In the mid-1970s, an obscure technology called Citizens Band or CB radio exploded in popularity across America. Seemingly overnight, bulky CB radios became standard equipment in millions of cars and trucks across the country. Antennas sprouted up like the shoots of some weird new plants. Obscure codes and nicknames like “10-4 good buddy” entered the national lexicon. But by the early 1980s, the CB craze had largely faded away. What explains this rapid rise and fall of what was arguably one of the biggest fads in American history?
The origins of CB radio stretch back to the 1940s, when the FCC reserved a set of UHF and VHF frequencies for citizens to make personal transmissions. Originally a no-code alternative to amateur radio, CB became a hobbyist craze fueled by very favorable HF propagation conditions during that period of the sun spot cycle. A bit later mobile CB transceivers entered the market which allowed drivers and, in particular, truckers to relay information on road conditions, help monitor emergencies, and provide other communications. But early CB gear was expensive and reception was poor. It wasn’t until the 1970s that CB started gaining wider notice especially with the availability of mobile units from local suppliers like Radio Shack.
Several interrelated forces launched CB into the cultural stratosphere in the mid-1970s. First, in 1973, the oil crisis led to a nationwide 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, forcing new regulations on the trucking industry. Truckers relied heavily on CB radios to share information and coordinate. The second force was the rise of CB’s appeal as an inexpensive hobby. Electronics manufacturers began mass producing easy-to-use CB gear as the price of components dropped in the early 1970s. Sears and others began selling handheld CB ‘walkie talkies.’
CB also gained cultural cachet in the 70s as a form of rebellion against authority. With Watergate and the Vietnam War shaking trust in government, CB presented itself as a decentralized network owned and controlled by the people. Citizens saw CB as a way to monitor police movements and subvert the national 55 mph speed limit. Truckers saw themselves as modern cowboys subverting the law and persevering against adversities. The mystique surrounding coded CB lingo like 10-4 and handles like “Bandit” or “Good Buddy” fed into this outlaw image.
The most critical factor in CB’s rise was probably the 1973 trucker strike that shut highways across the country. Truckers used CB radio to coordinate collective action against high fuel prices. This cemented CB’s association with rebellion in the popular imagination. When trucker country singers like C.W. McCall released CB-themed hits like “Convoy” in 1975, the craze reached critical mass.
The fad accelerated throughout the mid-1970s, fueled by movies like Smokey and the Bandit. Selling CB equipment became so lucrative that Radio Shack’s profits doubled between 1973 and 1976. But CB’s success contained the seeds of its downfall. So many citizens bought CBs that some channels became unusable due to congestion. Moreover, many casual CB users had little interest in the rules or etiquette that governed its operation.
By the late 1970s, many CB conversations devolved into profanity, racism, and anarchy. The association between CBs and reckless behavior on the roads also grew, weakening political support for the hobby. The FCC considered banning CBs entirely before settling on stricter regulations on content. Cultural support for the CB movement faded as concerns over safety and civility grew.
The final nail in the coffin came as prices for CB gear plummeted. New technology like cell phones promised even more freedom and mobility. Over a span of just a few years, millions of CB radios went from prized accessories to unwanted clutter. Like most fads, CB radio was the product of unique cultural forces whose confluence was unlikely to be repeated. It flared up as an exciting new hobby, but this spontaneity proved impossible to control or sustain.
The CB radio craze left its mark on American culture through language, music, film and lore even as its technical legacy faded away. Its rise and fall followed a familiar arc of rapid ascent, eager adoption by the masses, and decline through oversaturation. This pattern seems inevitable when obscure niche technologies suddenly grab the spotlight. But for a brief time in the 1970s, CB radio managed to bring a nation together through the magic of shared airwaves. The rest, as they say, is history.
Note: thanks to Claude for help in writing this post! The idea for this post came into my mind while watching an interview on YouTube of Cultural Tutor by Nick Milo.