When the 1970s arrived, few people outside of the trucking industry had ever heard of a CB radio. Within a few years, however, just about everyone and their mother had joined in the fun, thanks in no small part to a popular song and a very successful movie, each of which promoted this early version of social networking that took the nation by storm.
Citizen Band radio was developed in 1945, setting aside a segment of radio frequencies, split into 40 channels, for use by the general public. By the 1960s, small businesses were using it as an effective way for their employees to communicate with each other. Most notably, the trucking industry embraced the technology, allowing its drivers to converse with each other and share information along those lonely stretches of highway.
With the emergence of the energy crisis in 1973, the nation decided to impose a 55MPH speed limit. Truckers weren’t pleased, and began using the technology to alert fellow drivers to the presence of speed traps set along the highways. It also allowed them to organize protests, blockades and convoys under the relative anonymity of various nicknames or “handles” and by using coded language filled with colorful catchphrases. A highway patrolman was a “Smokey Bear”, a police helicopter became a “bear in the air.” A “10-20” referred to to a specific location, while a “10-100” meant taking a bathroom break. And, if your 10-20 was a “choke and puke,” that meant you were at a roadside truck stop.
It wasn’t long before Hollywood got wind of these underground antics and started portraying truckers using this intriguing technology. In 1974, a television series debuted called Movin’ On, which featured Claude Akins and Frank Converse as big-rig drivers who regularly used CB radios. The following year, a singer named C.W. McCall released a novelty song called “Convoy” which featured the colorful CB communications between a group of truckers organizing a protest. The song went straight to the #1 spot and stayed for an impressive six weeks. The public was slowly beginning to catch CB fever, and the sales of these devices began to rise.
The real catalyst, however, was a 1977 comedy film starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason and Jerry Reed. A tale of a couple of outlaws who elude the law as they attempt to bootleg a truck full of Coors beer across state lines, Smokey and the Bandit was an enormous success, earning a whopping $126 million at the box office. Almost overnight, a CB radio became a must-have item, with millions of Americans installing them in their vehicles and even at home. In a world before cell phones, this was cutting edge technology. Needless to say, all those new users with their creative handles cluttered up the already-limited airwaves to the point that the service became almost useless to truck drivers, but the CB era had, for better or worse, arrived.
Much like the internet of today, CB radios afforded a certain level of anonymity, as users could hide behind their handle. As a result, a number of celebrities joined the airwaves in the 70s. Prolific voice artist Mel Blanc used to broadcast in the Los Angeles area using his various cartoon personas. First Lady Betty Ford assumed the handle “Big Momma.” Much like the Facebook accounts of today, if you didn’t have your own CB handle in the late 70s, you were seen as somewhat of a societal outcast.
And yet, with the arrival of the 80s, we pretty much forgot all about CB radios, returning the airwaves to the thousands of truckers that actually used the technology for reasons other than to be popular. And they still use them today. In fact, there is nothing stopping you from going out and installing a CB radio in your car today. You can even pick your own handle and say something to the effect of “Breaker 1-9, this is 70s Kid letting you know that Smokey Bear is parked behind the Choke and Puke on I-40.” Of course, as fun as that sounds, today’s cell phones have all but made those glorious 70s relics obsolete.
Did you or your family own a CB radio in the 70s? Bonus points if you can remember your handle! Help us remember the CB radio craze of the 70s, by sharing your recollections in our comments section below.