By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
It is 25 years since Citizens' Band radio arrived on British shores in a big way. But where has it gone?
In 1981 Britain was in the grip of an illegal craze. But it didn't involve sex, drugs or violence. Instead, bedrooms and cars across the UK reverberated to the coded joys of CB radio.
With far-fetched sounding call signs for users, CB became a space for a community of users, admittedly mostly young and male, who wanted to talk and share music.
The craze, like so many before and after, was American in its origin. Movies like Convoy, in which Kris Kristofferson plays Rubber Duck, a trucker with a grudge, and Smokey and the Bandit, with Burt Reynolds as the eponymous bootlegger, captivated a section of the British public.
British lorry drivers were the pioneers of CB use, finding it useful to communicate between themselves about such things as the locations of speed traps and other road hazards, and to keep at bay the loneliness of the open road. But the slang they used remained resolutely American.
"Breaker-breaker, you have smokey bear in your area," roughly translated into English as "I'm sorry for interrupting your conversation but members of the local constabulary are nearby".
Only British place names found their way into the code. Newspapers gleefully picked up on Noddy Town for London, Smokey Dragon for Cardiff, and industry specific monikers like Sugar Town for Bury St Edmunds and Salt City for Northwich. Each local community of CB-ers might then conjure up more nicknames at a more detailed level.
Jeff Briggs, who ran an electronics business, realised there was a gap in the market and filled it with an audiotape, Teach Yourself CB: An Englishman's Guide. "They used to take it very seriously," he remembers.
The rapid rise of CB was a serious vexation to the authorities. Questions were soon asked in Parliament about this fad that was disrupting emergency pagers and the public's reception of ordinary radio and television.
But a mixture of the anti-authority feel of US CB and the illegality of the technology in the UK only added to its appeal.
Brush Your Teeth and Comb Your Hair: Watch out for speed trap
Good buddy: Friend and fellow CB-er
Eyeball: Face-to-face meeting
Rig: CB set
Flip flop: Return journey
Alan Crumpton, who in 1981 went under the call sign or "handle" Al Capone, and now runs Thunderpole, a CB retailer, said he had joined the craze while it was illegal.
"There was the thrill of something under the counter. The reason the handles were used was because they didn't want anybody to know who they were. Then again, it's still fun now."
By 1981, there were an estimated 300,000 illegal users of CB.
John Gordon, call sign The Spirit, was another early adopter, and remembers the radios rapidly becoming ubiquitous.
"In the beginning it was cars, kids were even using them on pushbikes, anything you could strap one to, motorbikes even."
But Mr Gordon, who now runs an electronics business, had got in on the act so early that he was the only person in his area with a CB. When he eventually persuaded a friend to get on board the radio revolution he had to phone him to tell him to switch on his CB when he wanted to talk.
"In the early days kids were on it all night. There was lots of bad language. Now they've got mobile phones. There's e-mail."
CB was legalised in the autumn of 1981 - but not in a way CB-ers wanted. The government picked a frequency at odds with the sets owned by the illegal fraternity. It was seen as heavy-handedness from a country that up until recently demanded that many long-range amateur radio users take a Morse Code test.
From a high of 300,000 licence holders in 1983, and who knows how many operating illegally, there has been a year-on-year decline, with just 20,000 licensees remaining. Ofcom is currently consulting on proposals to scrap licences.
Now if electronically-minded people want an "open channel" environment to chat they have endless chatrooms of every possible flavour. For those wanting to meet each other in the ether there is MySpace, Facebook and countless dating websites.
In 1981, Britain's media expected CB usage to rocket into the stratosphere in much the same way. And there were concerns about the content.
A columnist in the Times warned: "All in all the average London CB conversation can have as many gaps and uncomfortable pauses in it as that at an unsuccessful dinner party."
The paper noted: "In practice the frequencies can overflow with trivia at best, obscenities at worst."
But the "wrong" frequency issue helped stunt the growth of the phenomenon. Users felt the British-specific equipment somehow lacked an American feel.
Burt Reynolds was the poster boy for the CB generation
"We were alienated from the rest of the world. All the high street shops overstocked with CB. There was going to be this huge demand. It didn't happen," notes Mr Crumpton.
Nevertheless, he maintains CB is "still alive and well" - the torch being carried by lorry drivers, off-road 4x4 enthusiasts and caravan clubs. While handheld mobile phone use is now illegal in a car, CB is not.
And there is at least one area where the CB dealers might see growth.
Tiverton Age Concern is using CB radio to combat the feelings of loneliness and vulnerability felt by older people living alone, often in remote areas.
After the charity was left a legacy by a CB enthusiast, it issued 20 pensioners with sets. For a generation where not all are comfortable with the internet, and with many finding mobile phones too expensive, the radios are a godsend.
For an hour every morning, they chat on the radio. Some even have call signs and use slang like asking for an "eyeball", a face-to-face meeting, says Mary Healey of Age Concern.
"One chap said 'I can listen to other people talking if I want join in I can but it means the world when you are on your own and have only got the cat for company'."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
All those decades ago, my younger sister ("Angel Eyes") met "Arthur Daley" on the CB radio.. she went on it from under the duvet in her bedroom at night, all night and unbeknown to our parents. Once the eight foot long aerial hit the ceiling lampshade and knocked out the electrics in the whole house! I, as older sister thought the whole CB thing was incredibly naff! This "Arthur Daley" lived two roads away in south London and it was love at first "eyeball".. they got married some years later and now have two lovely little girls! So it wasn't just for truckers!
I have been on and off CB since the late 80s and I can say it has been a lot of fun. There was a time when it was almost impossible to find a clear channel to talk on - not so these days! We had endless fun on Saturday evenings playing a game of hide-and-seek in our cars using just the signal strength as a ¿finder¿. The person who found could then go and hide and the game would begin again. Some of the home-bound home-base locals would often listen in to our silly banter as it made them feel part of the community. One year, the local CBers were asked to chaperone the Biggleswade Carnival; we had no trouble relaying messages around the whole town. The local police gave up and used us for messaging as their radios had too many black-spots!
The current consultation from the government has a use-it-or-lose-it approach and we are being encouraged to switch to the CEPT band used in Europe; ironically the very same frequencies used by the original American rigs, but still only FM. We are not too happy with that idea as some EU countries do not regulate their radio users quite as well.10-10 till we do it again...
Gary "The Electron" Myers, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, England
Never forget, these idiots used these illegal toys in the complete knowledge that they interfered with emergency radio frequencies causing deaths, aircraft landing equipment, etc and these criminals thought destroying radio controlled models was a "sport" via intentional interuption of the signals, and were menaces on the road (like using a mobile).Criminal Band radio was an accurate term.
CBs at the time were the best thing since sliced bread in an age where mobile phones were just a dream (or a brick with a mortgage) and the internet hadn't even been thought of. The ability to "talk" to multiple people in a chat room type environment was great and FREE! As for foul or abusive language, the community policed this themselves and just refused to give abusers airtime (or drove to their location and boosted transmission power to drown them out).
Fox Hunts with cars (hide and seek) were a weekend occurence. One car hides and the others seek. A general clue given to get you going then track them down using the SwR meter (the closer you get the stronger the signal). Catch you on the flip side!
Mick "MatchMaker", Bishops Stortford, Herts, UK
Breaker One Nine - You got your ears on good buddy? Anyone recall that East Kilbride near Glasgow was known as Polo Mint City? - because it has lots of roundabouts. And a Skateboard was CB slang for a regular car. So when asked: "Breaker One Nine - What's your Twenty?" (ie Where are you?) - I'd answer: "I'm the red skateboard heading for Polo Mint City..."
Ken Morton, Glasgow, UK
Quite agree Crazy Cat, Not just long distance drivers used it, my father had a cb radio hidden in a briefcase in his car! The illegality of it added to the fun. The whole family had handles and we used it to keep in touch. It lost its frisson when it went legal!
Mad Pony, Bristol
In response to Ian Macbeth, Leeds, the toll bridge in Selby is now free.... so does this warrant the re-naming to "Freetown"..?!!
Mark, "Paytown", North Yorkshire
I was born in 1981. My Dad was constantly on the CB. He was a newleywed, but paid more attention to the CB than his new family. He met another woman, started sleeping with her. It broke up my parents marriage and cost me my father. He set up home with the other woman and had a family with her. It's much the same as the horror stories you hear about internet chatrooms nowadays! Technology changes, people don't!
As an Army instructor in the late 1980s it was fun trying to eradicate 'CB-speak' from trainee radio operators! But only last Friday I went to a friend's house and discovered he uses a CB set to keep in touch with his elderly dad down the road!
Megan, Cheshire UK
Well its still being used in Leicester and Leicester Control is still there with "Red Rust" and the gang (Hi Rob).
A lot of people i meet dont even know that CB still exists.It still has the music and swearing but its only like that on the calling channel.CB lives on though so get those radios from the loft and get back on the air
Dave "Cubwolf" Smith, Leicester
I had an imported AM 'rig' and a home made antennae. Everytime I transmitted I blanked out every television set in a quarter mile radius! I think that kit like mine was probably the reason it was illegal in the first place.
Sean Clark, Loughborough
1 - 9 for a copy! When at secondary school, as recent as 15 years ago, I persuaded my parents (both original '80's' CB-ers) to utilise the aerial still up that tree in the garden to give me my own CB. At that time there were still several people at school with the same idea, using their parents equipment that had been lying unused for several years. I met my now husband on the CB, and before mobile phones or SAT NAV, never went any distance in the car without plugging in the CB. Essential if you got lost - always an obliging trucker to assist. Sometimes tempted to plug back in to see if the stalwart enthusiasts are still waiting for a copy!
vicky, Moray, Scotland
CB was a really big part of my teenage years. I met my now best friend on-air "Red October". Does anybody remeber the "Fox Hunt". We all had Minis (Mine was the best) and used to be up all through the night trying to find other cars. Those were the days hiding in the middle of roundabouts!
Martyn "NightHawk", London
"DX-ers", (long-distance CB enthusiasts), took the hobby as seriously as their licensed HAM counterparts. I spent many pleasant evenings chatting on side-band to America, Jamaica, Brazil, even Australia. OK, it was illegal, but the authorities didn't seem to mind. The 30ft antenna towering over my house was fairly obvious!
"Kamikaze", Maputo Mozambique
I'm surprised that so few truckers use it now. As someone who commutes down part of the accident-prone A14 'Highway from Hell', I am amazed at lorries blithely passing the A428 exit and heading up towards a Huntingdon tailback, when a CB would have warned them to divert....
Kit, Cambridge, UK
When we lived in a fishing town in Scotland my two sons had CB and their not too intelligent readheaded friend had the handle 'Red Herring' and couldn't understand why no one came back to him! A friend of mine's handle was 'Schoolboy' so we could say Schoolboy do you copy?
Alex Mitchell, Stockport, UK
In the earlie 80's I ran a small country hotel in East Yorkshire. I found it quite amusing that young "CB'rs" would spend a couple of hours in the bar chatting to each other, then go to the car park, sit in their cars next to each other and talk to one another on their CB's. As they say in Yorkshire "Thre's nowt so queer as folk"
John Pheasant, Nottinghamshire
I used to use the CB a lot. I spoke to guys with cool handles like 'The Outlaw', and 'Spiderman', it felt like I was part of something dangerous, a rebellion if you like. We were subverting the Government and played by nobodys rules, not even our own.
Eventually I went along to a meeting and realised I was speaking with a group of 30-something, basement dwellers who drove 50CC scooters. I sold my rig soon after, the magic was gone.
Greg, Wick, Scotland
The best part of it was the names for places. My favourite was "Paytown" for Selby where there was a toll bridge.
ian macbeth, leeds
I was very actively involved with legal CB in Leicester, with the very well known "Leicester Control" on ch23. This group of enthusiasts were famous for giving accurate directions to truckers in our area. I also wrote a monthly column for a CB Radio magazine. What killed CB was the internet and the availablility of mobile phones and computer-based communications. It was fun whilst it lasted and many CBers went on to tke the RA exams. But I never forgot Roger "Red Rust", Jeff "Murgatroyd", Sid "Sunray" and many, many others. Yes the bucketmouths and music-players were a pain, but I made some very good friends.
Rob "Captain Jack" Davis, formerly Leicester, now Telford
It does bring back fond memories of hooning around Tamworth and surrounding villages on a pushbike with friends to arranged "eyeballs" with other "breakers". Often it seemed that a lot of my peers while on CB radio were about 20+ years older than me but most treated my curiousity with respect and even more information.
From CB radio and the contacts I made there I joined an organisation called Search & Rescue to assist members of the public, sporting events in the town etc - which eventually evolved to become a fully fledged British Red Cross Society members unit M16. So to Prinz Eugen, The Red Baron (and Snoopy), Viking and all the others of M16 - those really were fun days of my youth!
John Somers, Chesham, Buckinghamshire
I was a student in Leeds around 1981, trying to fly radio controlled gliders. My legal RC equipment used the correct alloted frequency of 27 Mhz or so. The illegal CB equipment used the same. This 'CB interference' was not appreciated by my RC glider. So, to gain some revenge back at my digs in Leeds I would wait in the evening until the local CB'ers came on the air by listening in with my 'world bands' capable radio / cassette and then turn on my radio contol transmitter and proceed to cause interference on their goings on. I know it worked because the incredulous voices would complain of the number 'dB they were pulling' dropping as I twiddled the control on my RC transmitter.
Steve Crutchley, St Albans, UK
Fond cb years remembered well, sitting in your car on the highest local hill trying to call out to others on hills across the country and if you were lucky recieving copies from abroad as well, great fun in its hey day but nothing like it was. Still got mine, gathering dust in some cupboard, you never know one day it might see some copies again. 'Over and out'.
Andrew "Meatloaf", Solihull, West Midlands
In 1981 I met my first boyfriend using my dads CB. Sitting in the car on the front drive I opened up a whole new world and a whole new group of friends, as a teenager who was bullied badly at school it was heaven to talk to people who didn't have a clue who I was or what I looked like (or even where I was). Now my teenage daughter is on MSN night after night and we are endlessly warned about the dangers, in reality its no different to the CB, use it safely and its not a danger...
I soon left home and the fun of my dad's CB set, however I wont ever forget cold winter nights sitting in his car chatting away feeling like any teenager anywhere, as if the world were at my feet. 10-10 till we do it again, Hot-Lips signing out.
Wanda "Hot Lips", Welwyn Garden City
"Illegal for no good reason" and "harmless"? Not really. The reason 'legal' CB was introduced, using FM (a different mode, on a very slightly different frequency), was that FM transmissions cause a lot less interference than AM (as in illegal CB). It's as simple as that. Unfortunately, the illegal users didn't grasp the problems that they could have been causing to legitimate, and probably a lot more important, users of the radio spectrum.
The UK legal sets have restricted power and operate on FM, which reduces the transmission range. Due to the way sunspot activity affects us the early CBers could often talk to people in the States. I know people who were into CB in the early days who subsequently passed the exams to become Radio Amateurs so they could get back to talking to people on the other side of the world.
Brilliant! I was "on the rig" for about 10 years - I had a severe stammer and it was my way of talking with people I'd (probably) never meet. As it happened, I met a girlfriend on there, and we had a great time. It was full of friendly people and I made many friends. The only downside was dismantling the 30ft antenna in my garden when a thunderstorm approached!
Edward Byard, Oxford
I remember using CB's in the early 90s and by then it was becoming a joke - the sets were available for peanuts so many people would buy them and then mess around 'on-air'. It just became a noisy mess where you couldn't hold a real conversation without someone butting in and making silly comments. It was a great idea but spoiled by the same people who now cause trouble on on-line chatrooms. Technology changes - people dont...
All I remember is girls coming on air and dropping heavy hints their parents were out and why don't you pop round to say hi. The rest of the evening consisted of a bunch of teens champing at the bit in a Vauxhall Viva outside some house realising you'd been had yet again and there were no girls, not there anyway.
It's still going strong, especially with 4x4 owners. The license is a complete waste of money as it hasn't gotten rid of the foul language or the music on channel 19, but it's getting better. You'd be surprised how many people are still using it, and it's superb on the motorway!
David Jacobs, Hinckley
As a young kid living in rural Kent in the early 80s there wasn't much to do of an evening. My memory of CB was sitting on Channel 14 - reserved for meeting other users, endlessly calling "one-four for a copy" and hoping someone would start chatting to me. In those days, people didn't worry so much about children talking to complete strangers over the airwaves like they do now about internet chat rooms!
Tom "Lard", Chelmsford
When off roading with others, CBs the best free all day conference call you can get and there¿s no limit to the number of participants. You don¿t get that with mobiles.
David Edwards, Chester
It's still a great way to communicate between vehicles travelling closely together such as groups of truckers, caravaners, any vehicle marque clubs and for off-road driving. No cost for calling, no issues with network coverage and one person can instantly communicate to everyone else in the group. I got into CB in the early days but it's better now because the airwaves are less cluttered and your less likely to get some idiot interupting you!
Chris, Nr Faversham, United Kingdon
My local Mini club uses CBs to make sure we all keep in touch, how sad do we sound? We often travel a long distance to shows and rallies and it's nice to make sure we are all headed in the right direction should we get split up in traffic. Believe me - this is an absolute god send when going through the middle of London.
Philippa "Fluffy" Kruman, Cambridgeshire
It was through the interest of repairing CB and as a spin off two-way radios that I arived in my profession of communication engineering. Today I have work across Africa. That's a big 10-4 good buddy... 10-10 till we do it again... we gone...
John "Septic Knuckles" Buckham, Lusaka, Zambia
Please dont perpetuate the old myth that CB's were responsible for interference on radios, TV's, hifi's etc - they were not in the majority of cases. The electronic equipment at the time had unsophisticated 'front ends' which poorly discriminated between radio and audio signals, hence it was the receivers fault.
Yellow Horse, whitehaven, cumbria
As a 14 year old boy there was only one real reason for CB - girls. CB opened up a whole new way of finding girls and we certainly made the most of it!
Charles Codrington, Bedford
My first introduction to CB was at a training session for new hunt saboteurs when a hand-held unit was passed around and experimented with. They were a godsend for co-ordinating large numbers of 'sabs' at a single hunt and all the sab vans and Landrovers could be seen with the 5-foot aeriels. Of course the hunts soon worked this out and would buy their own units to jam us out. Everythings switched to mobile phones now.
I was a member of a CB club when I was about 12 - I didn't think it was illegal as a) I only had 2 channels b) I could never get a signal or anyone to talk to and c) all the cool dudes had a car to put their radio in - I only had my Grifter although it was tooled up with American emergency sirens - nice.
Kevin Wilkinson, Hornchurch
Breaker One-Nine, what's your 20? I Hammer'd Down on the A3 I eyeballed a Kojak with a Kodak so I pulled in behind a Suicide Jockey.
Max Allen, Her'sham '69
My father was a reader for the local 'News for the Blind' in the Deal area. Filled the gap between local newspapers and regional radio.
simon mallett, UK Maidstone
Breaker 1-4 for a copy? CB radio at its time was a fun thing to do. I personally met some great friends and the fun of 'catching the skip' and talking to CB users in other countries was just amazing. Things move on and so does technology - its in the process of being replaced by VOIP and wireless openzones, but I feel there is always a need for a general public frequency band - in what form though, who knows.
Nigel Underwood, Bristol, UK
I was a CB-er for a few years in the early 80s and enjoyed it enormously. My first rig was second hand and I used to have it in my bedroom with a 'mag mount' attached to the radiator! I then had a 50-50 pole out the window, but I used to take it in when the wind got up. I briefly went back on air in the early 90s to avoid the road jams, but it was not the same. Good days - 'What's yer 20?' 'I'm on yer back door good buddy.' Looking back I must have sounded an idiot!
Mike "Hunchback" Wilks, Ruardean, Glos
Being a "radio ham" (and taken the Morse test) on air officially, we had our own share of idiots who transferred to CB to be "rebelious". Mobiles and text are cheaper, and with Internet phones, will return to the few as before who experiment and who - ironically push forward communications as we now know it.
Half the fun of CB was because it was illegal - and illegal for no good reason. It was a harmless and fun way to cock a snook at authority. 10-10 'til we do it again, good buddies.
Mark "Crazy Cat" Esdale, Bridge, Canterbury
In my experience the only use that people made of their CB sets was talking about their CB sets to other owners!!
I tried to get the idea going of a voluntary community info service. Where people with special knowledge on a subject would spend a few hours on air offering advice about local directions, medical advice, DIY help, cooking tips, fixing TVs or whatever. It might have taken off but the killjoys would have swamped it with endless music or noises and ended it pretty quick.
Nigel Andrews, Worthing, United Kingdom
I remember the CB craze. Only a few (richer)kids in our school ever got involved, as the cost was enormous. A large antena was needed and the cost of the equipment was a lot(in those days) for people counting out their pocket money. A few boffs would venture to Tandy's and buy stuff but it was never as big a craze as people said it was with the young- more with 20+ age group- and they were working people who were just a bit sad and imagined they were trucking an 18 wheeler. Come in rubber duck! Very much like a Sinclair C5 - rare as chickens teeth
Mark Smith, Southampton UK
Talk about government control! People find a way of making the world smaller and benefitting all that use it and just because the government cannot tax or control it they make it illegal.
Jack, Sidcup, UK
I asked an American friend of mine what happened to CB? Apparently its alive and well and living in the USA.
This article is the first I have heard about CB in the UK for years.
Oddly enough yesterday I was driving down I65, Chicago to Indianopolis, and stopped off at a coffee shop - which had a large CB section - rigs, whips, mikes, etc. It seems CB never went away for the US trucker community!
Peter, Loondon UK
I used to take my C.B. set away to sea with me in the early 1980s. For a 4 watt set the reception and transmission at certain times of the day was out of this world once away from the UK. The best "copy" was with the Island of Guernsey and a guy sat in his "roller skate" on Brighton sea front while I was off the coast of Ghana, west Africa. a distance of some 4000 miles! The UK legal sets were only supposed to have a range of 12-15 miles.
Chris "Wooden Horse", Grimsby, England
"It was seen as heavy-handedness from a country that up until recently demanded that many long-range amateur radio users take a Morse Code test.". Until recently it wasn't 'heavy-handedness' by the British, it was an intenational requirement that radio amateurs demonstrated their competence in morse code. That has now been removed. Britain was the first to change its licence, although many countries retain morse code as a requirement for short-wave transmissions by amateurs.
Paul, Ayia Napa, Cyprus
CB was intended to be a local community facility. The equipment was low powered and antennas inefficiently short. Unless you lived a a remote area of the country it was a disaster from the start. A basic setup could transmit and receive for many miles and in or near cities the nutcases took over and filled the airwaves with abuse rendering it useless for its original intention. It seems to have been left to lorry drivers and taxi firms now. Many dedicated CB-ers went on Amateur Radio courses and took up that hobby.
However with all types of technology based hobbys of the 60's 70's 80's they have succumbed to the computer and mobile communications. Many young amateurs and "proper" C.B'ers went on to be trained and employed in Communications or Technology based careers.
It became increasingly annoying towards the mid/late eighties to have someone use it as a Radio Station! I remember one Sunday morning whilst trying to chat to a freind, all 40 channels where being used and over half where complete morons! blocking channels with music. one was sending out just bleeps and squeals...At least these days we are only subjected to those who seem to have a passion for it. You listen, you join in....you switch off! easy!
We used CB (FM) in Zambia in the 80's as communication tools for anti-poaching operations, for free communications and even the Neighbourhood Watch base and operations vehicles used them. Fun to use, but almost valueless in highly built up areas where they require line of sight (unless the weather was 'with you'). Great fun for a few years, I even used them as late as 1998 at my own safari camp.
Alister, Rugby, Warwickshire
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