Thirty years from now, will we recall a song that captures the significance of today’s technology? Will someone have penned a tune about the iPhone that is so vivid that it becomes a cultural touchstone?
That’s what happened in 1975, when “Convoy” became a No. 1 hit. The song popularized CB radio’s strange language, partially reborn today in the lingo used for text messaging.
Few gadgets have the cultural association, for better or worse, as CB radio has with the 1970s. Other examples from that era include Atari’s home version of “Pong” and the first Sony Walkman.
Those two gadgets are gone, though variations (Xbox and iPod) exist. Amazingly, CB radios still sell in an era of widespread wireless communication devices. They even look similar.
About 800,000 CB radios are sold in the U.S. each year. That’s a far cry from the 10 million iPods that Apple moves each quarter, but not a bad little number for a market most of us probably didn’t think existed anymore.
“It’s a large category for us,” said Sally Washlow, a vice president for Chicago’s Cobra Electronics, which has about 60 percent of the market. “But it is a niche category.”
Today, Cobra’s CB sales are increasing, albeit slightly, in what Washlow calls a “flat” category because the company adds new wrinkles to a technology that hasn’t changed in 40 years.
In July, Cobra introduced a model that features a Bluetooth wireless connection so truckers can integrate a mobile phone into the CB radio. Phone calls are routed through the CB radio, which can help truck drivers conform to hands-free driving laws, Washlow said. The 29 LTD BT sells for $189.
Still, why would someone need a CB radio? Wouldn’t a mobile phone with a Bluetooth earpiece suffice?
“It’s a very important communication tool for professional drivers,” Washlow said. “Everybody may have a cell phone, but they don’t know the number of the people next to them on the highway. With a CB radio, for example, I can talk to other drivers on the road to see what’s going on up ahead of me.”
For those who need a reminder (and those who are unfamiliar), “citizens’ band” is a short-distance radio frequency used for personal communications. It’s not a one-to-one communication device like a telephone; rather, it allows a community of users to chat on the same radio channel.
On the road, it allows truck drivers to talk to each other, and in the 1970s and ‘80s, drivers of station wagons and hatchbacks joined in on the fun. “I think of the CB radio as the original chat room,” Washlow said
I vividly recall road trips down to the “bikini state” (Florida) during those days, driving with friends’ parents where the CB radio was the preferred form of entertainment. (The other choice was Neil Diamond on the 8-track.)
We would chat with people, usually other kids who thought they were cool, saying things like, “Hey, good buddy. This is the Tiger (everyone needed a “handle”) wondering where the smokey bears (police) are hiding on I-seven-five (the freeway).”
Then someone named Big Al or Sloppy Joe would respond that “a bear in the air” (police helicopter) was nearby or that a “dozing smokey” (police in a stopped car) was by mile-marker 83.
C.W. McCall’s song, “Convoy,” immortalized the CB culture and its bizarre slang. Here’s how it starts:
“Ah, Breaker One-Nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck. You got a copy on me Pig-Pen? C’mon.
“Ah, yeah 10-4 Pig Pen, fer sure, fer sure. By golly it’s clean clear to Flag-Town, C’mon.”
Fer sure, fer sure, this kitschy song was catchy, but I think it hit No. 1 because most people were listening to figure out what the heck C.W. was saying.
Regardless, it seemed that everyone was buying CB radios in the wake of that song, leading to Burt Reynolds star turn in “Smokey and the Bandit” and a movie version of the “Convoy” song, directed by Oscar-nominated Sam Peckinpah. Yes, the ‘70s were strange.
CB radios can be bought at truck stops or online. Cobra’s new Bluetooth model is sold at RadioShack, but you may have to ask.
I stopped at a downtown outlet recently to look for CB radios. The clerk said he had the new one from Cobra in stock, but it was not on the shelf.
“Not too many people ask for them in Chicago,” he said, noting that he last sold a CB radio about seven months ago.
Maybe we just need a new song? 10-4, good buddy.
(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderoff AT tribune.com)