Photographer David Titlow and writer Will Hogan's new book, Eyeball Cards – The Art of British CB Radio Culture, takes the reader into the closeted world of citizen's band radio enthusiasts. The CB radio, initially popular with American truckers for sharing fuelling and route information, became a (technically illegal) subculture of its own when it came to Britain in the late 1970s – creating a sort of proto-social media decades before Zuckerberg started writing code.
Alongside portraits of CBers – or "breakers", as they're known in the community – the book boasts a stunning catalogue of the at times slick, at times lewd and at times utterly charming "Eyeball cards" that avid breakers made and exchanged with one another. We met up with a slightly hungover, post-book launch Hogan at Joe Café in Crystal Palace to talk about the project.
VICE: For those who haven't seen the book yet, talk me through CB radio. In my mind it's almost like some sort of analogue, pre-internet chat room. People with certain hardware talking anonymously to each other?
Will Hogan: Absolutely. It's also totally unmoderated, too! A modern incarnation of it is an app called CB Chat, which is quite possibly unearthing a tinderbox of mental illness in the populace, though there are some diehard CBers on there too. I guess it was, in a way, the analogue social media, yes.
And it kicked off with truckers in America? Sharing tips and so on?
Yeah, truckers in the 60s and 70s, dealing with strikes and fuel crises. They started adopting walkie-talkies and these radio devices to communicate about which stations or pumps had fuel, for example, or the fastest routes between A and B. There was that whole American scene, and it was part of rural culture; a lot of the actual CB radios have crazy Western names like Cobra or Colt. It's all very manly!
It found a use before mobile communication was widely available. There was even some quite fun, massively patronising literature at the time, along the lines of: "Imagine you are a woman! Stuck, far from anywhere!" But it was genuinely useful for people in remote areas to have this form of comms. They were used in the Toxteth riots to organise the rioting, too. I mean, they had all sorts of applications.
It was legal to own one in Britain, right?
Well, it was legal to own a CB radio here, but not to use one. A bit of a grey area. There was a period of hysteria about it in the UK, and some pretty funny old coverage you can see on YouTube. Its hard to tell how justified it all was. The frequencies that these CB radios operate on is a very narrow bandwidth – I won't go into the very technical side in case your eyeballs burst into flames with boredom – but there's about 40 channels on a CB.
Ham radio is different, and there are myriad channels you can use. With CB it's much more focused, usually working within a 10 to 15 mile radius… though depending on atmospheric conditions, the size of your aerial, you could get to France, even America sometimes. Anyway, the problem was that they claimed these CBs were operating on the same frequencies as pacemakers, emergency services, hospital equipment and so on. There were reports of people living near someone with a CB set up having radio dialogue with someone in Holland or something coming through a turned off radio set in their home.
So it was just chatter? Mates having a chinwag? It had moved on from sharing important information to being a long-range social club of sorts?
Yeah, it was a really close community. My friend up the road when I was young had a shed with a CB unit in it – I wasn't allowed to touch it; it was only for the older kids – and we used to hear these very adult chats. And the kids would try and imitate the grown-ups talking like Smoky and the Bandit. People saying stuff like, "I've just seen a bear in the air" – as in a police helicopter – and you would be like, "Nah – you haven't, mate."
It was a real community thing, though. There were "popular" channels among those… it's almost like 40 chat rooms, if you want to phrase it that way. So you can go in, listen in, then start a conversation and take it to a less frequented channel if you wanted to. "Meet you on 25," or whatever. It was illegal until 1981, and people loved that. The DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] were trying to bust you. They had a van with an aerial on the roof, like some cartoon. It was a bit like TV licensing and avoiding paying that… just toeing the edge of illegal. Enough to be fun.
But eventually it was legalised; they couldn't prove it was really interfering with anything. And of course, as soon as it became legal, interest dropped off. The old school CBers still operated on the illegal frequencies anyway, because legal ones were saturated.
And then, of course, there were these meet-ups, some of them a few hundred strong.
So this is where the eyeball cards come in? They organise a time and place, and word spreads, and they all meet up and exchange these "eyeball cards"?
Yeah. Well, you have QSL cards – for amateur radio, which is a global thing. Those are like address cards, almost. You can request them and people post them to you. With eyeball cards you actually had to meet that person and get their card. And they don't have your "address" or frequency on them. The QSL stuff was official – to get one you needed to be a qualified ham radio operator; there were exams and stuff.
So CB was a far more rough around the edges world?
Yeah – that's why it's so much more expressive as a sort of "everyman art" form. It's for everyone, and so accessible – only £70 for a rig, or whatever. And the eyeball cards were just your name and where you were from. They weren't a thing in America; there wasn't an eyeball card culture there. It's a British phenomenon. It's almost a visualisation of how Britian at that time translated that American "elbow out the window" macho trucker culture. It's like opening up an 80s British mind.
There seems to be a sort of code on the cards. Lots of numbers that come up again and again. Is there an informal CB language of sorts?
Good point. Those, of course, aren't frequencies, but are things like 10-10, which means "10-10, 'til we meet again," which means: we have met, I acknowledge you. 73s and 88s are like hugs and kisses, or "fond regards". [They were] brevity codes, a bit like Q code, or the Ten Code the police use. Then there's your "20", which is your location. So "Bexhill 20", for example. And then you move into the geographical areas, which all have their own weird esoteric names in CB world. Like, "Black Pudding City" is Bury, "The Big Sea" is Croydon, "Dead City" is Birmingham. Which is a bit cruel. "Dreamy Town" is Bedfordshire – maybe some weird cockney slang thing there.
If we can get onto the actual designs of these cards… they're quite lewd, bawdy at times. Some of it's a bit "Shagger 69" lad humour. Was this a male-dominated world? Was there a sexy side to it?
Well. There was a sexy side to it. But also a far larger and very innocent side. In America quite recently there was a case of truckers using CB radio to talk about "pavement princesses", and even prostitutes advertising on CB radio. But as for these British cards, I think it's more to do with late-70s, 80s humour. TV then was all a bit, "Oooh errr, missus, what are you doing? That's a big broom!" You know? Its more playing into that, I think – a sort of casual misogyny in popular humour. But there were female breakers, a lot of them. We spoke to many people who met their partners on air. And almost like an analogue Tinder or Grindr – there's a disconnect between the image people put out there and the reality.
How hard was it putting the book together?
It was David [Titlow]'s idea in the first place. We had tinkered as kids, then he found a load of old eyeball cards in our hometown in a Salvation Army shop or something about ten years ago. It came up again more recently and the project got started. It was really tricky. The CBers who are doing it now are quite a closed, diehard community. People were nervous about us. One guy we talked to was in an old people's home, and they had clubbed together to get him a CB radio.
And of course it is always tricky documenting something that is by its nature anonymous. People might be happy to talk, but when you say "and can we take your portrait?" that all changes. It was a lot of leg work, getting on forums built in the 90s, on actual CB asking around. I had to go to Mitcham! Only joking – I'm not from the most salubrious part of the world myself, but yeah – it was a lot of work, going to the outposts of Brexitland and talking to people. We got a few cards off eBay, but these days they are as rare as rocking horse shit.
'Eyeball Cards – The Art of British CB Radio Culture' is available to order now.
More on VICE: