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Denizens of the citizens' band: how CB radio took off

Anyone with a license could broadcast on the citizens' band, and Canadians did -- some well before CB radio became a phenomenon in the 1970s.

'Messages, relays and chitchat' were catching on via personal broadcasts in the 1970s

Enthusiasts embraced the technology in 1969, well before the CB radio craze of the 1970s. 1:37

Anyone could be a radio personality 50 years ago. All it took was a licence and a CB radio. 

"Some use CB for business purposes, others as a hobby," said an unnamed CBC-TV reporter at a convention for early adopters of the technology 50 years ago, in April 1969.

With a CB, or citizens' band radio, a person at home, on a boat or in a car could receive voice communications from and send them to other users within range of their radios, which operated on a set of 19 channels, or frequencies, on the citizens' band. 

Not just anyone could listen

The CBers' "messages, relays and chitchat" could be heard filling "the night air across North America, unheard by the general public."

A CBC-TV correspondent conducted an interview via CB radio for this 1969 TV report. (CBC News/CBC Archives)

The convention, in the town of Mount Hope, Ont., outside Hamilton, attracted enthusiasts from other provinces and "several American states."

Canada had "more than 10,000 operators already on the air," said the reporter.

To demonstrate the technology, the reporter used his CB radio to conduct a conversation with another CB user, both in their respective cars. 

"CB is quite popular now in the Maritimes," said the user, who gave his handle as "Bill." 

He added that there were as many as 200 CB radios in any given fishing village, where the radios had become a "hobby interest" among users.

As more Canadians join the citizens band, Marketplace examines the new communications craze. 2:44

Marketplace was all ears

Seven and a half years later, the rest of North America had finally caught up to those early CB radio adopters.

In November 1976, Joan Watson of the CBC consumer affairs program Marketplace probed the CB radio trend.

The CB radio trend inspired at least one album of "song hits with a CB theme." It came on the heels of 1975's monster #1 hit Convoy by C.W. McCall. (Marketplace/CBC Archives)

By then the craze was supporting a Canadian CB radio manufacturer, multiple magazine titles, and at least one record album called All Ears with "10 new and original song hits with a CB theme." 

"We call it the new party line," said Watson, referring to the system in which a set of rural neighbours could talk over a single shared telephone line.

Watson said sales of CB radios had risen 300 per cent in 18 months.

"That's a $70-million market," she said as the camera panned over magazine titles and a T-shirt referencing CB slang ("What's your 20?" meant "where are you?").

More than 10,000 CB radios were selling every month, she added.

Watson's advice was to buy Canadian — not to be patriotic, but because a cheaper set sold in the United States wouldn't have the Department of Communications label that Canadians needed to acquire a CB radio licence.

Personal communications... for a price

"If I wanted to buy a set, how much money should I spend on it?" Watson asked distributor Norm Hawkins.

"You should start at the lower end of the scale," said Hawkins, "... with a set that retails in the $180 to $200 price range."

At the higher end, a CB radio could cost $400, or more than $1,700 in 2019 dollars.

CHUM news director Dick Smyth said an unknown amateur in Toronto was airing a daily 5 a.m. radio show via CB radio. (Marketplace/CBC Archives)

Hawkins added that the term "personal communications" was beginning to replace "CB radio."

CB radio had become so popular that even mainstream radio stations were looking nervously over their shoulders.

"People run talk shows," said Dick Smyth, news director with CHUM-FM. "I come in the office here at five o'clock in the morning, and there's a guy somewhere in the area of our station ... he does a talk show every day. He even gives 'Accu-Time.'

"He's a frustrated talk show host, obviously."

Traffic reporter Norma Friday said CB radio was useful for her job.

"At first I thought it sounded really silly," she told Watson. "But now it makes sense ... it's a short way of getting information."

She said it had taken her a while to get the hang of CB radio lingo.

"When there's a fender bender with an 18-wheeler and a roller skate, you know it's an accident between a tractor-trailer and a foreign sports car."