More contagious than colds, more habit-forming than hard drugs, CB radio already afflicts more than 15 million Americans and, if present trends continue, will soon be as popular as sex. Once confined to truckers and other redneck types, it now affects people so intellectually discriminating that they watch only Mary Hartman on television. I personally know a Chicago corporation lawyer who scoffed at CB for two years before he bought one for his wife on the excuse of highway safety. Today he not only can say, “Big ten-four roger there, good buddy, fer sure, fer sure,” in a perfect hillbilly twang, but can also cite a great body of case law establishing that state police cannot legally arrest you for merely putting out Smokey reports. (The key word here is “legally.”)
Studies indicate that it’s only a matter of time before every American with two or more wheels succumbs to the epidemic—especially now that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has expanded this madness to 40 channels. As with television, it’s nothing to be ashamed of and something we can all learn to live with, given sufficient understanding.
Understand, first of all, that CB really stands for Crazy Bastards, and that the benefits of two-way citizens’ band radio have been vastly overrated by advertisers, members of the cult, and a lot of impressionable journalists. Anyone who drives at legal, or even nearly legal, speeds doesn’t really need to plot the location of every cop in the country. And there are already so many public-service-crazed CBers that a man can no longer stop at a roadside bush without squad cars, wreckers, and ambulances being dispatched to his rescue.
On the other hand, the boredom of interstate highway travel is reduced by at least 50 per cent when one is listening to the chatter of fellow motorists reporting such highway hazards as “scruffy brown dog northbound in the median at the forty-two-mile marker!” It also relieves the monotony to be part of a hard-rolling convoy. “Breaker one-nine,” you growl. “You got the Nashville Nitwit here. Be advised we got us a bear on the move, eastbound from that Maplewood Oasis, and he’s got the hammer down.” When your very own CB radio says back to you, “Gotcha, good buddy from that ole Music City. Mercy sakes, we definitely got an eyeball on that Smokey now, great day,” well, it’s sort of like the camaraderie of fighter pilots in old World War II movies. Messerschmidts at three o’clock! and you’ve saved the whole squadron. Feels real good. And when you finally pull off the old superslab en route to grandma’s house, you arrive remembering how the good buddies shot you those numbers, praised you as a fine front door, and want to catch you on the flip-flop. Beats hell out of broadcast radio and drives the truckers bananas.
It’s certainly true that almost anyone with a CB radio, if he or she tries hard enough and long enough, will find some occasion to use it in the public interest—to report a wreck or something. But for most of the people most of the time, CB is just another pleasant vice with redeeming social value—like your better grade of pornography.
As with any new social disease, not a whole lot is known about CB, even by the folks who contract it. About half the information put out by CB veterans (anyone who’s had a license for more than a year) and even by the real gurus (the fanatics who have assimilated vast amounts of lore and advertising claims) would make the crops grow if you could find a way to spread it. The first thing most CBers learn about radio, and also the last thing, is how to sound like they know what they’re talking about. Worse, they believe in just about anything that purports to make their little radios reach farther, and then spread it like gospel. Just bear that in mind when you’re talking to other CBers, and also this: most CB salesmen are recruited from used-car lots, and the proliferating neighborhood CB shops are staffed mainly by gadget-happy hillbillies and ex-TV repairmen who couldn’t pass their ham tests. Even the fat and slick CB magazines are virtual wellsprings of sincere misinformation that sends any experienced communications technician into seizures of mirth. (Except maybe for young hot-rodders, no other hobby group is so technologically gullible.)
Contrary to popular notion, CB equipment is electronically rather primitive—just basic little four-watt transceivers operating on the old eleven-meter amateur band. All the much- advertised integrated circuits, phase-lock loops, printed circuitry, and solid-state bushwa are merely miniaturizing and cost-cutting tricks. Moreover, the hundreds of different brands and models are almost identical in design and performance. As well they should be, since about 90 per cent of the stuff is built by the same handful of Japanese factories. The main differences among the established brands are workmanship, quality control, and service. Companies like Cobra, Midland, Johnson, and Regency have their own engineering staffs and do their own designing, testing, and fixing. But the CB boom also attracted lots of get-rich-quick outfits that merely put a new brand name on the cheapest junk they could import by the boatload and market like shotgun shells. When this stuff works at all it performs well enough, but some of the off-brands must be returned to the land of the Rising Sun and can be repaired only by Zen masters.
This situation is changing. CB interference with everything from television to radio-controlled garage doors has forced the FCC to raise design standards considerably on the new 40-channel models, which should shake out a lot of the junk. It should also raise prices and reduce performance, but I’ll get to that later.
While some brands are better buys than others, CBers themselves aren’t much help in deciding which ones, and neither are the so-called buyers’ guides. Most of these are rip-offs that “rate” equipment according to manufacturers’ published specifications, which are sort of like gas-mileage figures. The safest thing is to stick with established companies that have reputations to maintain, that are going to survive into the new 40-channel era (some are in big trouble), and that provide good warranty and after-warranty service. I wish I could tell you how to find this out.
As for all the optional features on the more expensive CB radios, one should first understand just what each extra knob, switch, and button actually does. It adds about $20 to the retail price of the radio, is what it does. Noise-limiting or blanking circuits often do help suppress ignition and other electrical noise, but otherwise you can figure that an extra $100 worth of controls will improve performance by 5 or 10 per cent, at most. In the trade these extras are snickeringly called “bells and whistles,” because while they sound very useful on paper they’re about as functional as a foxtail on an antenna.
To the novice, single sideband (SSB) always looks like the hot setup, because the units cost so much and their advertising makes it sound like you get three times as many channels as the standard AM rig. What you really get are the same 23 or 40 channels, which can be divided up three ways (AM, Upper Sideband, or Lower Sideband), but AM and SSB stations can’t use the same channel(s) simultaneously, divided up or not. So it’s a matter of semantics. SSB does have a greater effective range, but it’s rarely used for mobile purposes, and while the sidebanders tend to be polite and civilized by current CB standards, they can also be a real bore. They try to sound like hams and commercial radio operators instead of like truckers and cops, and they don’t fight and swear very much or shoot each other. But back to technology.
Just as important as the CB radio itself is the antenna, which is not just a rod or a wire but a critically tuned part of the electronic package. If its electrical characteristics (which are determined partly by nearby metal objects, such as a car roof) don’t closely match those of the transmitter, you don’t talk very far; if they match badly enough, you can even burn out your transmitter, especially an older model. But the main thing is that you’ve got only four little watts of radio-frequency (RF) power to start with, so you can’t afford to lose any through transmission-line loss or antenna inefficiency. (The five watts you read about in ads is power input to the transmitter, not output, and is irrelevant; the truth is that most units barely squeeze out three watts.)
CBers all know this in a vague sort of way and then proceed to come up with some of the god-awfullest antenna systems that ever flopped in the wind or shattered the fluorescent lights in a gas station canopy. So let’s make it easy: the ideal CB mobile antenna is a nine-foot whip mounted squarely atop the steel roof of a large bus, and everything else is a compromise. About the worst compromise is the short center-loaded (lump in the middle) antenna mounted on the rain gutter; it’s the least efficient and tends to beam the signal off to one side (signals radiate most strongly in the direction of the largest metal surface, or ground plane). Twin (cophased) antennas look very sexy but they don’t work too well unless they’re mounted nine feet apart, as on truck mirrors. Long whip antennas are theoretically good, but when mounted on a corner or side of a vehicle or on the back bumper they tend to be highly directional (usually in the wrong direction) and inefficient because of their placement. Most antennas that are center-loaded or otherwise top-heavy, or are too flexible or mounted with too weak a spring, will tend to bend over at highway speeds or flop around, which louses up their electrical characteristics, and thus diminishes their other virtues.
It usually works out (in the absence of a laboratory-designed and installed custom system) that the all-around best antenna for a car is the standard base-loaded, three-foot-long stainless steel whip, mounted preferably in the center of the roof or (to avoid drilling holes) on the middle forward edge of the trunk lid—and standing straight up at all times. Incredibly, this also happens to be the least expensive antenna.
Be warned that most cheap antennas (and some expensive ones) have cheap fittings, poorly tuned loading coils, whips that take a “set” after bending in the wind or hitting a branch, mounting springs made from old beer cans, and come with inferior transmission line and coax connectors. Watch for these when you’re buying. Turner is so far ahead of most other brands in workmanship and materials that they deserve to be mentioned by name.
Coaxial cable (transmission line) comes with all mobile antennas, but if you ever have to buy any extra, go to a regular electronics supply store and insist on Essex, Amphenol (same factory, actually), or Belden, and on Amphenol connectors. The friendly folks at your local CB shop or electronics chain store will tell you that all cable and connectors are the same or that their stuff is just as good. You tell them they are stupid.
While you’re at it, be wary of any accessories—switches, plugs, connectors, etc.—sold mainly for the CB market, usually hanging in little blister packages in CB and stereo shops and the chain stores. The industry has correctly determined that CBers don’t know styrene from Styrofoam or nickel-plated brass from chrome-plated pot metal, and designs its goods accordingly.
The good stuff costs more, but not much more, and in real two-way radio it matters. Cheap coax may have fewer strands of copper in its shielding and will therefore pick up more ignition noise; cheap connectors may not keep out moisture or maintain good electrical contact for very long. As a general rule, it’s sensible to buy parts and accessories made by established communications companies that supply the government. As the old saying goes, an elephant is only a mouse built to military specifications.
One of the few really useful CB accessories is a meter that measures your antenna system’s standing wave ratio (SWR). This sells for $15 to $20 and not only allows you to easily tune your own antenna and keep it at peak efficiency, with no knowledge whatever of antenna theory, but lets you impress friends and neighborhood kids with your scientific skills. You work the knobs and switches on the meter box and grunt, “Yessir, pruned the ole stick here and got that SWR down to one point one to one, and she really walks the dog now.” Makes no sense to the average human being, but neither does CB, so you’re OK.
You can also get meters that purport to measure power output, signal strength, and modulation. Since they do none of these things very well, don’t waste your money unless it makes you feel good to watch needles wiggle. As for the many other performance-improvement gadgets advertised in CB magazines, virtually all of them are quackery for the easily deceived.
One gadget to which most good buddies eventually succumb is the power microphone, which is about the worst thing to happen to CB since the $4 license fee (and now even that nominal fee has been repealed). These mikes, also known as “modulated” or “amplified,” have a button to increase their output, and since they’re advertised as being able to “increase your talk power” or to “extend effective range,” many CBers think they somehow boost signal strength. So they turn the little control all the way up and proceed to distort their own audio into unintelligibility. In a car or truck, a power mike tends to pick up all the wind and motor noise and makes a good buddy sound like he’s talking from the base of Niagara Falls. Especially with the new 40-channel units, designed to prevent over-modulation, power mikes will mostly amplify background sounds. If a stock mike isn’t doing its job, and many don’t, a good one (power is OK if carefully adjusted) from Astatic, Turner, or Shure will make a significant difference, but the economy models from the CB shops and hobby stores usually aren’t worth the money. Cords are important also. The Shure people, for example, build theirs for a few jillion pulls; with some of the cheaper mikes, one good jerk and you’re talking to yourself again.
Now, what about the glorious new era of 40-channel CB that everybody is proclaiming (or disparaging, if they’re trying to unload their 23-channel overstock)? Should you buy old or new? For sensible people who want CB for its intended practical and primarily mobile communications purpose, the existing 23-channel models offer two distinct advantages. Many stores are trying to unload them for three chickens and a good used tire, and they don’t have all the antipollution devices that are expected to raise costs and reduce performance. (With the new units, your power mike probably won’t create nearly as much havoc with TV or other CBers on nearby channels.)
The sales promotions by several companies to trade in or convert existing 23-channel units to 40 channels (which they may not be able to do economically, it turns out) bespeaks the general desperation of the industry. Many ordered 23-channel units by the megaton from Japan to try to cash in on the fantastic market demand, and were caught by surprise when the FCC sprang the 17 new channels a year or two sooner than anyone expected. Many schlock companies, but also some big and well-known ones, are now bloated with inventory and are expected to soon go belly up. To make things even worse, some far-sighted outfits that got ready to roll with 40 channels are finding that their new models won’t pass the tougher FCC standards. Worse yet, the millions of existing CBers are not showing much enthusiasm for the new channels.
For the sane individual who intends to use CB mostly for highway travel and occasional ’round-town chatting, the extra-channel radios don’t offer all that much. Basically you can use only Channel 19 for the road, one or two other channels where the neighborhood buddies already tend to congregate, and the “emergency” Channel 9 for calling in air strikes against the escaping bank robbers of your CB dreams. Most likely, the new channels will become the exclusive domain of the hard-core hobbyists who sit at their base stations until all hours of the night, bottle in one hand and power mike in the other, talking absolute gibberish and arranging duels. The fact is, all the new frequencies aren’t new, just newly legal. For months now they’ve been occupied by an increasing number of illegal operators using powerful ham radio equipment, and who—get this—are outraged at the presumption of the government in opening their personal channels to the public.
But a lot of the foregoing may become moot in the next couple of years. According to some spoilsport scientists, the new age of 40-channel CB will dawn just in time for a new epidemic of sunspots, which are expected to ionize all the gases in the old Kennelly-Heaviside layer (ionosphere to you greenhorns), cause eleven-meter signals to bounce all over the country and mess up CB communications generally. I was in Tennessee last summer, around Murfreesboro and Shelbyville, and one day the local CBers were getting all bent out of shape because a bunch of strange Mexicans were ratchet-jawing on Channel 9. As a former Navy radioman (1/c) and a retired Pharr, Texas, ham (W5AJR), I could identify the culprits as Venezuelan amateurs talking to friends. But ordinarily what you get when the “skip” comes in is just cacophony—like a thousand CB transmissions originating in Wisconsin or Alabama or the San Diego freeway and received in Texas, all at the same time. And the situation is supposed to get worse.
So you might figure it this way. If you get a good 23-channel unit now at a super-bargain price, you’ll have a year or two to play with it before the 40-channel action really gets going and the band suffers sunstroke. And by that time, your cute little CB radio will have been stolen anyway. Ten-four?