using the guise of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck!

In 1975, the country music singer Merle Haggard released a song called "Movin' On" about truck-drivers who put CB radios and the lingo associated with CB's into wider use. Also in 1975, a novelty, one-hit-wonder song performed by C.W. McCall (a pseudonym of Bill Fries) became a #1 song on both the country and pop charts in the U.S. That song was "Convoy".

A brief snippet of the song "Convoy" can be listened to below, or at — because of byzantine copyright laws, only a short segment of the song is available. YouTube has a licensed copy of the original track from the Mike Douglas Show at if you want something more.

Convoys were essentially huge lines of trucks that traveled together down the nation's highways (often at higher than the posted speed limits), usually in protest to the new slower speed limits and police enforcement of those new speed limits (it's tough for police to pull over and ticket dozens of trucks travelling the same high speed simultaneously, hence they were pretty effective). They were most prevalent along the vast, empty stretches of highway so prevalent in Western states, "Convoy" was also the theme song for an eponymous movie released under the same name. That song was, in fact, written by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis who were a couple of ad guys from Omaha, Nebraska — their song "Convoy" was actually written initially for an ad campaign they were doing for a bread company at the time — but the single managed to land on and spent an impressive 6 weeks at number #1 on the Billboard country charts, an indication of just how big the CB fad had become.

NPR had a brief segment in 2017 about the song "Convoy" which is only about three minutes in length, but is worth listening to below, or at The link above also features a video link to the song "Convoy":

On television, we saw the CB radio subculture showed up in the broadcast news, and in regular programming.  For example, a television series "Movin' On" debuted in 1974 and ran to 1976 on NBC. The 1976 "Paul Lynde Halloween Special" on ABC (which, by the way, is currently available on Netflix, catch my blog about that TV special at for more) featured an entire segment about using a CB radio. In that segment, Paul Lynde was an 18-wheeled, white-pleathered rhinestone trucker. Tim Conway, best known for his comedic roles on the iconic "Carol Burnett Show" played his CB-buddy, while both of them fought over truckstop waitress Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly. She is remembered as someone who briefly starred as the Fonz's temporary girlfriend on the hit ABC sitcom "Happy Days" at the time.

By 1979, another NBC sitcom called "B.J. and the Bear" was introduced and that show ran until 1981. "B.J. and the Bear" was about a truck driver named B.J. (played by Greg Evigan) and his travelling companion, a monkey named "Bear" which featured routine CB radio usage, along with the then-popular CB lingo (catch a Retroist podcast about that particular TV series at for more info.). Again, CB radios were featured prominently in the show. Perhaps even bigger was the hit CBS TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard" (which also debuted 1979, running until 1985) and that also featured CB radios prominently throughout the series. CB radios were prominent throughout that show's six-season tenure as a means for the law-bending Duke brothers to avoid Sheriff Boss Hogg, Deputy Cletus Hogg, who was Boss Hogg's cousin and his dim-witted Deputy Sheriff Enos Strate. These days, due to the show's unapologetic romanticism of southern Confederacy (including a car named the General Lee) and the essential racism that drove it, that show is now rather limited in the rerun circuit, limited to a few cable stations such as CMT which has high viewership in the southern states that were home to the Confederacy.

On the big screen, there were several movies including "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) which co-starred Burt Reynolds (he had already built a name for himself not for his acting but for being Cosmopolitan magazine's first-ever nude, male centerfold in 1972) and Sally Field plus Jackie Gleason and Jerry Reed. Of course, there was also the other big film "Convoy" (1978) which I previously noted. "Convoy" starred Kris Kristofferson — a Nashville singer-songwriter who was also, briefly, a pretty busy film star also willing to get semi-naked on screen, with one of his earlier starring roles in the award-winning film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974) which was also the basis for a subsequent TV sitcom on CBS that starred Linda Lavin known simply as "Alice". Kristofferson would also subsequently co-star in the romantic drama reboot of the movie "A Star Is Born" (1976) with Barbra Streisand, for which he received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

Like many things, the public fixation about CB Radios was definitely a genuine fad with its roots in utility. Today, the idea of CB radios seems more quaint than anything else, with mobile phones as portable, internet-connected devices being as ubiquitous and cheap as they are now. But, as noted, those simply weren’t around in those days, and car phones were prohibitively expensive and not at all portable, having to be hard-wired into the trunk of one's car and requiring a car alternator to power them, plus the service was controlled by the Ma Bell monopoly and prohibitively expensive, with metered, per-minute charges for every single call plus a hefty monthly service fee. That meant making only a few phone calls like that would exceed the prices people pay for 6 months of unlimited mobile service now, only without the internet.

I am of the opinion that even in 2020, mobile phones are still not exactly the pinnacle of modern technology (I wrote a post about how the iPhone did not kill the landline phone, the internet did, catch my post at for more), as they are first and foremost, one-on-one communications platforms (although internet connected apps may enable group platforms, such as Google Hangouts). The real benefit of a CB radio was that someone several miles ahead of you on a particular highway could warn you of upcoming traffic conditions, police activity, accidents, and most importantly: places where fuel was available, all of which you had yet to encounter on the road ahead. Hence, CB radios served a rather unique and useful purpose among truckers, plus CB's (aside from the initial purchase price) were free to use. CB radios had a range of about 3 to 20 miles, depending on the terrain. Originally there were only 23 channels, but subsequently expanded to about 40 stations. Police and firefighters used different radio bands that were not open to the public.

For whatever reason, the brief obsession with CB radios in the United States also likely stemmed from people’s desire to indulge their weird fantasies. This was in an era following the sexual revolution of the late 1960's and women's liberation. That's not to say that society wasn't still repressive, because it remained controlled by older people who were happy with the repressive 1950's. But CB radios provided anonymity for people to act as though they were someone else, plus is coincided with a public valorization of truckers and cops and people's desires of them (for women to be romantic with them, and for men to be like them).

As the MeTV blog best put it (catch its blog post at

"Instead of being relegated as a fleeting trend of the 1970s, perhaps CB radios were a precursor to the use of technology to create friendships and communicate anonymously with others." In other words, it was a precursor to modern social media, only it appeared 45 years ago!

The book "Whatever Became of Pudding Pops" which partially helped spawn this blog, wrote about the CB radio fad other the late 1970's and it was pretty interesting and entertaining reading. The chapter content was essentially as follows:


Breaker one-nine, you got your ears on? Kids had no idea what CB chatter meant, but it sure was fun to pretend, holding a Romper Stomper to your mouth like it was a microphone and blabbing about "putting the hammer down" and "bears in the air."

We discovered the citizen's-band phenomenon when C.W. McCall recorded the 1976 hit "Convoy." You didn't have to understand the exotic new language (what in the world was a "cab-over Pete with a reefer on"?) to immediately fall in love with the romance of the eighteen-wheel lifestyle. "Convoy" told a classic tale of fighting authority, with the truckers crashing roadblocks and flaunting toll bridges.

Kids weren't the only ones who loved it. Adults started buying CBs for their Dodge Darts at such a frantic pace, the FCC doubled the number of available channels. Of course, no one knew any real CB lingo outside of the song lyrics, so real truckers had to suffer through listening to kids, desk jockeys, and housewives calling them "good buddy" until we grew sick of the craze and moved on to the next fad.

Today, the closest kids come to talking to truckers is when they pull an imaginary cord to try and get passing drivers to honk their horns. Still awesome? That's a big 10-4.

Gone for good.

Cell phones made it much easier — if more dangerous — to communicate while driving, and personal radar detectors help modern drivers stay alert for smokeys.

C. W. McCall was the creation of a couple of ad guys from Omaha. Bill Fries and Chip Davis (who went on to launch electronic-music group Mannheim Steamroller) concocted the character and named him after McCall's magazine. The C. W. stood for country and western.

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