The Guardian’s Tech Weekly took on a different flavour when I went on the road for the first half of 2013. The physical distance meant I couldn’t host the show as usual, and so, working with producer Jason Phipps, we developed a series of “Emails from America” in the style of the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent.

The first of these Emails was CB Radio: the Facebook of the 1970s. Here’s the transcript:

Over the years here at Tech Weekly, we’ve covered all kinds of social networks as they’ve come up and – in the case of many – have faded out. MySpace, Friendster, BBM, Bebo, even a little-known network called Facebook: they’ve all been watched closely from our perch at Guardian Towers.

But when I was growing up in the US, the social network that was all the rage was something very different. Like many kids Stateside in the 1970s, in my early years I was fed a diet of the Dukes of Hazard and cross-country trips on the open road. Add to that, cultural crackers like Smoky and the Bandit, and you’ve got the makings of a romantic fascination with the Citizens Band radio scene. That’s the CB radio to most folks. Roger that. It was the biggest social network of the decade.

I recently relocated back to the US and on my way to my final destination – Los Angeles – I decided to take the long road, a surface travel agenda of 8,958 miles of sea and land. What better opportunity to have a closer look at this pre-digital social medium, this proto-online social network, this community of practice (as University of Toronto’s Barry Wellman would call it) now that I’ve returned to the country of my youth? So I dropped a cool hundred dollars at the cash register in the radio shack in Stamford, CT for an own-brand Citizens Band Tranceiver, a 12-V DC-powered unit with a bewildering array of buttons across its no-nonsense, tough-stuff black exterior.

The device came with a very basic instruction booklet about how to use the “squelch” and how to tune up and down over its 40 channels. The manual gave no indication what I might find where. It was, for its price, a very basic unit. But I didn’t know that. I was over the moon. I figured that, with a flip of the switch, the big skies would open up to a cacophony of banter with Smoky, the Bandit, Luke Duke and Roscoe P Coltrane.

CB radio arrived on the scene in the mid-1940s and lay dormant until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was mostly used by small businesses. They were an open alternative to the closed band of AM and FM: anyone could apply for a very reasonably priced license or go without one. Like the network of tubes of the internet, it connected people who wanted – who needed – to communicate with lots of folks at the same time across distance. Not too big a distance: most transceivers have a 5 mile radius, keeping the chat hyper-local. That changes, of course, if you’re using it on the road.

The number of truckers who used CBs started on its mighty ascent after the US government imposed a 55 mile per hour speed limit across the country in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Newspapers called it an especially potent tool in occasionally violent road blockades, convoys and protests organised by the surge of independent truckers driving on the 42,500 miles of new interstates that had just been completed. Truckers used the radios to find out where the best place was to get the cheapest petrol, who had the best blue plate special, and where the cleanest rooms were. And songs like Bill Fries’ number one hit Convoy – which landed the top spot on both the US country and pop charts in 1973, and made it to number 2 in the UK – and films like Smoky & and the Bandit (the third highest grossing film in 1977 after Star Wars and Close Encounters) helped cement the CB airwaves as the coolest place to be.


By 1976, the US Federal Communications Commission received half a million license applications per month, up from 15,000 per month in 1972, and more than a third of CB radio operators on top of that were operating without a license. People had them in their homes, in their cars, in their offices, in their schools: kids were using their CBs to get help on their homework. Truckers were using it to navigate routes. People were finding one another and falling in love.

And there were also powerful CBers: US First Lady Betty Ford – by all accounts, quite a progressive and fashionable lady – had a notable CB radio habit. “First Mama,” as she was known, even landed a cover on the fanzine CB Times. The modern day equivalent is US President Barack Obama’s and Vice President Joe Biden’s appearances on Reddit’s AskMeAnything. But those are one-offs. Betty Ford was a real regular on the airwaves.

Given my background as a social psychologist and internet community researcher, you can see why I was so excited. After all, this little radiophonic experiment was more than just an opportunity to star in my own personal version of Convoy. I know about the web. I study how people online self-organise and self-govern. I study how they signal belonging – using specific language codes and sharing stories. The CB radio scene was another fertile community ground that I could learn about, to wallow in the psychology of belonging, to decipher the lingo, to remind myself that what’s happening now is interesting, but not necessarily new.

And the research bears this out. Anthropologists and sociologists then asked many of the same questions online researchers are asking now: they looked at how people could develop reputations even though they were anonymised by their call signs. They watched the fluctuations of trucker allegiances to different truck stops. They studied the evolution of CB-slang that truckers developed from Gay Bay to Motor City, and poured over the 10-signals, in the same way they study the multifaceted meanings of LOL and ROFL.

And the same fears people have about the web now – that it’s ruining society, that it’s upheaving social norms, that anonymity brings out the worst in people – were the same fears people had about the CB radio. Specifically, people were terrified of anonymity and how quickly the airwaves turned blue.

I should have known it wouldn’t be as easy as switching on the thing and announcing myself as Footloose and the Lymie. The helpful man at the shop – the second one we visited on our quest to track down the machine – had to root around in the storage room for quite some time before he returned with a dust-covered box that looked like it had been battered by two decades of shelf-shifting. Despite some early wins on the Cross-Bronx Expressway on the way out of Manhattan, when a couple of truckers with pronouncedly colourful language complained at length about the state of traffic and how they’d fix it if they were in charge, the next two thousand miles we heard nothing but silence.

We tried everything: we read up on the best way to use the CB, which channels to listen to. We reached for it any time we saw more than two trucks driving side by side. We even considered getting a kicker – an antenna device that would boost our signal. Nothing. Nothing at all. Until we hit Milan, New Mexico.


We stopped for gas somewhere past Albuquerque along Route 20 and checked in on foursquare. We’d been doing this to keep a record of where we’d been and to see if anything was interesting on the Explore tab. I was hungry and foursquare recommended the WOW Diner in Milan, a couple exists down the road.

Pulling in, I had a feeling that I’d found one of the last few old skool truck stops in the US. After a couple of thousand miles of Flying J’s, this was a non-branded haven. And the diner was full of truckers. And the airwaves were full of crazy people. The only thing that pulled me away from listening to the loons was my stomach growling. We reluctantly entered the building.

President Obama was giving a press conference about gun control when we walked in, and the place was silent, waiting to hear what he had to say. Unsurprisingly, I started talking with the man in the next booth about what was happening on the screen. HIs name was Alan, and he’d been trucking for 35 years, since he got back from Vietnam.

After a while, I decided to change the subject.

So, I asked, what’s up with the CB radio? Am I using it wrong?

Oh no, he said. No one was there anymore. He’d taken it out of his cab eight years before.

But why? I asked.

Smut, he said. Smut and bad language. It just wasn’t a nice place to be anymore.

The trolls had taken over.

Nowadays, the CB airwaves are mostly filled with truckers looking “commercial comfort” – services provided by ladies with handles like Flashlight Annie or Blondie. The ladies are there too, soliciting for work. There are a few places in particular that are famous for it. The truckstop on old Route 22 near Kuhnsville, Pennsylvania. Exit 18 off Interstate 78. But it’s not just within 5 miles of these locations where you’d hear this kind of business transaction.

“If you went on there,” Alan told me alluding to my gender, "the air would be blue before you could even finish your first "breaker"”. I was thankful I’d not made my first foray into CB land, then.

“I once heard a lady trucker come on and ask where a good place to eat on Route 20 was,” he continued. “You can imagine what kind of things she got back. That was the day I took the radio out of my cab. There’s no decent conversation on the lines anymore.” A woman’s voice, he said, is immediately assumed to be a hooker. And, in this predominantly male-driven industry, they’re likely right.


CB Radio may be the Chatroulette of the spectrum, but it’s not just the smut that spelled the end for this social network. Or, indeed, the trolls.

CB radio simply wasn’t flexible enough to grow along with its incredible popularity. There weren’t enough channels to cope with the many punters who wanted to be Smoky. Or the Bandit. The original community left, drowned by drive-bys and trolls, which wasn’t what the erstwhile Smokies or Bandits had signed up for. So they went elsewhere too, to a new technology, where their voices could be heard. And where they could build their own communities. The internet.


CB radios are still used by some people for more than blowing off steam, especially in the many parts of the US where there’s no data coverage for mobile phone. But its usefulness has run out because neither the people who had invested in it nor the context in which it was such an important technology are there anymore.

This means that the nature of the ways truckers communicate must also have changed, and this has likely had an effect on the community. Whereas before, you could tune into Channel 19 and drop into a conversation with a stranger, now with a phone, you’re using it to chat with just one or a few people. You’re usually speaking with someone quite far away. You’re more likely to be making existing bonds deeper, rather than reaching out. The opportunity to meet new people just for a chat and some banter is low. I wonder what role meeting face to face in places like the WOW Diner has on keeping this community together.

For you see, the drive to connect keeps on trucking; it’s what we do as social beings. And it may be useful for today’s social network creators to look back and see what’s come before, before they find themselves over and out.

Listen to the audio on Tech Weekly from The Guardian.