Quincy News

Former Quincyan writes book about citizens band radio's rise and fall

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 13, 2019 12:01 am Updated: Dec. 13, 2019 12:08 am

QUINCY -- Quincy native Tim Scherrer is doing his part to preserve and celebrate a piece of Americana.

The 1983 graduate of Quincy High School, who now works as dean of academics at Father Augustine Tolton Catholic High School in Columbia, Mo., has written a book about the citizens band radio.

The book, "Crashed the Gate Doing Ninety-Eight: The Citizens Band Radio and American Culture," tells how CB radio usage hit its peak popularity in the 1970s when the mobile radio systems ballooned from 1 million to more than 30 million units in just a few years.

In an interview, Scherrer said the rapid growth in CB use coincided with the release of the 1978 action film "Convoy" starring Kris Kristofferson, Ali MacGraw and Ernest Borgnine. The movie was based on the 1975 country-western song by the same name written by C.W. McCall.

Scherrer liked one familiar line from the song so much -- "Crashed the Gate Doing Ninety-Eight" -- that he adopted it as the title for his book.

Scherrer said he tried to illustrate how the sudden growth in CB radio usage became a cultural phenomenon in the 1970s and reflected "the different values that were occurring in the 1970s."

The language of CB radio quickly entered the cultural mainstream as people across the country started speaking in "10 codes," using such phrases as "10-4" to mean OK, or "10-20" to refer to one's location and "10-50" to indicate an accident.

Thanks to the growth of CB radio "slanguage," as Scherrer calls it, state troopers came to be known as "Smoky the Bear," people announced they would talk with each other again "on the flip-flop" when returning, and many radio users started adopting nicknames for themselves known as "handles."

Even the White House got in on the CB craze. During Gerald Ford's presidency from August 1974 to January 1977, his wife, Betty, became one of the best-known CB radio users. She adopted the handle "First Mama"while using a CB radio out on the campaign trail, Scherrer said. Mrs. Ford even hosted the first and only White House conference on CB radio usage.

Scherrer said he initially researched and wrote about CB radios while studying for a master's degree in history at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. "I needed a topic for my thesis," he said. He figured CB radio's infiltration into the American way of life would make an interesting subject.

Scherrer conducted extensive research and eventually finished the thesis. Then years later he revisited the manuscript and decided to develop it into a full-fledged book, which came out earlier this year.

Scherrer filled the book with all kinds of stories about how CB radios grew in popularity, especially among truckers, farmers, business owners and others who liked the communication possibilities that CBs offered in the era before cellphones came on the scene.

"Eventually they worked their way into cars, and that's where the use really exploded," he said. "This was the first social media platform."

Scherrer told how skyrocketing fuel prices resulting from an Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s led to a major trucker strike in the United States. Truckers across the nation blocked portions of the interstate highway system through a coordinated effort that relied heavily on the use of CB radios.

"The main story was about the truckers' strike, but then there was also a lot of attention given to CB radios, which was the communication method they used to make the strike happen. So that raised the awareness of CB radios quite a bit," Scherrer said.

The CB craze eventually cooled off. But while usage today is down considerably, Scherrer said, many people still use CBs.

"I think they're mostly used by the same people who used them back in the '70s -- truckers, farmers, hobbyists and people who just like CB radio," he said.

Scherrer, who has lived in Columbia for the past 19 years, spent 281/2 years in the Army Reserve before he retired in 2015 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He's been working for the past six years at Tolton High School -- a school named for Augustine Tolton who, like Scherrer, is a former Quincy resident. Tolton went on to become America's first black priest and is now being considered for sainthood in the Catholic church.

Copies of Scherrer's book are available through the Amazon and Lulu websites.