Adventures with CB Radio: Bursary 2015, Diary 3

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Kelly Jones and Linda Sandvik are one of two teams we are supporting through the 2015 Writing Platform Bursary Programme, in association with Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Writer, Kelly, and technologist, Linda, applied to the programme as individuals and were paired by the selection panel because of their shared interests, complementary skill and their openness to collaborating with someone they had never met. 

Kelly’s and Linda’s project is inspired by Kelly’s parents meeting on illegal CB Radio and uses physical computing to explore the ideas of connection and intimacy, ephemerality and permanence. This is the second in a series of diary posts by Kelly and Linda documenting the evolution of their project and their collaboration. You can read their first diary post here

CB Radio Set UpSo what exactly is a CB radio? I had no idea until I met Kelly Jones for this project. Despite having actually watched Convoy, a terrible movie centered around the use of CB radios and trucker culture. I’ve not really done anything with radio before, I think maybe in school once they made us make Crystal radio apparatus for receiving radio during a WW2 project, but never for transmitting. My first impression is it seems a bit like a walkie talkie. You hold in a button to speak, then release. The difference being whereas a walkie talkie has a range about 2 miles, the CB radio can do 20 miles (or more, with mod-ed equipment). They also operate on different frequencies, walkie-talkies are usually paired with another device, a CB radio can talk to any other CB radio within range. People might bring a receiver with them on the move, but have a home base to broadcast from. It was very popular with truckers. Metallic frames of the cars and trucks make an excellent groundplane which improves the range of the antenna. Kelly let me borrow a car antenna to play around with. “Try putting a biscuit tin on the base to expand the range” suggested one helpful enthusiast on twitter. “And run a wire from the antenna to the base”.

I set up the radio on my desk in my bedroom and turned it on. I say “turned it on”. What I do is I stick two loose wires into the power pack. It turns on briefly but when I move one of the wires fall out. I tape it on. When turned on it immediately goes to channel 9. “Oh shit this is the emergency channel I shouldn’t be on here aaah” I think and flick to channel 4, where I get a lovely static. I’ve been talking to people on twitter about CB radios. One person tells me their father still uses it. When there are storms or earthquakes he listens out on the emergency channel in case anyone needs help. Some situations could occur when you don’t have a phone or internet. But probably a mobile phone is more reliable these days.

I talked to a few CB radio enthusiasts about the rise and fall of CB. Newer technologies replaced it. In some cases IRC (internet relay chat, actually created well before the height of CB). Some said IRC was less intrusive. There’s a log you can read if you’re not there at the time. If you’re busy you can catch up later. There are some things they missed though. The voices. The mystery of not knowing the real name. If it’s just text on a computer screen you can’t really know for sure if you’re talking to a human. Talking over CB radio is more Snapchat-like. You have to be there, in the moment. I like that.

Most of the people I talk to on twitter who still use CB radio are drivers or truckers or live in the countryside in the US and spend a lot of time driving, across their ranch for instance. They mostly talk to other drivers. I guess traveling can be lonely. Unlike cellphones, there are no laws against using a CB radio while you’re driving.  The only people I’ve managed to talk to so far from my bedroom setup have been truckers. There are more channels busy in the early morning than in the evening. It’s interesting and strange to talk to them because I am a cyclist in London and trucks are the enemy. It feels weird to listen in to their chatting. That’s something you can do by the way, just listen without saying anything. Sometimes you may want to let people know you are there just by clicking your button quickly, without saying a word.

A friend told me her aunt and uncle met on CB radio, like Kelly’s parents. It’s probably equivalent to “we met on the internet”. But you’re a bit more likely to meet someone who lives close to where you live. I like that too. We can reach the whole world now but we have forgotten how to talk to those physically close to us. I live in London so of course I don’t know my neighbours or talk to people in my neighbourhood. I talk to people on twitter instead.

A few people tried to encourage me to get a ham radio license. They used to do CB radio before ham radio took over. All the cool kids are using it. I’ve been at the London Hackspace when they’ve tried talking to the ISS. Yes, even the International Space Station has a ham radio.

So how do we preserve the rich history and culture of CB radio for the future? Will archaeologists of the distant future be able to make receivers that can pick up these radio waves that are still floating around? What will they think of us?

Kelly Jones is Winner of the Wales Drama Award 2014. Originally from the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, she has been living and working in Wales since 2007. Her plays are rooted in real human stories and often take inspiration from personal experiences, her upbringing in Dagenham and rooting in Wales. | @TheDrownedGirl

Linda Sandvik is a creative technologist and Knight-Mozilla fellow 2015. She likes making things with code and electronics, and is interested in civic tech, serious games and loves a good story. |@hyper_linda

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