That’s a big 10-4, CB radio is still worth talking about | Calhoun County

Citizens band radio is alive and kicking in Calhoun County and surrounding areas, thanks to a multitude of diehard radio enthusiasts chattering across the airwaves.

It’s not just about nostalgia for a certain old Burt Reynolds movie.

These enthusiasts include men such as Larry Dotson, aka “Bigfoot,” of Jacksonville. Dotson said recently he buys and sells the equipment the pastime requires and enjoys going to the regional events where CB radios are offered for sale.

For now, “Bigfoot” can be heard on channel 20 on the CB radio “dial,” where he holds a roundtable most days with other locals including Hogman, Radio Man, Little Panther, LC, Trainman, Sledgehammer, Poor Boy, Cobra, Cooter Brown, Stray Cat, Hard Times, 14-1, Grease Monkey and a host of other radio characters.

Dotson said he has talked to Hawaii and Jamaica in the past, and talks to Puerto Rico every other day.

“You catch conditions right, you can talk about anywhere you want to talk,” Dotson said.

The citizens band radio service had its beginnings way back in 1947 when the Federal Communication Commission assigned a handful of frequencies in the UHF range (460 Mhz), but the effort fizzled due to the high cost and unreliability of available equipment.

Amateur radio or “ham radio” already existed at the time, but was deemed too technical — simply overkill for the common citizen who only wanted to talk to family or business. It’s a licensed radio service that utilizes radio spectrum for the purpose of non-commercial exchanges, private recreation, contests and emergency communications. The maximum power allowed is 1,500 watts peak envelope power (PEP).

CB radio, on the other hand, is an unlicensed land mobile radio system allowing operators to have person-to-person communication on the assigned 40 channels. Transmitter power is limited to just four watts.

In 1958, the FCC tried again to establish a radio service and chose the familiar 27 Mhz band for the initial 23 channels. Also referred to as the 11-meter band, the frequencies were taken from a rarely used section of an amateur radio band. The initial 23 channels were limited to amplitude modulation (AM) and single sideband (SSB) for the radio operator to communicate with.

The 23 channels were also very susceptible to ionospheric conditions which resulted in long distance (DX) communications when the radio waves would “skip” off the various layers of the ionosphere. The FCC probably did not foresee the allure of CB radio operators talking DX — especially during the peak of the sun’s 11-year sunspot cycle, which increases propagation over long distances.

The FCC rules at the time set a 155-mile limit for CB communications, but due to “skip” a station could successfully communicate over many thousands of miles. It was not until 2017 that the FCC changed the rules and regulations to eliminate the 155-mile limit.

After the national speed limit was lowered to 55 mph in 1974, the radios were often used by truckers on channel 19 to warn one another of speed traps and to pass the time.

Much of the associated lingo used by the truckers made its way across all the channels, and the verbiage was adopted by most operators.

Terry Curvin, aka “Sledgehammer,” 62, from Alexandria, remembers those days. He said he is getting ready to retire and looks forward to spending more time on his radio.

Curvin recalled that during the heyday, local traffic on the radio was very busy, unlike what he hears today.

“Now, at 10 o’clock on Friday and Saturday nights, you don’t hear nobody. That’s what we used to do on Friday and Saturday night. I went all night Friday night till plum daylight,” he said.

“We used to have some good times,” Curvin said.

Good times got the big-screen treatment — indeed the entire hobby got a boost — in 1977 with the release of the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” which glorified the use of the two-way radios. TV shows such as “The Dukes of Hazzard” and popular songs of that era — including “Convoy” by CW McCall — celebrated the radio culture and sales took off.

According to an Associated Press article in 1978, CB radio celebrated its 20th birthday on “10-4” day on Oct. 4 of that year with a celebration on Capitol Hill in Washington. It even included a cake cutting.

More than 14 million CB licenses had been issued since 1958, and 30 million radios had been sold in 20 years.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who joined in by signing 10-4 day proclamations, noted the social aspects of CB radio — “friendships formed, monotony of tedious journey’s broken, communications established” — and its practical side — “emergency help and information, disasters averted and the citizenry kept informed.”

Channel 9 was and still is a local emergency channel and for traveler information.

Initially, the FCC licensed each CB radio station with a call sign, but once the CB craze hit the FCC gave up on licensing in 1982. After that, operators just used their self-assigned and colorful “handles,” or nicknames, to identify themselves on the air.

Due to technology and demographics, the numbers of CB operators in 2021 has plummeted from the glory days, but the channels are still active with truckers, hobbyists and folks in remote areas with spotty or no cell phone coverage.

‘Bigfoot’ of Jacksonville

In Jacksonville last Friday, Larry Dotson, aka “Bigfoot,” was talking skip.

“I just got through talking to California,” Dotson said as he reclined on his sofa.

Dotson was working the various controls on his stack of radios as a multitude of voices crackled over a speaker.

“You can sit and talk around the world,” said Dotson, who is also a licensed ham radio operator.

Dotson, 52, said he got interested in CB radios when he would junk cars, find the radios and hook them up.

Dotson, who drove a truck for 30 years, said he likes the radio to keep in touch with friends and family, and to hear where speed traps are located on the interstate.

Dotson acknowledges the number of operators has declined over the years.

“Most of the old ones have died off. You’ve got new people coming in. It ain’t like it was back then,” he said.

Dotson said the local CB community reaches out to the new operators.

“Like the young people that’s gettin’ in it, they need help getting set up, so we try to help them all we can,” he said.

Dotson said that every Friday night there is a local “swap shop” on channel 20 where CB’ers can buy, sell and swap equipment.

‘Sledgehammer’ of Alexandria

Terry Curvin, 62, from Alexandria calls himself “Sledgehammer.” He’s getting back into the hobby after a long hiatus — and he said things have changed a lot.

“Oh, it’s a whole different story now,” Curvin said last Friday. “All of the ones I knew back then were all dead and gone.”

Curvin said he was very active for about 20 years starting in the ’80s until a windstorm blew down his antenna.

“It used to be that on every channel, there was somebody talking all the time. It’s not like that now. Most of the ones that talk now are on channel 20, and you may pick up some on 15,” Curvin said.

Years ago, Curvin said he talked to Luke Jennings, who ran Starr’s restaurant in Anniston, and Jimmy Star, aka “Rod Burner” or “RB,” who worked at the Anniston Army Depot — both of whom have passed away.

Curvin said he installed tall antenna towers for his friends, including RB, who had a 75-foot tower with a Moonraker antenna at the top.

According to Curvin, RB and another local, Woodcutter, would aggravate each other frequently.

“Kasey” calls himself the “Alabama Trainman” and runs an electronics repair shop where locals bring their sick and broken CB radios for rehabilitation.

Kasey has a background in electronics, with an electronic engineering degree, and worked with the military for 32 years in the aerospace field, calibrating and repairing equipment.

Kasey said he got started in the hobby back in 1974.

“Back in the day, my father had a mobile system that he put in his 1969 Eldorado. It was a little Mini 23 offered by Radio Shack about the size of a cigarette package,” Kasey said. “We had one of those in there and we would talk to the truckers going up and down the interstate. And from there we went to getting a base station, and it just unfolded from there.”

Kasey said all the locals in his area had designated channels that they would hang out on, and things were quite active.

“Around 1977, when ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ came out, that’s when it accelerated. Everything was over the top, crazy crazy, everybody was on there. It was like the new cell phone craze but everybody had a CB radio,” Kasey said.

“It’s been up and down through the years, kinda like the sunspot cycles, but I think now that it’s picking up so much, it’s actually more active than it was back in the early ’70s,” he said.

Kasey said that he knows people who use CB radio for communications where cell phone coverage is spotty or nonexistent.

“Your CB radio can still make it through, so a lot of people depend on that for communications still,” Kasey said.

Inside Kasey’s shop, racks of equipment, including oscilloscopes, frequency generators, meters and other service gear, waits for the next radio.

“I’m ‘Alabama Trainman,’ and this here is the train station,” Kasey said.

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