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Browse Current IssueArtifact Citizens Band Radio: ’70s-Style Social Media

I used to ride shotgun in my dad’s ’69 F-250, standing in the passenger footwell, hands on the dashboard, watching the world go by. It was unsafe, but it was the ’70s; on a summer day, I would rattle around out back in the open bed. I remember the Cobra CB radio mounted under the dash crackling to life one day: “Breaker breaker to the blue Ford truck … back it down, buddy, you’ve got a bear in the bushes northbound.”

As a five-year-old, I took this information literally, but Dad explained that this was just an expression: CB (citizens band) radio jargon for a speed trap. A fellow motorist, spotting the massive antennas rising from our pickup’s west coast mirrors, was looking out for us and sticking it to The Man. I didn’t really get it at the time; I just wanted to see an actual bear.

In the ’70s, CB culture was truly pervasive; if you’ve seen Smokey and the Bandit or The Dukes of Hazzard, you understand the concept, but maybe not the scope. d connecting disparate strangers cocooned in their homes or vehicles to the outside world — or at least the world that lay within about a five-mile radius. While the technology had been around since the early ’60s, it was the oil crisis of 1973 — and the ensuing national speed limit of 55 miles per hour — that sparked the fad. “What prohibition did for the bootlegger and the speakeasy, the 55-mph speed limit has done for the CB radio,” claimed Rider magazine in August 1976.

Truckers used their radios to share information about pricing and supply at gas stations, as well as the locations of speed traps; they organized convoys and rolling blockades to protest onerous trucking regulations. Pop culture embraced the antihero vibe. The kitschy CB-inspired song “Convoy” by C. W. McCall topped both the country and pop charts in 1975, and towering whip antennas sprouted from the side mirrors, roofs, and trunk lids of everything from Beetles and sedans to pickups and Jeeps. Users identified themselves by a unique “handle,” or nickname.

My grandfather appropriated Cochise (after the Apache chief, whose name was pronounced similarly to his last name, Kocsis) and a friend of his was Digger O’Dell (after a mortician character on an early TV sitcom) because he was an actual gravedigger by trade.

Admittedly, it was a decidedly lowbrow phenomenon: you didn’t see too many WASPs mounting a CB radio in the Benz. Nevertheless, first lady Betty Ford was an enthusiast, identified by the handle First Mama. “We appreciate your help in keeping the Fords’ 10-20 at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” she told a convoy of Gerald Ford supporters during the 1976 Presidential campaign.

Bikers wanted in on the action, and CB equipment makers happily obliged. The Beltek Enduro 23 CB radio had 23 channels, a wind-canceling boom microphone and earpiece, and a transmit button mounted on the left handlebar — essentially, a proto-Sena. At $229, it wasn’t cheap; that’s the equivalent of $1,000 today.

Eventually, the CB phenomenon fell victim to its own popularity. What was once a useful channel for sharing information became an annoyingly crowded free-for-all where serious users couldn’t get a word in edgewise, their earnest questions and comments crowded out by pontificating nobodies and provocative pranksters. Gas prices fell, the national speed limit was repealed, and cell phones took over as the state of the art in communications technology.

There are still CB radio enthusiasts, and you can buy a brand-new Cobra 29 LTD Classic that’s nearly identical in design and function to the one mounted in my dad’s pickup. The airwaves are a lot quieter these days, but you may be able to raise a few truckers and experience social media, ’70s style.

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