Citizen’s Band radio is the biggest thing to hit the market since television. It is also the biggest revolution in communications since the telephone. There are two main facets to this phenomenon — fad and function. Right now the fad has captured almost everyone’s attention: in the long run, it’s the practical potential for CB that’s mind boggling.

There is a law describing what happens when a practical product is introduced. It applies to marketing booms generally. Part one: Fad follows function. This can be seen with cars, wristwatches, hats, jeans, pocket calculators, stereos and God knows what else. Every time somebody comes along with an appealingly practical idea, people find ways to have fun with it, make hobbies out of it, sell it for uses often far removed from the practical. Part two: Function prevails. Cars are a fine example. Originally they were meant to serve as transportation. Later, as many people could afford them, they became popular and increasingly complex articles of fashion, and of hobbies. All the improvements were in the least practical areas — styling, speed, engine size. Hobbyists took to “customizing cars, adding other refinements as fad and creativity dictated. Then it all peaked out and people started getting back to what cars were really all about — transportation. The hobbyists are still thriving, but even they seem practicality-minded. The current main automotive hobby is customized vans, pickups and four-wheel drive vehicles. Function prevails.

So this article is in two parts. The first is a look at the CB fad, the predominant facet of the CB phenomenon at this time. The second explores the amazing functional potential that CB offers as a communications medium.

I

According to the Franklin Street Gourmet, a Carolina student publication, Town Hall “offers a glimpse into the not-so-distant past as it’s a hangout for the few remaining 1960’s-style hippies.”

It is through the same kind of cultural warp that we may view the practitioners of CB radio.

We all have our social networks — sets of friends, relations and acquaintances that form our community of regular contacts. New names and faces are added and old ones are dropped as life goes on. We all know how it works.

Well, it works differently in the CB Dimension. There, the geography is invisible. The horizon is the range of a CB signal (typically about five miles). The names are all self-made “handles.” Nobody ever calls one another by their given names. Social contact is easy to initiate and easy to terminate. The subtle nuances of ordinary face-to-face contact are eliminated by the standard and stylized manners of CB conversation. Identity is distorted and exaggerated to fit the medium.

Every social network operates in a cultural milieu. For the CBer that culture is rural Southern. Even outside the South people “talk redneck” on CB. Like many rock singers who used to adopt a southern drawl when they sang, CBers love to talk grit because that’s the way the game works.

 

Listening to CB one hears a babble of southernisms, full of arcane slang, police-type codes, technical jargon, and the endlessly repeated expletives. The speech has a special cadence — a singsong drawly quality — which adds to a style that seems more important than what’s being said.

Listening on my ancient all-band receiver last night — the CB dimension here is the countryside around “Bull City” (Durham), “Hippie Hills” (Chapel Hill) and “Heelsburra Town” (Hillsborough) — I became acquainted with:

Night Train Great Day Dough Boy
Green Pastures Moonlight Sweet Thing
Night Hawk Snake Charmer Doctor Hook
Skate Man Inspector Black Stallion
Powder Puff Chicago Kid Calico Lady
Alley Oop The Hindenburg Green Beaver
Country Chicken Old Timer Graveyard Dog
Fire F1y Lady Bug Beach Boy
Red Neck Honey Bee Cow Boy
Shady Lady Wild Thing Red Hen
Chip Munk Country Girl Star Trek
Red Tobogan Shaggy Dog Jay Bird
Tom Cat Love Maker Large Country Rabbit
Slow Poke Mailman Winchester
Orangeburg Peacemaker Snowball
Motor Man Magician ClearBig Daddy

I have compiled a few basic rules one must follow to become a CBer and dwell in the CB dimension:

(1) Never use the first person singular. In the CB dimension there are only plurals. A sample conversation, between what sounded like two teenage girls, went like this:

“We’re purty sure we seen y’all around. Y’all got kinda dark hair?”

“Got a big ten-four on that, for sure. It used to be long and we kinda liked it that way but we had to cut it cause it was so thick we had a hard time combing it in the mornin.”

“A big ten-four on that, for sure. We definitely know what you mean, for sure. We had to cut ours too when it got so long.”

(2) Know your expletives. There are only a few, but they can be used as often as necessary to fill out an otherwise lean conversation. These are “mercy,” “mercy sakes,” “mercy sakes alive,” “mercy mercy,” “big for sure,” “ten-four,” “big ten-four,” “really big ten-four,” and any combination of these, such as “definitely a really big ten-four on that, mercy sakes.”

(3) Know your equipment. You may not have anything else to talk about. And know the special terms used to indicate qualities of equipment performance:

“Hey there, Scrap Eyes, watcha modulatin with there? You comin in wall to wall here for sure.”

“We got one of them Radio Shack base sets. We got a power mike too, so we get out pretty good. We got a ground plane on the roof but, we’re lookin to get a new beam and a rotator. What choo usin, Dock Rat?”

“We got one of them there SBE Sidebander mo-bile sets hooked up for a base. We waitin on a new Browning Golden Eagle come in. Big ten-four on that new beam and rotator. Know whatcha mean for sure.”

“Real big ten-four on that there Golden Eagle, Rat, big ten-four. Wish I could afford one of them there myself. Well, we gettin pretty tired here, so we gonna jump between the sheets pretty soon. For sure.”

“You got a ten-four on that, Scrap Eyes, a big ten-four. Reckon we’ll do the same. Ya’ll have a good day and a better one tomorrow. You got the Doubledubbleeyoofifteenthirtydointenateonyirfinal, the Dock Rat. We clearandgone.”

“Kaydeeveenonnytoothirtysix, the Scrap Eyes. We clear. We gone.”

Which brings us to the formalities that start and end every conversation. For openers one chooses a channel and calls “Break, Break.” Then someone else will respond with “Go ahead, break,” and it’s on. Every conversation ends with a polite wish, usually, “Have a good day and a better one tomorrow,” and a run-together mess of call letters and other oft-repeated data and the phrases “we clear” or “we gone” or both.

There are other things to know, such as which channels are the best for which purposes. Around here the most polite conversation I heard was on channels 12, 15 and 18. Channel 11 is for establishing contact before moving elsewhwere. Channel 9 is for emergencies. Channel 19 is for truckers.

There are affiliations, and official networks. I once heard a woman called Shady Lady coordinate what sounded like a mobilization of local REACT members on a rescue mission “to find two poor girls from that there Alamance County that we heard are lost up in them there Hippie Hills.” I imagined a posse of pickup trucks converging on an unsuspecting pair of young women on Franklin Street and scaring their brains out with sincere efforts to help them get back home.


One is tempted to find “meaning” in all this — coded language, the affectations, the vacuous conversation.

One could also ask why people go to sports events and shout things that would never make sense anywhere else. Or one could ask why any of our quirky behaviors come about.

A lot of people who wonder professionally about these things have speculated about the popularity of CB. The consensus is loneliness. CB is seen as an outlet for repressed and socially maladjusted people who can’t make real contact with their fellows. Well, aren’t most of us a little repressed? Don’t we all make constant adjustments to invisible pressures around us?

For most CBers, the whole thing is simply a source of enjoyment. Sure, the psychological reasons are there; but psychological reasons can be found for any behavior. CB can be fun. It’s easy to join in. It’s not expensive. You don’t have to be good looking or rich or a success in other endeavors. You get to meet a lot of nice people. You even choose your own name.

And there are practical advantages. You can talk to people in other cars while you travel, without sacrificing your own privacy. You can initiate social contact at new places. And there’s nothing like it in emergencies. Many lives have been saved with the help of CB. REACT chapters have performed many good deeds. We should be glad they’re around.

II

The potential for CB is virtually limitless. The potential for wireless communications in general is so wide open, and the available technology is so advanced, that if it is allowed to develop freely nothing less than a full-scale communications revolution awaits us.

To develop freely, there must be a maximum of profitable inventiveness and a minimum of interference by government and big business. Fat Chance.

I shudder when I look at the example of television. With all the arguments about programming aside, just the technological story is a sad one. Back when TV standards were being set, the best the wizards could do was a screen with 525 scanning lines; nobody could change the standards without making everything obsolete. The TV pictures for Mars were much clearer than the best standard 525-line pictures on every regular home television. Also, big business took over almost all the useful TV channels. Until cable and Public TV came along, the networks controlled access to the video airwaves. So the promise of television as a tool for people has turned into a tool for wealth. The entertainment it provides is mostly a side benefit.

I do have hope for CB. The creativity going on in the wireless person-to-person communications field is already amazing. For example:

  • The PocketCom — The same space-spinoff technology that made possible digital calcualators and other wonders-in-miniature is applied in this miniature transceiver being developed by an ex-CIA agent named Joe Sugarman in Northbrook, Illinois. The PocketCom resembles one of those beepers that doctors often wear on their belts in hospitals when they are “on call.” People who wish to be alone but still within reach of others by radio can carry a PocketCom which is switched to “standby.” The receiver would be activated only when one’s personal beeptone is sent over the air. This can be of interest to people on farms or in isolated communities who need to maintain communications but want to avoid the cumbersome impracticalities of telephones.
  • Satellite and Earth Station services — Right now some of the most advanced phone systems in use are in “underdeveloped” countries like India and New Guinea. In these places, overland phone lines are impractical or simply impossible: so they use satellites to relay phone conversations from one town to the next. These satellites work the same way as overseas TV does when you see “Live Via Satellite” flash across your screen. There are a bunch of these satellites up there, all 24,000 miles from fixed locations above the equator (24,000 miles is the distance at which a satellite will remain in a fixed location above one point on the equator if it travels around the planet once every 24 hours). They are capable of relaying many different signals at one time and they are powered by solar energy which limits their cost to whatever it takes to install them in the sky.
  • Micro-Computers, Wrist Radios and Beyond — What Dick Tracy amazed us with so many years ago may become as ubiquitous in a few years as wristwatches. Your timepiece may even join with your calculator and your CB radio in the same package. It isn’t crazy. The micro-ization of electronics has already made the incredible quite ordinary. Pocket calculators are a fine example. Five years ago they were all but unheard of. Three years ago they were around but damned expensive. Today anybody can have one for less than the price of a fancy meal.
  • Alternative Broadcasting, Alternative Telephone — With everybody possessing tiny transceivers which are capable of handling a multitude of different channels, the possibilities for alternatives to conventional broadcasting and common carrier (that’s what the FCC calls telephone) systems are staggering. Many groups not presently serviced by conventional broadcasting could not only be served with programs, but conversed with as well. People could participate in discussions, meetings, classes and lighter activities without leaving their homes or tents or cars. Ad hoc groups could be formed to communicate among themselves for their own community interests. New national communications networks could be formed, providing all kinds of information and entertainment. People could react differently to disasters, accidents and happenings in a local area. People generally could be mobilized more effectively. I could go on.

Of course, all this is more than frightening to the powers that be. AT&T wants to maintain control over long-distance communications and naturally seeks to limit new developments to whatever serves its own interests. The broadcast networks share the same sentiments when it comes to new types of broadcasting. Already legislation has appeared that would limit satellites and earth stations to commercial and government use.

As usual, the free market (or capitalist, whatever your preference) system is both culprit and hope. Without people and companies competing to develop advanced products to meet new communications needs, it isn’t likely to happen. If big business and/or government monopolize and over-regulate this development, you can bet that today’s visions will be tomorrow’s sighs.


It might help to rethink the communications revolution thus far.

We are tempted to think of television as the biggest communications development of the century. We recall the thousands of formative hours we spent as children in front of the tube, soaking in Culture. It does seem most important.

We should remember, though, that TV is primarily an entertainment medium. It is cold, as McLuhan said, and we dwell there with comparatively little cerebral involvement.

I think the major communications revolution has been radio. It’s impact has been far more profound than television and far more subtle. Radio is an aural medium. Much scholarship has been done on the differences between how our minds “process” audio and video. At the very least, our minds are more actively involved when we only hear a story than when we see it, too. Without visuals, our imagination is called into service. The visualization is internal, self-created.

There is a Privacy Principle of some sort with radio. People can listen with portable radios or headphones or in cars or in rooms with nobody else around. Radios are often companions. It’s hard to think of a television as a companion. As a tastemaker, radio is far more influential than television. Popular tastes in music, for example, are directly tied to radio programming.

This “privacy” principle applies especially to CB. All those “handles” that CBers use instead of their given names are expressions of privacy and personhood. They are examples of oral artistry that people will apply to communication when the visuals aren’t there.

There is a tendency to think of all the possible new communications — the beeping PocketComs, wrist radios, satellites, whatever — as more invasions of privacy, as more cancerous technology to separate us farther from the natural world which is our proper concern. Well, yes, it can be that. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s a personal matter.

 


The year is 1990. You are hiking alone in the Black Mountains. In these natural surroundings you meet bears and birds and deer and spotted skunks. You drink from a stream and eat wild berries. You sleep in the fog one night and under a sky full of stars the next. At your belt is a little box. This is your contact with the outside world. You can hear the news, listen to music, catch the weather, talk with a friend, join a discussion or wait for a beep from home.

Or you can leave it turned off.