William Hogan and David Titlow discuss the golden age of CB radio and their new book Eyeball Cards: The Art Of British CB Radio Culture with Deputy Editor Emily Bick
From the late 1970s to the early 80s, Citizens Band, or CB radio was at its height, as enthusiasts would broadcast from rigs set up in cars or garages across the UK. Listening in, you’d find a stew of gossip, traffic warnings, lorry drivers’ advice and anarchic conversation. The quasi-legal nature of CB broadcasting –it was legal to own a set, but illegal to broadcast until 1981—created a culture of ‘breakers’ who went by secretive handles and used coded slang to indicate their locations and evade the police. Lexicons of CB slang can be found all over the internet, but much less is known about the eyeball cards that devoted breakers would exchange on CB meet-ups.
William Hogan and David Titlow’s new book Eyeball Cards: The Art Of British CB Radio Culture collects several of these lost eyeball cards, and they range from the straightforward, cheaply printed card with a breaker’s name and location to extravagant and fantastical illustrations, lewd cartoons, and downright bizarre secret identities. They are a precursor to online avatars, and a window into a lost corner of DIY graphics and visual culture. Hogan and Titlow discuss this history with The Wire Deputy Editor Emily Bick.
How did you first find out about eyeball cards, and were you involved with CB culture yourselves?
William Hogan: The school playground was the first encounter with eyeball cards for me. I remember some older kids arguing over how valuable a ‘Nutbreaker’ was over a ‘Prawnball’. I was intrigued – it made a difference from people wrestling over Panini stickers of Ipswich Town FC’s John Wark or the genius-named Alan Brazil.
Somehow, a few days later, my sister gave me a handful of ‘Red Arrow’ eyeball cards in four different colours. I then realised there were many cards in a multitude of formats. I guess it added to the intrigue before I’d even got in front of CB rig, or tentatively mumbled the word ‘breaker’.
David Titlow: I first discovered eyeball cards properly when I stumbled across two photo albums stuffed full of them at a Scout hall jumble sale in Leiston, Suffolk – my hometown. I was immediately drawn to their amazing potential, and knew they just had to become a photo project.
I actually knew a lot of the breakers in these albums and originally had lofty plans to photograph great swathes of them alongside their eyeball cards – this proved to be rather optimistic because by the time I finally embarked on the project most of them were deceased or to cagey/old to want to get involved. Enter my old Suffolk neighbour, Will Hogan, a few years later to kick the whole project up the backside, and back into life again with some top research work and much enthusiastic encouragement.
WH: As far as CB radio experiences go, I used to walk ‘up the drift’ which is a gravelly pathway up to my friend’s shed where his dad had installed a CB rig. It was only meters away from where David and I were once neighbours. I wasn’t allowed to even tweak a dial for the first visits, as I was told it was extremely valuable and took ages to set up. This guy’s dad was a real electronic tinkerer – who I think were the main users, or what we now call ‘early-adopters’. There was quite a lot of improvisation with gadgets with his family. As well as affixing a CB Radio to his son’s bike, powered by a car battery from his slowly decomposing Datsun Cherry, he’d installed a set of air horns which played the Colonel Bogey tune save for the last note, which had me in peals of laughter.
This was 1981 in Sizewell in Suffolk, so exciting things were more of an abstract concept at the time. I definitely remember being amazed as we heard a mix of French breakers (being on the coast of one side of the channel) and the foreign-sounding lexicon of the breaker drifting on the airwaves. As the CB phenomenon waned, shortly after legalisation, the scene began to die too. And with that, access to CB rigs, and the breakers themselves.
How did 'breakers' coordinate their meetups to exchange cards? How did they recognise each other?
WH: The CB rig was the obvious choice. There was word of mouth off the airwaves too of course. When starting off attending meets, most breakers’ clubs were local and then they’d be talk of more national meets. Apparently, some local papers were another source too – occasionally putting a coded notice in classifieds. To the uninitiated it would have looked like a dodgy personal ad.
They needed the local events to power the bigger ones in cities. Depending on atmospheric conditions and the size of the ‘twig’ (aerial), and what frequency CBers were using, their network and radio coverage wouldn’t consistently stretch to national distances, so these little gatherings came into their own. In Colchester and Cheltenham, breaker events could be 200-400 strong, so police – functional users of CB radio themselves –would always give them a nod to meet up.
Recognising each other would have been a case of asking around at first, but also badges. David sourced some amazing eyeball badges that were used for meets. We mention it in the book that there were many love matches between breakers. Despite being a male dominated pursuit, female breakers were many. I heard that a lot on my travels to CB users today that relationships established on CBs led to marriages (some of which still going strong). There are a lot of couples’ cards too. Coral & Concho, Texas T & Calamity Jane, Globe Trotter & Cockney Sparrow…
DT: They also used their rigs to pinpoint a meeting spot, coordinating it that way. I guess most of them all actually knew each other pretty well by sight anyway! It would only start getting complicated when it involved meeting breakers from other counties or further flung parts of the globe – it wouldn’t actually be very wise to try and identify them by the description on some of the cards!
What are your favourite cards in the book, and what makes them appealing?
WH: I’ve mentioned in past that I like ‘Bounty Bar’ due to its graphic quality and DIY style, simple illustrative lines and an 80s advertising-influenced daftness. But of course, I love them all. There’s an unbelievable amount of artistry, craft, and typographic (and probably inadvertent) genius to some of them.
That’s not forgetting the names – revealing, self-effacing, self-aggrandising, even self-destructive handles. I would have loved to have met Seafarer Splinters for example, or Mutley & Miss Piggy. There’s also a lot of club-handed and downright bawdy creations too like Bitter Lemon, and the ‘nudge nudge’ shape of Kodak Lady.
Ones that trigger the thought – "What on earth is going on with that person’s psyche?’ are the most appealing to me I think. If pushed, Garibaldi is a peculiar mix and one that ticks the abstract box distinctively. Supermog & Coconut has some nod to a soul music posters’ typography and… I just don’t know. I could go on; they’re all charming in their own right.
DT: My fave cards are the pastel-coloured thin cardboard budget Xeroxed cards – especially the Desert Fox and Cheeseburger ones. These two would look incredible when enlarged to about 6ft wide, and wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary art gallery.
How did you track down these collections--and how did you find the broadcasters that you interview in the book?
WH: Fortunately, as a jumping-off point, we knew some of the Suffolk breakers from way back. What sparked the whole project was David’s initial idea and work on it. However, as David will tell you, a lot of enjoyable but significant legwork has gone into it – by its very nature, CB radio is anonymous, as are the handles that mask the breakers, and codify the activity.
DT: With great difficulty. Every internet site, car boot site you can think of, classifieds etc., searching actual car boot sales, charity stores, hassling radio forums, friends and friends of friends. Every time we got a good lead it usually fizzled out, which was obviously very frustrating! But we’re hoping the book will flush out some participants for an upcoming exhibition. I’m personally always looking for these cards now – it’s incredibly exciting (and incredibly hard) to find them.
How secret were breakers' identities, especially in the early days when CB broadcasting was illegal in the UK? Was anyone ever outed?
WH: There was a very exciting edge to it all. It shows in the sheer volumes of people doing it and the rapid demise after it became legal. Your 20 meant your location, so of course, when someone asked ‘What’s your twenty?’, it would always be a rough idea of where you were broadcasting from. All places had nicknames too – just to add another layer of mystery to it. In smaller areas, the breakers would have put two and two together, and after a while known who was behind the handle, but to the outside world, no.
If there were busts, everyone would know about it and warnings would be shared so others wouldn’t get caught. The police were on CB radio, but it was not their job to enforce fines and clamp down on users. That responsibility fell with the Post Office and the DTI – the Department of Trade and Industry. It was more akin to not having a TV license with fines and confiscation of equipment being the main punishment. It wasn’t unheard of for a high wattage signal to disrupt TV and radio reception, so non-CBers would report them in those cases.
In the book, you talk about an unwritten set of rules-–including that no music was to be broadcast on the CB channels–why was music out of bounds?
DT: I’m not sure exactly. I guess it was purely a medium for chat. If you wanted music you put the radio on as it would be pretty annoying if you were looking for gossip and local CB action to be met with someone practising to be a DJ.
WH: Invariably, there was the odd person who’d crank up a few 45s. David knew someone in a nearby village who’d occasionally have an hour playing music – Jazz, mainly. But then that was let slide because he was old and out in the sticks.
What were some of the other 'unwritten rules'? And how was civility policed?
WH: I was talking to Dart Player and he mentioned that a breaker (who shall remain nameless even omitting her handle) had an aerial and a wattage so large, it cut over all electronic equipment – from other CBs to TVs for five miles. One breaker was so annoyed, after weeks of trying to persuade her to lower the wattage and her refusing, he drove round to her house and cut the cable while she was out.
In theory, there’s nothing to stop anyone saying anything, listening in or hogging the airwaves, but it somehow basically self-regulated. With meets and avid users, respect was shared and in some cases enforced themselves. There was also the functional element – it was also a work tool, by farmers and truckers etc. so when important messages about roads or breakdowns with CBers needing assistance, then there was a general respect for it as a given.
DT: I agree, but it’s also hard to say definitively, but I doubt anyone would have grassed anyone up – that would have been super bad CB etiquette. Swearing was frowned upon I seem to remember and I’m pretty sure any lewd stuff would have been out of bounds.
Some of the cards are quite crude – was there a seedy side to CB culture?
WH: There are hints of that in some of the card groups certainly. We’re looking at an entirely free-for-all medium. Invariably, there will be talk and imagery (in the case of the cards) around sex. We have to remember this is the late 70s/early 80s, where casual misogyny emanated from every TV set in the land. A few of the seaside cards we found definitely have an overt seedy side. Blue Eyes and Angel J are almost blatant calling cards, and Pinto has depicted a huge cock on a horse! That’s just plain odd.
DT: I think the cards were more Carry On Camping rude, rather than Velvet Underground rude. More like British saucy seaside postcard style humour – very early 80s and of its time I guess. I don’t think the scene was particularly seedy. As Will mentioned earlier, some breakers met their future wives and husbands through the power of CB.
Can you explain a bit more about the 'hunt the broadcaster' games. This sounds like something from the days of pirate radio.
DT: These games were called ‘foxhunting’ and involved triangulation of signals in cars. I believe Will can explain better as Fruitcake explained it to him.
WH: Yeah, it was using signal meters that monitor how strongly a broadcast is transmitting. One person would drive in their CB-fitted car and three others with signal meters would be able to locate them by triangulating their position. Apparently, it was loads of fun with the ‘fox’ sending out a broadcast every 10-15 mins. It was people having a laugh in their cars essentially, trying to create a game with this new technology.
Finally, what do you miss most about this lost world?
DT: Most definitely the beautiful cards! They’re pure folk/outsider art – I love them. Such fantastic ephemera from a time before cell phones and the internet.
WH: I agree about the cards. People forget that CBing was so popular – I heard that CB radios were in the top ten of the most-purchased Christmas presents in1981. The bits and pieces we’ve collected are a paean to a more innocent time I think. There is also a spontaneous camaraderie and an ‘on-air personae’ that we probably won’t find ever again in mass media.
The chat, the style, and the attitude was straight out of Dukes Of Hazzard in rural areas – somehow British CBers connected with that and made it their own. I think it was the early eighties feeling of optimism in the face of economic uncertainty, a ‘what the hell’ DIY reaction. You can see that in the cards – a mix of materials and styles and the effort to just make things for themselves, especially their imagined identities and their qualities that they may not have been able to emulate in real life. Let’s not forget that it was essentially a bit of fun.
These days, everything is heavily curated, censored or simply too self-conscious. You were free to express yourself on air and on your card. Anyone could create an alter-ego that existed only in the temporal, and not the ‘eternal’ digital footprint that exists today.
Eyeball Cards: The Art Of British CB Radio Culture, Hbk 192pp, is published by Four Corners Books