“Become a Good CBer”: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules, 1978

 Exhibit / March 3, 2020

Object Name: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules (95.401)
Maker and Year: Federal Communications Commission, 1978
Object Type: Informational booklet
Image Source: Archive.org
Description (Michael Grasso):

By 1978 the pop culture craze around Citizens Band (CB) radio had perhaps already hit its peak. When television broadcasts and other new radio transmission methods began to crowd the EM spectrum in 1945 America, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved a thin sliver of ultra-high frequency (UHF) frequencies for the personal use of ordinary citizens. A little over a decade later, in 1958, a new set of frequencies lower down on the spectrum became Class D Citizens Band radio, which spread in popularity throughout the 1960s among truckers and other blue-collar professionals who spent a lot of time on the road and needed to remain in contact with home base and other travelers.

The CB fad of the 1970s entered the public consciousness through a series of economic, political, and technological circumstances. The 1973 oil crisis, which put long-haul truckers in a tough spot due to gas shortages, along with the new federal 55 mile-per-hour speed limit, made CB radio a key method of information dissemination for truckers in a newly hostile economic environment (and allowed them to directly organize in the face of these adverse conditions). The cat was out of the bag by 1974 about the power of CB radio to unite workers and citizens over great distances to take collective action. CB radios thus found their way into more and more civilians’ vehicles for much the same reasons as the truckers’: they were an effective way to communicate and coordinate with other drivers while on the road during the hostile economic conditions of the oil crisis and its aftermath. With this came the deluge of mid-1970s pop culture CB-iana: Number 1 country-western novelty hit “Convoy” by C.W. McCall (and its spin-off film three years later), the 1977 Burt Reynolds/Sally Field road comedy Smokey and the Bandit, spinoff media such as magazines and board games, and countless other products, all while CB jargon, nicknames, and codes became permanent parts of American popular slang. The CB radio, a facet of the public commons established and regulated by the federal government, became a symbol of rebellion, the domain of working-class outlaws fed up with both the onerous presence of police on the American highway and the machinations of oil barons and international petroleum companies.

The CB radio was also many Americans’ first experience with being a radio broadcaster rather than a listener. Lacking the expense of amateur “ham” radio (along with its difficult technical licensing requirements), CBs offered a way for citizens to reach out to distant anonymous strangers that presaged the revolutionary arrival two decades later of the internet. The CB also provided drivers with the ability to call for help when stranded on the road—the FCC had assigned Class D CB Channel 9 as a permanent emergency channel in 1969—that would not be seen until the arrival of the cellular phone. By 1975, the FCC had lowered CB licensing costs (which many CB users ignored anyway) from $20 to $4, and miniaturization made the dashboard CB affordable for ordinary non-truckers. But in a short three years, the CB fad was largely over, leaving behind, as with many 1970s pop culture crazes, an industry ravaged by insatiable demand followed by a quick and steep disinterest.

This 1978 CB rules publication from the FCC discusses the rules and regulations around the use of Citizens Band radio as well as frequently asked questions around licensing and use of a CB. The booklet includes an insert that the reader could use to apply for a license to use CB radio. (The FCC was receiving so many CB license applications during the mid-1970s that they had established an entire zip code in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—17326—to speed up handling of the requests.) From the rules and prohibitions detailed within this booklet one can observe and note the ways that people were using (and abusing, in the eyes of the FCC) the CB frequencies during the fad’s peak. Transmissions of music, rebroadcasts of commercial radio or television, and advertising of all sorts, including political, are strictly prohibited, as are “obscene, indecent or profane words, language or meaning.” Conversations are limited to five minutes, but oddly CB radios are allowed to be patched into telephone calls (and telephone answering services); a commercial small-business need for reaching sales and delivery personnel on the road is obviously being given room to operate here.

Sadly, the government employee who created the strikingly whimsical and very “Seventies”-style sketches in this FCC booklet is uncredited. The artwork is clearly of a very specific and familiar vintage descending from hippie-adjacent 1960s artists and illustrators such as Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann, themselves influenced by the twin 1960s trends of Pop Art and the Art Nouveau revival. While this illustration style might have been considered a little out-of-touch and long in the tooth by 1978, it conveys a desire among the creators of this booklet, widespread at the time in the halls of the U.S. government, to remain populist, “hip,” and relevant in an otherwise sober book of rules published for the use of ordinary citizens.

3 thoughts on ““Become a Good CBer”: Citizens Band Radio Service Rules, 1978

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  3. Pingback: “Class Is the American Dream”: Peterbilt Truck Ads, 1974 – 1981 - RW

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