Remember CB Radios? They're Back, 10-4

Jimmy Carter


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Jimmy Carter

'Breaker 1-9'

CB radios were — and still often are — a practical tool on the road, especially in a trucker’s life. But back in the 1970s and ’80s these portable communication devices were at the heart of a pop-culture craze. Suburban families suddenly had CB radios in their cars, and TV shows, movies, and novelty songs paid homage. In this quick trip through CB radio history, we’ll journey right up to today’s expanded uses (including a dark, illegal use) and offer some shopping options for those who want to join the retro-inspired fun.

Al Gross Engineer
Al Gross Engineer by Kb7uxe (None)

A 1940s Invention

The CB (or citizens band) radio was invented in 1948 by communications pioneer Al Gross, a Canadian-born, Ohio-raised engineer. Gross also previously invented the walkie-talkie and contributed innovations in cordless and cellular phone technology, according to RoadPro Brands.

Entrance to Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., USA.

Early Regulations

It was a few years earlier, in 1945, when the Federal Communications Commission created the Citizens Radio Service, setting aside some of the radio spectrum for use by folks for personal communication. This would allow and regulate uses ranging from remote-controlled model airplanes to business communications over the airwaves, according to the retailer CB World

Citizens Band Radio
Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty

Nuts and Bolts

A typical CB radio features a transmitter-receiver and an antenna. The earliest radios operated on higher frequencies than today, a way of operating that required more technical equipment (which, in turn, cost more). What’s now considered the norm — frequencies of 27 MHz — came to widespread use in the late 1950s, and radios became more affordable for the average consumer.

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Everything You Need To Know To Operate a CB Radio
Everything You Need To Know To Operate a CB Radio by Ross (CC BY-NC-ND)

10-4 … and More

In the early days, when CB radios needed to “warm up” to send a complete message, codes were created as a shortcut to communication that was easier for the transmitter to capture and less likely to be cut off, LGT Transport says. Some, such as the most-popular “10-4” (meaning “message received”), would go on to become part of everyday speech.

Woman Using CB Radio in Her Car 1977

Channel Expansion

Originally designating 23 channels for CB use, the FCC would go on to expand that in 1977 to the 40 that remain today. Most CB radios operate within a 3- to 20-mile range, depending on factors such as terrain, so it’s not made for long-distance conversations.

Times Square
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty

Growing Use

In its early decades, CB radio was most often used for personal communication but also employed by farmers, the military, and government entities. In the 1960s, taxicab companies turned to the radios as a way to communicate with their drivers, signaling the start of even wider uses of the devices.

Truck Driver Cleans Headlights At Gas Station
Spencer Grant/Contributor/Getty

On the Road

The surging popularity of CB radios in the ’70s had its roots in economics. “Partly because of the 1973 oil crisis caused by the OPEC oil embargo of that year, and a new, nationwide 55 mph speed limit meant to save U.S. fuel consumption, the use of CB radios served a genuine need,” meaning truckers used them to organize protests, find available fuel, and warn other drivers of speed traps, according to Harvest Gold Memories, a pop-culture blog.

Ali MacGraw and Kris Kristofferson in Convoy
John Springer Collection/Contributor/Getty

CBs in Song

From the world of trucking, the CB radio leaped into mainstream consciousness via the entertainment world — such as C.W. McCall’s 1975 No. 1 hit song “Convoy,” a tale of a group of truckers gone rogue that would fill the airwaves and go on to inspire a 1978 Kris Kristofferson film of the same name. 

Related: Everyday Things Only People Who Came of Age in the ’70s Would Remember

Smokey and the Bandit
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty

Even More Entertaining

CBs were also in the Jan-Michael Vincent and Kay Lenz movie “White Line Fever” (1975), as well as 1977’s “Smokey and the Bandit” with Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and its sequels. Small-screen efforts that featured truckers and their CBs included “Movin’ On” (1974-1976) with Claude Akins and Greg Evigan’s “B.J. and the Bear” (1979-1981).

Breaker Breaker
Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty

A Secret Language

The growing allure of CB radio was no doubt helped along by the fun of its lingo. A “wiggle wagon” is a truck with more than one trailer, while “salt shaker” is code for a snowplow. A “rubber duck” is the first vehicle in a convoy, while “bears” are law-enforcement officers. The list goes on (and on).

First Lady Betty Ford

What’s Your Handle?

Talking on CB radio demands a handle — the name you go by over the airwaves, ranging from boastful to playful, serious to silly. It’s been reported that at the height of the craze, first lady of the United States Betty Ford went by the CB handle “First Mama” while on the campaign trail. Stumped at what to call yourself? Try the “handle generator” on CB World.

Wildfire Threatens Homes In Laguna Beach
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In Case of Emergency

Having a way to reach others quickly before cellphones was a clear attraction of CB radios, especially in emergencies. Travelers were otherwise forced to look for pay phones that once dotted roads and rest stops, which were not much help on a stretch of lonely highway. CB Channel 9 has long been designated the emergency station. “CB radios are utilized during disasters and emergencies and can save lives. Police, emergency responders, volunteer responders, and many more use CBs to communicate when infrastructure is damaged or nonexistent,” CB World says.

RoadKing RKCBBT Voice-Activated Hands-Free CB Radio, Black

Tech Trends

There have been updates to CB technology since the 1970s heyday. In just one example, last year RoadKing advertised a hands-free model “bringing the CB radio into the 21st century” with what it called a “seamless transition between CB radio, smartphone, and Bluetooth headset” ($199 from Amazon). But the features are many.

Traffic moves along Interstate 80
Justin Sullivan/Staff/Getty

Essential Workers

While truck drivers may not use CB radio as often as they used to, it remains essential for sharing information with other drivers regionally, including those you don’t know: “Cellphones may have become the more popular form of communication among drivers, but there is still a need to use the CB to warn drivers on travel conditions, hazards, and delays or to be warned by other drivers of what is coming,” RoadPro says.

Tear Gas outside United States Capitol 2021
Wikimedia Commons

New Users

Though there may never be another CB craze, the radios have a market. “They’re also popular with off-roaders, RV owners, and motorcyclists and hobbyists,” CB World says. “CBs are useful in keeping groups of individuals organized and in contact during events, such as those enjoyed by ‘wheelers.’ In fact, CBs are required for most trail rides, as cellphones tend not to work well in the mountains.” Another, uglier use: Far-right nationalists use them to organize domestic terrorism, authorities say. It’s led to a related boom in sales, and the FCC has had to issue a reminder that it is illegal to use radio frequencies to plan crimes such as the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

Midland 1001LWX 40 Channel Mobile CB with ANL, RF Gain, PA, and Weather Scan

For the Beginner: The Midland 1001LWX

$70 from Amazon

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If you’re looking to join the CB radio world, there are plenty of options. This 40-channel model features improved reception and an automated weather-channel. A review by CB Radio Guide lauds its easy-to-read LCD display, and compact, lightweight design.

President Adams FCC CB Radio.

For the Budget-Minded: The President Adams FCC CB Radio

$64 from Amazon

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For reliability at a good price, TheDrive liked this model with programmable channel shortcuts and a public address option as a best-value pick. “It’s affordable. That usually means performance is out the window. That’s not the case here,” the site says.

Midland 75-822 40 Channel CB-Way Radio

For the No-Nonsense Type: The Midland 75-822

$125 from Amazon

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Those looking for the simplest set-up might opt for this one, “owning just enough features without overwhelming the senses” and weighing less than a pound, Gadget Review says.

C29LTDSE-C - Cobra® CB Radio With Chrome Finish
CB World

For the RV Owner: The Cobra 29LTDCHR

$160 from CB World

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There are as many opinions for recreational-vehicle equipment as there are owners, but most agree that having a CB radio aboard is a smart choice. Bayside RV likes this durable, full-featured model. After more than 30 years on the market, “it still does not fail in terms of performance.”

Uniden BEARCAT 980 40- Channel SSB CB Radio