Breaker, breaker, take me home

Memory Lane

“Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June, in a Kenworth pulling logs.”

So went the first line of a popular song that swept the nation in the mid-1970s, rising to the No. 1 position on the Billboard country and pop charts in January 1976. Its author was an advertising man named Bill Fries, who worked out of Omaha office of the Bozell agency. While working on behalf of one of Bozell’s accounts, the Metz Baking Co., Fries had invented a fictional character – a drawling Iowa truck driver with a dog named Sloan – who rambled across the country, telling stories that ended up having something to do with bread. Television commercials featuring the driver-and-dog duo were a big hit; so much so that the Des Moines Register published in its TV listings the times when the spots would run.

Sensing he was onto something, Fries teamed up with a songwriter, Chip Davis, and in 1975 the pair, recording under the name of Fries’ fictional truck driver, C.W. McCall, captivated the nation with a song titled “Convoy.”

It was pure cornball country: Backed by a persistent shuffle rhythm, it told the story of a trucker enlisting fellow road-warriors on a high-speed journey to Chicago, with police in chase the entire way. “Convoy” is worth remembering not for any musical or artistic breakthrough but because of a gimmick it employed: a running commentary between the lyrics that was told over a citizen’s band radio. As such, the song goes down in history as the signature anthem of the CB radio craze. Its offhand references to such identifying CB slang as “breaker one-nine” and the term “smokies” (for police) were part of the lexicon that swept America during the heyday of the CB medium.

CB radios and a set of short-range frequencies they were assigned had been around in the U.S. since 1945, and were commonly used by plumbers, contractors and taxicab companies in the 1960s for dispatch purposes. But in the 1970s, something important happened: the radios got cheap. And as the radios got cheap, ordinary people started to get interested in them as a novel way to communicate with strangers and electronic passers-by. Truckers, in particular, embraced CB radio communication as an inexpensive, handy way to warn colleagues of lurking police officers and speed traps waiting just around the highway’s next bend.

Part of the broad market allure of the CB radio was its outlaw appeal; a sense that it permitted everyday citizens to communicate outside of the official channels of media. Armed with these alluring new devices that gave loft and range to their voices, people wasted no time in ignoring various regulations regarding antenna height and the use of assigned “call signs,” instead resorting to clever and memorable names, or “handles,” that preserved anonymity while supporting a certain roguish appeal to the medium.

If that sounds a bit like behavior associated with latter-day Internet chat rooms and instant-messaging services, it’s not just coincidental. Long before online dating was matching up would-be strangers, CB radios allowed a new sort of American voice to register across the airwaves: one that was less polished and more amateur, but somehow more exciting to millions of devotees, than the 6 o’clock news or prime time television.

There is no more cynical term to pervade the business of Big Media today than the unfortunate phrase, “user-generated content.” Its very construction presupposes that cinephiles who are uploading video clips to YouTube or garage bands that are dangling MP3s onto MySpace sites are merely the butt-ends of the media food chain, nebbishly messing with powerful communications tools that are really meant for the economic nourishment of more worthy souls – like Rupert Murdoch or Viacom. Much like the dark voodoo of describing real human beings as “consumers,” tagging the work of creators as user-generated content produces one of those “false maps” your semantics teacher warned you about in high school. In fact, the term “user-generated” has it backwards. It’s really “creator-generated” content, and it roams the new IP-laced pathways without regard for the rules and limitations of precursor media. The only things getting “used” are aging business models that presupposed audience captivity and closed networks.

In fact, the idea that “user-generated content” is something new is itself a falsehood. People have been taking advantage of publishing and authoring tools for a long time. The printing press comes to mind, for one thing, and in recent history, the CB radio provided significant evidence that ordinary people, given the tools to do so, would go to extraordinary lengths to be heard. Today’s media mavens, some of them anyway, seem to get that. Thirty-one years ago, so did Bill Fries.

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