Baiting Smokey is only the best-known use of CB radio. Now sportsmen are all over the air, too
March 29, 1976

On Friday evenings, the highways leading out of America's cities are clogged with urban buckaroos headed for the desert, the woods, the water, wherever they go to keep those concrete canyons at bay. In station wagons, Jeeps, Broncos, Blazers and pickups, towing snowmobiles, motorcycles, sailboats, ice-fishing shacks and house trailers, the great armies are on the move. And more and more, poking above the clouds of dust and heat waves of exhaust gas, are citizens' band radio antennas. It's an exodus in the age of McLuhan, with the airwaves, like the highways, clogged.

Created by the Federal Communications Commission in 1958, citizens' band radio was almost unnoticed until the 1973 fuel crisis and the establishment of a nationwide 55-mph speed limit. Then truckers, intent on gunning across America at 70, began using CB as a means of outwitting state police. In response, Massachusetts state troopers took to hiding radar equipment in hay trucks and hitchhikers' backpacks, and in Maryland a yellow Peterbilt truck with "ears" (a CB rig) is notorious as a cover for that state's policemen.

The FCC, which last year lowered CB licensing fees for five-year validations from $20 to $4, reports that some 10 million Americans are broadcasting big 10-4s (transmission shorthand for "I understand and agree") on the 23 CB frequencies and that it is now receiving more than 400,000 license applications a month at its Gettysburg, Pa. headquarters. Contributing to the boom is the new competitive price for CB rigs; once selling for around $200, they now can be had for as little as $60, and to accommodate the horde of purchasers, CB lobbyists are pushing a bill in Congress to expand the number of channels to 80. Unlike the older "ham" operator's certificate, a CB license does not require that the holder know Morse code or have any other knowledge of radio procedure. In fact, many CBers' techniques seem to have been gleaned from old Highway Patrol television shows, in which Broderick Crawford hung over the door of a cruiser, 10-4ing like a trooper, so to speak.

Generally unnoticed in the barrage of publicity about truckers using CB to foil the "Smokeys" (the code name for state and local police derived from the hats worn by many troopers) is the fact that CB has also been playing a fast-growing role in sports. Now employed by hunters, fishermen, golfers, cross-country runners and skiers, snowmobilers and birders, CB is changing some of those sports for the better but possibly creating conditions for irreparable harm in others.

The sports applications of CB generally stem from the same rationale that made it attractive to truckers: a means to quickly get specific, and not generally available, information. Even with a CB this can require some ingenuity. Take the Denver duck hunter, for instance, who quickly has learned that truckers have become rather clannish about speaking to mere cars ("4-wheelers") on CB. In an effort to find out if the weather is foul enough to assure good hunting—and out in the Rockies this is not an easy task, as the National Weather Service is reduced to playing mumblety-peg on the meteorological charts because of sudden changes over the mountains—he is now-imitating truckers ("18-wheelers") for on-the-spot weather info. "This is Meat Wagon outta Denver with a reefer on, can anyone give me a copy on 85 northbound? Come on." And the answer comes back 10-4, "This is Pressure Cooker, Meat Wagon, we got the front door up here, and it's clean and green all the way. Smokey must be sleeping. Put the pedal to the metal and keep the bear outta your hair. We got some ice in the pass, the 4-wheelers are sliding off. Catch you on the flip-flop. I'm gone."

Even though the argot can sound like Houston Mission Control getting its wires crossed with a Shake 'n Bake commercial, it's a sure piece of information to the duck hunter, who glides into a gas station to attach tire chains. Of course he's driving a modest station wagon and not an 18-wheeler, but thanks to his ear for trucker dialect he now has a reading on road conditions that will get him to his blind before dawn. In addition to the ice in the pass, he has also learned that there is no police activity on the highway, and he can "put the hammer down."

Skiers who also want that peculiar combination of inclement weather to make conditions right for their sport and yet need safe roads to get there depend heavily on CBs to find out that the prerecorded telephone message promising "16 inches of new powder doesn't also mean that eight-foot drifts on the roads have stopped the plows.

The safety factor for motorists and sportsmen equipped with CB radios is increased as well. From a flat tire to a broken axle, from merely establishing one's location in unfamiliar woods to being saved from death while injured or hopelessly lost, CB is fast becoming the answer. But perhaps CB's biggest contribution to automotive safety is far less dramatic and best summed up by the Chicago-based salesman who ventures onto the long Midwestern interstate highways for hours a day, where straight, monotonous driving can produce a dopey inattention to the road. "It keeps me alert," he says. "I used to listen to the radio all the time, but with all that "Top 40' stuff, where you hear the same dumb songs over and over, you can't have a real rapport with the radio. CB is great because you're always looking out for who's on the air, and the talk is about the road you're on and what's going on around you. It's amazing how many other peddlers I pick up on here. We talk about where we're going, which motels to stay away from. Things like that."

CB is useful off the road, too. In many of the country's primitive areas, summer camps and cottages are often beyond the reach of the telephone—which is part of their popularity—and CB provides the same extra safety margin for campers as it does for a motorist with a disabled car. Best of all, you can turn the thing off when you don't want to be bothered. But if you flip it on, someone almost certainly will be listening. And in most circumstances it will be someone close by, as the effective range for most CBs is between five and ten miles. It is this fact that probably accounted for the first recreational use of CB in any volume. Often just out of sight of other anglers, the owners of small boats fishing in coastal or Great Lakes waters who couldn't afford high-priced, high-powered marine VHF radio equipment took to CB like tuna after a school of baitfish.

"It's a great invention," says a bakery worker who, when the bluefish or striped bass are running, fishes from a 20-foot outboard in the unpredictable Atlantic off Long Island. "I've got a CB in the car, so if I'm driving home from work and hear of any activity out on the water, I can drive right to the boat. I can tell my wife I'm going because we have a base station at the house, and another rig on the boat helps me keep in touch with her, too. The best part is talking with the other guys out there that I know. We talk about where the schools are, if we've spotted any baitfish, that stuff. And it's a safety factor, too. Once I ran out of gas and was drifting around for a while but a call on the emergency channel got a guy to come over with a tank pretty quick." Because of the high number of false alarms and jumbled receptions, the Coast Guard does not automatically respond to a CB emergency call, and in emergencies boaters often have to rely on the concern and expertise of fellow CB owners.

There is also a problem in pinpointing the source of a CB signal, and on occasion it can be extreme. Certain atmospheric conditions can unpredictably "bounce" a CB signal immense distances. One fisherman from Brielle, N.J. vividly recalls the day he was discussing conditions over his CB when he was brought up short by the angler he was talking with enthusing over his recent luck with grouper, a fish of the tropics. After a few incredulous inquiries, the New Jersey angler finally became convinced that his CB talking partner was not pulling his leg—the other fisherman was at that moment over 1,200 miles away, broadcasting from a skiff in Biscayne Bay just south of Miami Beach, Fla.

A less serious hazard for the sportsman is that a lot of folks besides one's friends can listen in. Last fall a group of East Coast duck hunters, calling to friends on CB about a flock coming in, were surprised to find a dozen or so grinning gunners, Ithacas at the ready, surrounding their blind. Many sportsmen now resort to prearranged signals and codes to keep good information within their own party, and as much energy seems to go into devising—and breaking—codes as into hunting. For example, don't expect to tune in Florida Keys fishing guides, long known for efficient evasion of giving out free information, and expect a CB to provide a free ticket to a working bonefish flat. A guide's "We're down here south of Whatever Key, and it's dead," in all likelihood means he is somewhere north, and tied into a big tarpon.

In some cases, CB has changed the way of life in a whole town. In Greenville, Maine, pop. 1,894, 90% of the town's business is concerned with hunting, fishing, backpacking and canoeing, skiing and snowmobiling, cabins, camps and vacationing, and CB has become a major economic and social factor. Bill Muzzy, who speaks in a clam-chowder accent, is a contractor who builds roads to the cottages of summer residents and plows snow in the winter. He also owns a motel, rents his barn out for boat storage and generally wears as many hats as it takes to make a living. A confirmed outdoorsman, Muzzy admires CB radio and uses it almost every day.

"We carry CB walkie-talkies when we go snowmobiling," he says. "Of course, the engine noise and vibration makes it impossible to hear anything. So we shut down and call up our friends at prearranged times. It's a great safety factor, because there's lots of accidents and you can tell others to watch out for stumps or fences on a trail. We had a 'Mayday' call a year or so back. Everyone got all excited, but it was just a drunk who fell off his sled. All the same, he could have frozen to death about the time all that antifreeze in his blood dropped to a level where he'd have been sober."

Although game commissions in several states are trying to discourage "electronic hunting," the difficulties of enforcement are overwhelming. Like many states, Maine prohibits the "driving" of game. If even one hunter walks noisily through the woods, forcing a deer toward a waiting partner, he's in violation. CB has enabled hunters to challenge the law with impunity. "If I see a deer going toward my buddy," says Muzzy, "and I call him up and say there's one headed his way, I'm not breaking the law." But sometimes, as is often the case with more affluent sportsmen, new and unfamiliar equipment can get in the way. "Last Thanksgiving I was out deer hunting," Muzzy recalls, "and I stopped to call my partner to see if he'd had a shot. When I signed off, I looked up to see three deer walking away, just out of range. I nearly threw the damn radio away."

In British Columbia, a pair of hunters who pooh-poohed the use of CB on their moose hunt had a more unpleasant experience. Early in the day one had gotten a moose and the two had lugged it to their truck and strapped the carcass over the cab. The successful hunter snoozed in the truck while his companion went back out. At dusk he saw antlers and blazed away. He almost killed his partner. The antlers he had seen were the ones attached to the dead moose. Soon both hunters were in town, applying for CB licenses and shopping for walkie-talkies.

Not all outdoorsmen have safety in mind. In northwestern Missouri, coyote hunters have been known to surround a section of land with pickups and drive animals toward other trucks, coordinating the drive every step of the way with CBs. Not exactly the good and the clean and the brave, 10-4?

Up in Greenville the long-standing war between poachers and the Maine State Warden Service has been given a new twist by CB. In the Fisheries and Wildlife Department's kitchen on the shore of Moosehead Lake, wardens and cronies sit around a table, drinking coffee poured from a pail-sized pot, and discuss the situation. "What goes on isn't too much different than always, it's just that now the poachers are more efficient," says Glenn Perkins, a warden in his late 20s. "Most of them used to jacklight on foot [spot deer with flashlights to immobilize them], but since we've got two-way radios on the state police frequency, they stick to their cars for fast escapes, and shoot from the road when they see fur. Of course, they buy scanners to receive the police and our department's frequencies so they can monitor our movements. And, on purpose or not, every logging truck helps the poachers by sending back a warning when they see our cars heading into the woods. We're just another Smokey to the truckers. The state won't buy us CB sets so that we can monitor the poachers, and we don't make enough to buy them ourselves, so we don't know what they're up to." Perkins stares out at a snowmobile speeding across the lake ice. "It's not an insurmountable problem," he says, "but it's sure irritating. About the only friend we've got is the Indian Pond Poacher."

The "Poacher," the CB "handle" (code name) for a trapper who lives in an isolated camp 20 miles from Greenville and who claims to exist on a diet of roast beaver and possum fritters, is an eerie and sometimes irritating CBer. The wardens love him because his weekend transmissions take up so much air time on channel 11 (the channel reserved for setting up conversations on other channels) that real poachers have trouble getting through to each other. The Poacher spends most of his time talking to an imaginary state trooper. His elaborately plotted conversations, rife with international intrigue and sophistication, are the weekend entertainment for many CBing Greenvillians. "He ought to be writing some of those spy shows on TV," says Bill Muzzy. "He's real good."

One wonders after listening to hours of CB broadcasts if the Poacher is all that different from the usual run of CB freaks, who have been described by one fishing guide, who relies on CB partially for his living, as "the kind of people who drive Nash Ramblers." CB does seem to attract a strange breed and the airwaves have become burdened by enough meaningless chatter to sicken the most stalwart talkshow host. In the New York City area, for instance, one hears conversations about lost contact lenses, a man singing Rose of Washington Square, a grocery list in Spanish, a church service broadcast on AM radio over an open mike, and begins to think that there must be a frustrated disc jockey in all of us. Like the people who call up those radio public opinion shows, for a $100 investment anyone now can be on the air, night and day, holding a warm microphone to his lips, ready to foist private fantasy, opinion and crank ideas on the public with no need to ever face an audience. In the same way that pocket calculators are "unlearning" us how to multiply and divide, perhaps CB will have the effect of making us forget how to converse face to face.

Still, lots of sportsmen just plain don't like CB, claiming it's an unfair advantage. Carl Johnson, chairman of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission and an avid bear hunter, says, "It takes away from the wilderness setting to use CB radio. I like old-fashioned hunting." Perhaps the thing to do is give CB equipment to trout, bears and deer. It might be a more equal match of wits and instinct if one turned to Channel 19 and heard "That's a Big 10-4 on Fire-stick's 10-20 [location], Bambi Control. We've got our tails down and showing a frown. 3's and 8's [good luck and good-by] to you."

Certainly the folks who come to Greenville, Maine and towns like it across the nation are increasingly well equipped. Radio Shack, one of the biggest retailers of CB sets, has $100 million worth of gear on order this year, and in British Columbia officials are estimating that 75% of next fall's hunters will be radio-equipped.

American business is also gearing up in other ways to make the most use of the CB fad. While prohibited, subtly disguised ads luring listeners to motels, restaurants and campsites can occasionally be heard, and many recreational vehicle dealers are offering CB sets as sales incentives. Harold Wagner, President of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Campers and Hikers Association, says, "We've got 9,000 members, and I guess about one-third have CB. We use them to keep together on the highway, find places to stay and eat. I don't know if it's a trend, but many camp owners are putting in CB base units to talk campers right into their locations."

CB is even making inroads into organized sport. Take the cutthroat world of college football recruiting. Like several recruiters in the Southwest, Mike Pope of Texas Tech does a lot of driving and uses CB to get directions to prospects' houses in unfamiliar towns. "I've even talked with a few kids on CB," he says. "It gives me an early edge. There's an idea I've had, but I've never tried it. When you've got a high school player and you know other scouts will be in the area, and maybe they'll be asking for directions, too, you could send them off on a wild-goose chase."

Many Oklahoma University football players and coaches, with the notable exception of Head Coach Barry Switzer, installed CB in their cars and homes last year. Player "handles" ranged from "Terrible Twister" for Joe Washington to "Pass Catcher" for Tinker Owens. Assistant Coach Wendell Mosley (a black) was known as "Black Velvet." Oklahoma fans who caught on to the Sooner network called the players offering congratulations and advice and indulged in lengthy discussions about tactics.

Officiating is another area where CB is proving a boon. Sports such as golf, or cross-country running or skiing, where the distances involved make communications between officials difficult, have been greatly enhanced by more efficient decision-making and crowd control, and the increased safety factor is obvious. Even in events as brief as downhill skiing, injured racers are receiving quicker aid thanks to CB-equipped Ski Patrol members. And CB also has been called on in small-time sporting events. In Lubbock, Texas, Gene Harper, organizer of a yearly 4.6-mile Go-kart road race, stations 11 CB-equipped marshals at strategic points along the circuit to report accidents and track conditions. Because CB is inexpensive, kids racing in Lubbock can have the same protection that Formula I drivers get at Watkins Glen.

Inexpensive CB might be, but the sets still aren't free, and kids who used to steal hubcaps and then tape decks are now into lifting CBs from cars. The Kansas City Police Department recorded 1,480 stolen sets, valued at $264,760, between January and August of last year. With thefts on the rise, one might take a tip from the way a Kansas City man recovered his CB. When a radio repairman opened the stolen set he found a note tucked among the transistors: "If lost or stolen, please contact Emmitt L. Allen or police." The repairman did both—the man who brought the set in was released after it was learned he bought the rig at a swap-meet.

Not so lucky was Jackson County, Mo. Sheriff Kenneth Carnes, who bought a CB set for his wife's car, assuming it would make her feel safer on the highway. A few days later the rig was ripped out while the car was parked in the Kansas City municipal garage.

Because CB is under the jurisdiction of the FCC there are laws against its use by unlicensed operators, for improper procedure (such as conversational broadcasting on the emergency and contact channels, 9 and 11) and for using profanity on the air. The maximum penalty for operating without a license is $10,000 and two years in the federal slammer. Seattle FCC official Bob Dietch says, "We've levied some stiff fines, one for $2,000, and publicized them. We're not fooling around." But another FCC official admits that the task of effectively monitoring CB is beyond its grasp. With only three engineers scanning the dials in all six New England states, Gerard Sarno of the commission says, "We're still checking out complaints from January. That's how far behind we are. With that kind of manpower, you can't be serious."

While CB is in many ways proving to be a mixed blessing, there is at least one group for which it is an unequivocal bonus. Bill Bowman, a victim of muscular dystrophy, got a CB set two years ago. "I met more people the first year I was on CB than I had in the previous 10," he says. As avid a CBer as any trucker, Bowman equipped his electric wheelchair with a CB rig last year. And like many a motorist, when he got stuck in the mud one day he "put out a Mayday and it wasn't long before another fellow with a radio came along and pulled me out." That led him to become part of a CB club, the "No! No! Club," and like many other members of CB organizations, Bowman now helps monitor the emergency channel, often assisting lost motorists and occasionally saving a life. The club even put Bowman in contact with folks that put him on a bowling team.

"Sure, I like to listen to the hunters and the fishermen," says Charlie Sawyer up in Greenville. "Sometimes I think I'm out there myself." The operator of a local marina, Sawyer had a stroke last year but keeps in contact with lots of folks on CB. "Up here, CB is a little bit of safety and a little bit of loneliness, mixed with a lot of plain damn fun for us yokels."

Whatever else it is, CB radio has added to our language. There hasn't been such an explosion of home-brewed imagery since jazz went up the river from New Orleans, and for that we can be thankful. Certainly what you hear is better than the robot-talk of spaceflight, and maybe even better than the "zone defense-shotgun formation" jargon of football. We live in an age of media information, and finally the ordinary citizen can get in on the act. So don't be surprised next year, when standing on a favorite stream or walking to a favorite deer stand, to hear the roar of four-wheel drive and the distinctive, electronic call of "Breaker, breaker!" [I want to talk!] Just move over and give a big 10-4 to the new arrivals.