CB radio: rebel of the '70s expands role in public-service work

Another fad of the 1970s is fading - CB radio. What might be termed official recognition of this cultural turning point came recently when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it no longer would require Citizens Band (CB) radio owners to hold licenses. And with the end of licensing comes elimination of a requirement that license holders be at least 18 years old.

For CB buffs, this means they no longer must apply for or renew a license that even the FCC admits was of little value when stacked up against the administrative costs. The change, which takes effect in mid-June, will save the FCC more than $360,000 a year.

Commission officials say the demise of the licensing process isn't tied to the CB's decline. But their decision comes at a time when the CB's popularity has fallen. In 1979, generally acknowledged to be the CB's peak year, there were about 14 million licensees in the United States. Estimates of the number of radios in operation at that time range from 20 million to 30 million. Today the number of licensees has fallen to between 5 million and 8 million.

''The fad has gone by, and a lot of CB radios bought are probably gathering dust. Those (people) remaining are really interested in communications,'' says Joseph Casey, chief of the investigations branch of the FCC's Field Operations Bureau in Washington.

In short, observers agree, after a tumultuous adolescence, the CB service is maturing.

The concept of a CB-like radio service dates back to 1944, when the FCC allocated radio frequencies for use after World War II.

The service as it's known today began in 1958. Starting with 23 channels on the 11-meter shortwave band, CB was initiated ''to provide a service of two-way radio communication available to individuals for personal or business use,'' says Gerald H. Reese, executive director of REACT International, a 25,000-member CB organization headquartered in Northbrook, Ill.

But two major factors lifted CB radio from a means of keeping tabs on delivery trucks or fellow farmers to highway chic.

One was the 1973-74 oil embargo and the ensuing leap in oil prices. The US reacted in part by adopting the 55 miles per hour speed limit - much to the consternation of the nation's truckers. They began to use their CBs to alert other truck drivers about speed traps, to organize convoys, and to keep tabs on each other during independent truckers' strikes.

Mr. Reese says a call for a ''smokey'' report - i.e., Have you seen any police speed traps around here? - became the icebreaker for conversations with fellow travelers.

The trucker mystique, he adds, became the springboard for what he calls successful commercial hype: Movies and songs, TVs and T-shirts began to feature the ubiquitous CB.

But if the trucker mystique provided the CB's allure, changing technology made CBs more affordable. During the summer of 1978, the FCC divided the CB frequencies into 40 channels instead of 23 to accommodate the burgeoning number of users. But CB retailers had already ordered boatloads of 23-channel radios in anticipation of the Christmas shopping season.

The glut of 23-channel radios forced prices down from between $80 and $100 apiece to as low as $30. And, says Reese, with all those inexpensive CBs on the market, retailers had a hard time selling the new 40-channel units at anything near full price: Listing for as low as $125, some retailers were selling them for about $60.

With all these radios - many with unlicensed owners - installed in cars, trucks, and homes around the nation, the CB service soon became to many the enfant terrible of the airwaves.

Violations of CB regulations grew, prompting the FCC to set up special enforcement groups around the country. Mr. Casey says most complaints against CBers centered on interference to TV sets, radios, and other home-entertainment devices. When investigators followed up such complaints, they often found CBers who were operating outside of assigned frequencies or who were using amplifiers to boost their transmitters' power beyond the 5-watt limit.

Many violators, says Casey ''were not bad people. They just didn't know any better. They just bought a radio, plugged it in, and mimicked what they heard,'' instead of learning CB regulations.

But observers say the CB's novelty has worn thin. Overcrowded channels left many people disillusioned. As the number of users - especially casual users - declined, so did violations. This plus budget cuts led the FCC to dismantle its special enforcement groups. The commission emphasizes, however, that even after it no longer requires CBers to hold licenses, it still will enforce CB regulations - copies of which must be packed in every radio's carton.

Increasingly, CBs are being used for public-service work. The most current example is the growing enlistment of CBers in the fight against drunken driving.

Nebraska State Patrol Lt. Harold LeGrande says CBers have been effective participants in his state's REDDI (report every drunk driver immediately) program. Set up in June 1981, REDDI has prompted 3,660 calls from citizens, leading to 1,797 arrrests. Of those calls, ''It's safe to say that a very large percentage are CB calls,'' says Lieutenant LeGrande.

The Alliance of American Insurers is embarking on a campaign to involve more CBers nationally in the battle against drunken driving. According to an alliance spokesman, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Students Against Drunk Driving, and REACT have endorsed the effort. A national survey conducted for the alliance indicated that 9 out of 10 respondents said they would use a CB radio, if they had one, to notify authorities about erratic drivers.

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