18 December 2010

CB Radio

Legal Citizens Band radio? The "Daily Mirror", 8/5/1980. Cockney model and actress Lorraine Chase is also on the front page as she had just begun work on "The Other 'Arf", a new sitcom.

In 1980, CB radio, invented by American Al Gross in the 1940s and in use in the USA since the 1950s, was illegal in England. Illegal CB usage had been known in a very small way here since the mid-1960s according to information in one of my early 1980s CB magazines, but 1980 saw the number of breakers swell enormously.
The Daily Mirror article brought hopeful news:
Good news for Rubber Duck and his two-way chats


Britain's outlawed Citizens' Band radio fans got a welcome message last night.
Home Secretary William Whitelaw announced that the Government is in favour of introducing a legal two-way radio system.
If plans go ahead, motorists and lorry drivers using call signs like Rubber Duck could be chatting on an approved system called Open Channel some time next year.
Mr Whitelaw made it plain to MPs that although the Government backs CB radio in principle, technical problems will have to be overcome.
He also wants to sound out public opinion before taking a final decision.
CB radio is already widely used in the United States and on the Continent.
Lorries and many private cars are fitted with special transceivers so that their drivers can chat over the air.
Using their own slang, drivers can warn that Smokey Bear (the police) has got black ice (a radar trap) ahead.
They have peculiar call signs like Snowman, woodpecker - and Rubber Duck, made famous by the hit record and film "Convoy".
CB radio fans who have been campaigning in Britain for five years claim that between 30,000 and 70,000 sets are already on the air here.
Their operators risk a £400 fine or six months in jail.
Critics object to CB because it operates on a frequency which could lead to interference with emergency services and aircraft.

Food for thought for William Whitelaw from MP Clement Freud in July 1980. 

Remember good old Sheila Tracy on BBC Radio Two's You and The Night and The Music? Sheila provided music and chat for "all you night owls out there", and was a lovely presence on night time radio.
In 1980, she began a slot for truckers' messages and requests and was soon riding the crest of the early '80s CB radio wave.

As mentioned elsewhere in this post, CB was up-and-running in the USA in the 1950s, but in England it was illegal. 
Nevethertheless, small numbers of people had been flirting with it here since the 1960s, and a couple of films (remember Convoy?!) and hit records (remember Convoy the song?!) created a more general interest in CB jargon (and truckers!) in the late 1970s.

Around 1979 a very small number of people were using illegally imported CB radios in this country. In 1980 the number of breakers rose sharply. Legalisation was now in the air, although this did not actually happen until 2 November 1981.

One of the things many people forget - or simply don't know - about the '80s CB radio craze is that it wasn't until the 1980s that even 50% of the UK population had a land-line phone (no mobiles until 1985 - the first 'bricks'). Being able to chat to people in your front room who weren't actually there with you was novel and exciting to many.

In March 1981, CB jargon (and illegal CB!) was going great guns with enthusiasts in this country, not least truckers, and Sheila Tracy was their heroine...

From the Sun, March 17, 1981:

The voice has those soothing "Family Favourite" tones that you expect to hear asking Bill Crozier what the weather is like in Cologne.

It brings to mind twin-sets, pearls and sensible shoes.

But the vocabulary comes straight from the American freeways.

"This is Tiger Tim, how am I hittin' you good buddies - wall-to-wall and tree-top-tall I hope."

Sheila Tracy, Britain's first and least likely truckers' deejay is on the air again. And all over the country night-drivers tune in to the ten-four and smokey-bear jargon that is sweeping Britain.

Once there was wireless and long-distance lorry drivers. Now, following American fashion of course, we have Citizens' Band radio and truckers. And Sheila. Just over a year ago, she started including a truckers' hour in her once-a-week, all-night record programme on Radio Two.

It has become such a runaway success that the BBC are now going to put it out five nights a week. And Sheila is frantically studying her CB dictionary.

As Tiger Tim - her handle as they call nicknames in the CB world - she plays truckin' songs, Country and western music and relays messages to the night traffic.

A driver who thumbed a lift and left his atlas behind. Wives sending love to their travelling husbands.

Drivers with names like Clog Dancer and Little Fat Man send cheerful and occasionally cheeky messages via Sheila.

"Tell Short Arms to get his hand in his pocket and buy the teas," she repeats faithfully.

And in transport cafes all over the country the drivers whoop with laughter.

It is not just lorry drivers either. Groups of schoolboys take it in turns to sit up and tape her show...

It has all left Sheila rather breathless. She is 46 and has been a BBC personality for years.

She was a television announcer for some time then moved to radio and was the first woman to read the radio news.

Before that she was a trombonist with the Ivy Benson All Girls' Band and worked as a variety artist in an act called the Tracy Sisters.

But none of this showbusiness pedigree prepared her for the impenetrable language of the truckers.

She first heard a truckers' programme in America, run by Big John Trimble, the truckers' deejay. And she decided to try a slot in her programme, "You, The Night And The Music".

A lorry driver sent her a copy of an American dictionary of CB truckers' language and now she speaks it like a native, even if she is not always sure what she is saying.

"Seventy-three and eighty-eight," she says, "and ten-ten till we do it again."

Whatever does it mean?

"I think it means love and kisses," she says, uncertainly, and has to check her dictionary to make sure.

Some of her fans have made her up an American-style number plate with the title "Tiger Tim - The Truckers' Friend," emblazoned on it. And she proudly displays it in the rear window of her car.

"But I haven't had a flash yet," she says.

Good heavens, I should think NOT.

No, Sheila explains patiently, a flash means a headlamp signal.

She has been caught out once or twice herself, though.

"Some of the blighters send me rude messages and I've read them out without realising," she says.

Several drivers sent messages to friends they described as bar-stewards. And it was only when she tried saying it quickly that she realised what they meant...

One of the fears about widespread use of CB, which had deterred previous attempts to legalise it, was the notion that it might interfere with other communications systems or electronic equipment. And not just remote controlled model aircraft. There certainly were times, as illegal CB usage rocketed in 1981, when those concerns appeared to be justified...

Sun, 12/8/1981
Citizen band radio users were warned last night that their broadcasts can interfere with heart monitoring machines in hospitals.

The disturbing discovery was made by Torbay Hospital in South Devon, who said that electrocardiograph machines cut out when CBs are used nearby.

Hospital administrator Ken Dainton said: "We are particularly prone to it here because enthusiasts use their sets to warn others about holiday traffic jams on the Torquay road.

"So far only monitoring machines are affected. But it could be devastating if these broadcasts affect other electronic machinery."

Mr Dainton said local CB clubs had observed a radio silence within a mile of the hospital.

Another CB danger was revealed yesterday by fire chiefs in Greater Manchester.

They are trying to track down a chatterbox housewife whose broadcasts are blocking the wavebands of emergency services.

The woman's equipment is faulty and her chats about dogs, cats and birds "fan" out into the frequency used if there was a major train or air disaster.

Other reports of CB complications had a delicious touch of comedy as the illegal CB craze went into overdrive in the run-up to legalisation...  


Daily Mirror, 5/10/1981

Citizens Band fans are being received loud and clear on the Rev. Roger Hall's church microphone. One voice even broke in while Mr Hall was conducting his daughter Beverley's wedding.

As the couple took their solemn vows, it said: "OK - time for a tea break." Mr Hall, of Coventry, said: "It was just like the voice of the Almighty."

From the Sun, October 23, 1981:

Citizens' Band radio fans who break the new laws on their two-way sets could rapidly find Smokey Bear on their trail, they were warned yesterday.

Smokey - CB slang for the police - will crack down on people using unauthorised wavelengths when the craze becomes legal on November 2. Licenses will cost £10.

Home Office Minister Timothy Raison said there will be heavy fines for illegal operators.

Newspaper article from November 2, 1981.

2 November 1981 duly arrived and shops immediately sold out of the first British models as the public went CB crazy. As seen in the newspaper article reproduced above, CB's inventor, American Al Gross, made the first legal CB call in England from a Rolls Royce parked in Trafalgar Square - his "handle" was "CB'er No 1".

Do you remember these CB slang phrases?
Brown bottles = beer

Reading the mail = listening

Home 20 = CB'er's home town

Negatory = no

Handle = CB'er's slang name

In a short = soon

Wrapper = colour of car

Wall to wall = strong signal
Smokey = the police
Flip-flop = return trip

Eyeball = meet face to face

Remember the Rumbelows - "We save you money and serve you right"? The advertisement above is from the Daily Mirror, 16/12/1981. With CB radio now legal, many people could look forward to a very CB Christmas.

There had been some moans and organised protests about the allotted frequencies for legal Citizens Band radio and one or two other quibbles, but on the whole CB fans were pleased by legalisation...

The editor of What CB wrote:
There's little in the Home Office Legal CB announcement to give existing users much cause for celebration. Unless they convert their rigs to FM - or, of course, buy a new legal specification set - they stay outside the law. There will be no amnesty, nor a period of grace, which was probably only to be expected. But no one should forget that without the widespread use of illegal AM equipment, it is highly unlikely that a legal CB system would have been introduced.

Apart from this, however, it's tremendously exciting that CB can now be used without the fear of the knock on the door or the flashing blue light in the rear view mirror. As well as the vast number of breakers using the illegal frequencies (probably one-and-a-half million), there are just as many who have been waiting for a legal system to arrive. From November 2nd, a legal rig, a legal aerial and, of course, that £10 licence means you can natter away to your heart's content. 
One of the first British CB rigs, the 1981 Amstrad 901. All together now: "Breaker, break!" "Fancy an eyeball?" etc, etc...

Two more 1981 magazines for CB fans - "CB Radio" ("The first, the original, the most informative and the most copied") and "Breaker".

A specimen CB radio licence as featured in "Breaker" magazine.

Above and below: "Breaker" magazine, November 1981 - a CB rig guide.

"The CB market is going to make sliced bread look silly..."

It was all happening in the world of CB in 1981... 

Get kitted out here!

Early '80s sew-on patches. Now, how about that eyeball? 
Customised pottery from Devon featuring a CB flash, plus your "handle" on tankards and mugs if required.

"The Big Dummy's Guide To British C.B Radio" - essential for learning the lingo and getting started. 
Nobody had any excuse not to get turned on. To the world of CB radio. 

"The model M2.40 Channel-27 FM. - to meet full U.K. Government Specifications."

CB radio Smurf, dated 1981.   

The CB craze peaked in 1982 and 1983 - even becoming the subject of story-lines in popular telly shows Terry and June and Coronation Street in '82. In the former, Terry joined the craze and ended up stuck in his car in the back of a lorry; in the latter, Eddie Yeats (handle: "Slim Jim") met the love of his life, Marion Willis (handle: "Stardust Lil"), over the airwaves. Even Eddie's landlady, Hilda Ogden, was doing the "breaker, break" (well, briefly!) as "Shady Lady"!

The craze also influenced children's television with the introduction of a new magazine show on ITV called CB-TV. The idea behind this was that the presenters had commandeered the airwaves and the show was citizens band TV. Nonsense, of course, but a fun scenario. 

The highest number of CB radio UK licence holders was recorded in 1983 - 300,000.  

By 1984, enthusiasm for CB radio had waned a little, but it was still hugely popular. My mate Pete had a rig in his car and a speaker under the bonnet. "Kill that cat. Would you please kill that cat?" we requested over this brilliant PA system, and nearly wet ourselves laughing as puzzled pedestrians tried to locate the source of the message.

CB was fun, could be used for making pals and even meeting prospective partners, but there could be aggro. One evening, Pete was chatting to a breaker who became increasingly hostile.

Not known for backing down from confrontations (despite the white legwarmers he often wore), Pete got pretty steamed up, too. "Yeah? Well come on, I'm in the car park opposite St George's Church. Get down 'ere - I'll take you on!"

Mr Not-So-Good-Buddy assured us, in no uncertain terms, that he was on his way. By the sound of him, he wouldn't stop at an eyeball - he'd tear us limb from limb. 

Oower, Missis! 

Pete sat silently behind the steering wheel, face grim and set, staring at the entrance to the car park.

"See you, Pete!" I firmly believed (and still do) that discretion is the better part of valour, and prepared to get out of the car.

Pete grinned at me, delighted that he'd made me sweat: "Where'd ya think you're goin'? You didn't think I was serious, did you?" and he started the car and away we went. Phew! Curious though I was to see if the breaker was as fierce as his voice, I could live with it!

Despite this (and knuckle-dragging CB idiots were few and far between in my experience), I remember CB radio very fondly. With all the changes since - the World Wide Web and so on - it seems like a lifetime ago... good times...
My local branch of Tandy was offering the Realistic TRC 1001 hand held 40 channel 4 watt C.B, introduced by Tandy on November 26 1981 at a price of £119.95, for the bargain price of £69.95 in August 1982. 

"One-Nine For Santa"... a treat for Christmas 1981 from "Tiswas" star Fogwell Flax and the Ankle Biters from Freehold Junior School.
Breaking with Terry - "Terry and June", 1982.

Listen to Sheila Tracy and the first instalment of her five-nights-a-week BBC Radio 2 Truckers' Hour from May 1981 here.


CB Radio UK said...

What an excelent trip back to the old days when CB was what the internet is now, but things aren't really the same are they. Type chatting will never replace a good old Microphone to Microphone chat :).

Drew said...

They were happy times. I get quite misty eyed thinking about them now. Thirty years ago... golden memories... all receding into the distant past. I love the internet, but for communication it doesn't hold a candle to CB.

Anonymous said...

I got a CB when the illegal craze was at its height in late 1980/early 1981. So fun to relive it all here. Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Got my first rig xmas 1983 and it was at its peak, 40 channels and nearly all full day and night.
Giving out abuse, winding people up and keying them out, chatting up girls, great times, some of the conversations people had were like a soap opera, men chatting up other peoples wives, a dozen blokes all trying to eyeball a sexy sounding housewife.. great times and great fun..
Now its all illegal stuff burners and ssb on the triple nickel.. the fun has gone, no more on air arguments or jokes tellers, mike keyers, wind up merchants... So much fun

Anonymous said...

and now the internet is just the same but on worldwide scale ie blokes chatting other peoples wife's in other country's

Anonymous said...

I really miss the good old days of CB, the friends we met on the radio, messing with aerials, what a great time especially over Christmas 81...

10-10 till we do it again

Anne said...

I'm feeling very nostalgic for the 1980s as we enter 2013, and you've made one of the major crazes of that decade live again for me. So good to read the newspaper stuff as the CB craze spiralled upwards in 1981 and to read of some of the chaos it caused. The vicar was particularly funny! Thanks for making the 1980s live again for this reader and Happy New Year, good buddy!

Drew said...

'80s Actual is still on its breaker breaker, but glad we're hitting you wall-to-wall and tree top tall! x

Anonymous said...

i remember being on the air-waves i was princess, my mumm was martini on the fm, supermum on the am, our 10-20 is aylesbury, bucks, if any1 remembers us please contact me.

Sol One Comms said...

Always a pleasure to see some vintage CB eye candy, the Amstrad 901 on the cover of the What CB magazine picture was my very first rig.

Didn't know the made a CB smurf though :) may have to look out for one on eBay.