Citizens band (CB) radios are alive and well, thank you very much. And while video may have killed the radio star, and DVDs killed the videotape, cell phones and high-powered walkie-talkies haven't hurt the CB market.
Make all the Dukes of Hazzard jokes you want. Chances are every one of the truckers you pass on Interstate 90 has two or more CBs in the cab -- one to use, one as a backup. They're that important, even for drivers who now have cell phones, laptops and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.
"I use one all the time in the truck, and I always keep one in the bunk for a spare," said Jeff Beleznay, a 22-year truck driving veteran who lives in Roanoke, Va. "Too many times that CB has saved my life or saved me from getting into an accident."
He's not alone, by far. Tune to Channel 19 -- as always, the place for highway chatter -- and you'll hear the constant comments from the big-rig drivers.
"They're the standard for communication for the truck driver," said Tony Mirabelli, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Cobra Electronics Corp., the world's largest maker of CB radios. "Cellular phones and the newer media . . . has had little or no effect on CB sales over the years," he said. "It's been a very constant category for us. We sell thousands of them every month."
Indeed, CB manufacturers including Cobra, Uniden, Galaxy, Ranger and others haven't relegated the radios to the discount shelf. While you can spend less than $50 for a low-end model, you can drop close to $200 on the Galaxy DX959 or Cobra 200 GTL DX. And that's before you buy an antenna and get it tuned.
CBs as we know them have been around since 1958, but they became famous in the 1970s thanks to movies such as "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Convoy." (The popularity of Bo and Luke Duke didn't hurt, either.)
Drivers today use them for the same reasons as drivers then: keeping track of road conditions and even crime.
"It's a big safety issue with me, on the interstate especially," Beleznay said. "The average person in a car going down I-90 doesn't even know what's going on."
What's going on could be anything from an unmarked police car in the median to a major accident. Sometimes it's an annoyance, other times it's a danger. While zipping down a two-lane road a few years ago, Beleznay got a shout from a coal truck driver headed the other way -- there was another truck stuck in the road around an upcoming curve.
"Sure enough, if I didn't have a CB radio I'd have been going the speed limit around that curve and whammed right into somebody," he said.
In cases where drivers show a more relaxed attitude toward the speed limit than the law prefers, CBs also come in handy.
"A CB is the best radar detector you have," said Steven Anders, an Arkansas driver passing through with a load of paper bound for Laredo, Texas. "We know where all the cops are."
They'll often know a long way in advance, in fact. "You'll know of a bear in the median somewhere at a certain mile marker," Beleznay said, and that's without breaking the law. (Virginia is the only state that bans radar detectors, although Washington, D.C., does too.)
And yes, CB slang is still out there -- cars are "four-wheelers," you might be asked to give your "20," and police are "bears." There's still no love lost between truckers and officers, either. Big rigs like Beleznay's make easy targets for the police.
"Three or four four-wheelers will blow by you at 75, 80 miles an hour," he groused. "But your radar detector won't go off till that bear gets a clear shot at you."
Most drivers keep a CB on for simple conversation, if only to while away the hours.
"The CB radio helps drivers stay awake at night," Beleznay said. "You get talking to guys in front of you, behind you, or a couple of miles away, and just that conversation is enough to keep you awake on those long hours of the night."
Most is the friendly banter you'd expect, mixed, not surprisingly, with complaints about everything from police and weather to who made the playoffs. Closer to the truck stops, though, it tends to get a little rougher around the edges.
Anders recalled two truckers who had been exchanging words over the airwaves, then they met at a truck stop to exchange punches. And of course, he said, "there's always guys looking for lot lizards." (That's slang for, shall we say, women of questionable morals.)
The conversation can quickly turn R-rated, or worse, when a female voice graces the airwaves. "Let your girlfriend say 'Hi' and see what happens," Anders suggested. "It's like a real bad Internet chat room."
In 2007 or 1974, boys will be boys.
CBs have stayed popular so long in large part because of what technology companies call an installed user base.
"Everybody knows that if you want information from a professional driver, just get on Channel 19," Mirabelli said.
Plus, when it comes to bang for the buck, it's hard to beat CBs. They provide longer range than low-power, family radio service (FRS) walkie-talkies, they don't require the license that more powerful radios do, and they have a great track record.
Over the years there have been tweaks to improve transmission, Mirabelli said, along with some minor changes such as illuminated displays and the ability to pull in the weather band. The bottom line, though, is that "40-channel CBs are not all that different today versus yesterday."
And while cell phones might be more common among drivers of four-wheelers, Beleznay doesn't see the end of the CB's reign. "A lot of people are getting wise to it. They're listening to the truck drivers, especially people who are driving on the weekends."
"They're not talking," he said, "but they're listening."