Ed Driscoll

10/4! It's National CB Radio Day

“Regardless of your feelings toward Jimmy Carter, I think we can all agree that his finest act as president was the creation of National CB Radio day. Carter designated October 4, 10/4, as a day to honor the citizens band,” Road and Track notes.

CB radio was hated by elites back in its faddish heyday, of course. Near the end of his mammoth (22,000 words!), otherwise beautifully-written profile of Johnny Carson for the New Yorker in 1978, Kenneth Tynan noted that while Carson was glad millions of America tuned in every night to make him exceedingly wealthy in the limited mass media era of only three national commercial TV channels, he loathed the idea that just anybody could have access to the airwaves as well. And of course, the man writing his profile for the New Yorker* concurred entirely:

Before I go, Carson takes me down to a small gymnasium beneath the module. It is filled with gleaming steel devices, pulleys and springs and counterweights, which, together with tennis, keep the star’s body trim. In one corner stands a drum kit at which Buddy Rich might cast an envious eye. “That’s where I work off my hostilities,” Carson explains. He escorts me to my car, and notices that it is fitted with a citizens-band radio. “I had one of those damned things, but I ripped it out after a couple of weeks,” he says. “I just couldn’t bear it—all those sick anonymous maniacs shooting off their mouths.”

I understand what he means. Most of what you hear on CB radio is either tedious (truck drivers warning one another about speed traps) or banal (schoolgirls exchanging notes on homework), but at its occasional—and illegal—worst it sinks a pipeline to the depths of the American unconscious. Your ears are assaulted by the sound of racism at its most rampant, and by masturbation fantasies that are the aural equivalent of rape. The sleep of reason, to quote Goya’s phrase, brings forth monsters, and the anonymity of CB encourages the monsters to emerge. Not often, of course; but when they do, CB radio becomes the dark underside of a TV talk show. No wonder Carson loathes it.

As Glenn Reynolds wrote back in 2003 at Tech Central Station (where I was also a regular contributor), Weblogs in their early days were often sneeringly compared to CB radio by elitist leftwing outlets such as Columbia Journalism School. Glenn added that  while “Citizens’ Band radio gets a bum rap nowadays...CB was a revolution in its time, whose effects are still felt today:”

Before Citizens’ Band was created, you needed a license to be on the air, with almost no exceptions. Radio was seen as Serious Technology For Serious People, nothing for normal folks to fool around with, at least not without government approval. Citizens’ Band put an end to that, not by regulatory design but by popular fiat. Originally, a license was required for Citizens’ Band, too, but masses of people simply broke the law and operated without a license until the FCC was forced to bow to reality. It was a form of mass civil disobedience that accomplished in its sphere what drug-legalization activists have never been able to accomplish in theirs. No small thing.

And it didn’t stop there. Citizens’ Band radio became popular because of widespread resistance to another example of regulatory overreach: the unpopular 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Actually passed in 1974, but popularly identified with Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war,” speed limits were for the first time set not for reasons of safety, but for reasons of politics and social engineering. Americans rejected that approach in massive numbers, and entered into a state of more-or-less open rebellion. CB was valuable — as songs like Convoy! and movies like Smokey and the Bandit illustrated — because it allowed citizens to spontaneously organize against what they saw as illegitimate authority.

And it worked: the 55 mile per hour speed limit was repealed. That (plus the gradual introduction of cheap and effective radar detectors, which allowed citizens to watch for speed traps while still listening to their car stereos) gradually ended the Citizens Band revolution.

Well, sort of. Because like many fads, Citizens Band didn’t really go away. It just faded from view, and turned into something else.

CB played an inadvertent role in launching the early days of the online world as well. Even as the CB radio craze was fading from the headlines in 1980, CompuServe branded their first chat applications their “CB Simulator:”

CompuServe CB Simulator was the first dedicated online chat service that was widely available to the public. It was developed by a CompuServe executive, Alexander “Sandy” Trevor, and released by CompuServe in 1980.

At that time, most people were familiar with citizens band radio, often abbreviated as CB radio, but multi-user chat and instant messaging were largely unknown. CompuServe CB used the CB radio paradigm to help users understand the new concept. Like CB radio it had 40 “channels” and commands like “tune”, “squelch”, and “monitor.” CompuServe CB quickly became the largest single product on CompuServe despite virtually no marketing. When 40 channels was not enough, additional “bands” were added, such as the “Adult” band.

The first online wedding occurred on CompuServe CB, and worldwide fans organized events to meet in the “real world” people they had met in CB. Compuserve’s CBIG (CB Interest Group) Sysop Chris Dunn (ChrisDos) met his wife Pamela (Zebra3) there in the early 1980s, eventually being featured on the Phil Donahue Show.[3] Later, enhancements to CompuServe CB were made to enable multiplayer games, digital pictures, multimedia, and large conferences. For example, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones held the first online multimedia conference using CompuServe CB from London on December 7, 1995.

Dubbing their chat program “CB” was a marketing masterstroke for CompuServe, as it made the applet both immediately understandable and it broadcast to the world that it was user-friendly, no small feat in an era where buying a first personal computer and getting online were both scary propositions for all but the most dedicated early adopters.

I know — I was connecting to CompuServe myself around 1982 and ’83 on my TRS-80 Model I and blazing fast 300 baud Hayes Smartmodem; I joined the online network largely because of the CB brand name, having been involved in CB as well a few years earlier.

The impact of CB radio on the culture was astonishingly deep considering how quickly it flamed out in the pop culture as a fad; it will be fun to look back around 2030 to see how the early Web culture of the late ’90s and early “naughts” plays out.

…Assuming the oceans haven’t “shut down” by then of course, as NBC, with Carson and his cool self-assurance having long left the building, is currently predicting.

*Then home for Pauline “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them” Kael.