Classic Base Station Antennas      

They were all around 30+ years ago, where'd they all go?  



CB radio has changed and evolved quite a bit over the last 46+ years that it's been around.  Radios used to be simple, with not a lot of "creature-comfort" bells and whistles.  As time went on, market demands and technological innovation have allowed our radios to become smaller, while performing better, and with many more features to boot.  Another side benefit of these technological advances is that the cost of manufacture dropped dramatically.  In the early 70's, a good SSB radio could cost close to $400.  By the late 80's a radio with the same capability (and 40 channels) cost less than $200. 

While advances in manufacturing and technology have allowed radios to evolve, it seems the opposite has occurred on the other end of the coax cable, namely the antenna.  Back in the 70's, there were all different makes and models of omni-directional antennas, along with all sorts of slick advertising claims to make them look even more attractive to the technically challenged CB'er. The most common antenna design was a derivative of the 5/8 wave ground plane style, with names like the Hy-Gain "CLR-2" and "Penetrator", Radio Shack's "Colinear", Avanti's Sigma 5/8ths, and the Hustler "Jam Ram" and "Trumpet".  There were also similar entries from Lafayette, Antenna Specialists, Mosley and others.  Most of these antennas were of similar physical construction.  They had a vertical radiator, and 3 or 4 horizontal radials.  Then there were the oddballs, like the Avanti "Astro Plane" and "Sigma 4", the A/S Starduster, and the Cushcraft "Ringo".  These antennas differed a bit in physical design from the typical ground plane design, and most promised an edge in that all-important gain figure.  

In order to differentiate themselves from their competitors, many manufacturers used small "gimmicks" to increase gain, reduce static noise, or otherwise alter performance. This resulted in a great many different antennas that one could buy.  Radio Shack was typical in their presentation of "Good", "Better", and "Best" in their offerings. The price, naturally, increased with each step up in performance.  But even the most expensive 5/8th wave ground plane did not exceed around $60, and most were comfortably in the $30 - $50 range.  They also had another thing in common, they were pretty much all made from aluminum tubing.  As CB radio's popularity exploded in the late 70's there were almost as many different antennas as there were radios.  It was a wonderful time, where each manufacturer was busy experimenting with innovative designs to win the gain (or gimmick) wars. The result was a wide variety of choices for us.

Fast forward to today. The CB radio service is barely an empty shell of what it once was in terms of sheer popularity.  Even so, there are still a bunch of radio manufacturers who continue to evolve their radio offerings (Often in violation of FCC regulations).  Prices have fallen to the point where you can get a decent 40 channel SSB base rig for $150, and an "Export" rig for not much more. The same cannot be said for antennas though. Where there were once literally dozens of different makes and models, today, the typical CB base antenna today is pretty much limited to 1/2 wave or 5/8th wave fiberglass "stick" style antennas, with no radials, and with a price tag which starts in the $70 range and goes up from there.  If you look long and hard, you can find imported "copies" of once-popular aluminum antennas, but they are made of thinner tubing, and usually cost more than $100.  So what the heck happened?  Where did all the high performance "metal monsters" from yesteryear go, and why are those that are here so darned expensive?

Most of us who have been around CB radio for any length of time, have heard the rumors of metal antennas being forced off the market due to legal issues over electrocutions.  Yes, it seems that when CB was in its heyday, there were many folks who tried putting up antennas in close proximity to overhead power lines (Darwin Award candidates), who managed to hit the wires and electrocute themselves.  I've been to a few antenna raising parties back then, and many times the beer would flow before the job was completely done, so I can picture accidents happening.  I still shake my head in amazement over the lack of common sense that some people displayed for not knowing not to put up an antenna near power lines.  A funny thing though, while the channels were alive in the typical "rumor mode" where all sorts of unsubstantiated claims were put forth, I saw no "official" notice of impending antenna restrictions.  Indeed, I felt that the person putting up the antenna bore full responsibility for any accident that would happen, and that the manufacturers should not be held liable for misuse of their products.  Regardless, by the mid 80's, pretty much all of the once-popular American made metal antennas were gone, and all that were left were some unimaginative fiberglass "sticks".  Back in the late 80's we didn't have access to the internet yet, and there was no easy way to confirm the validity of the rumor mill.  But today there is little that you cannot find out on-line.  So I decided to dig into the infamous "antenna rumor" to find out the real scoop.  What I found was interesting.  It would seem that, for once, a CB rumor turned out to be pretty much true.  It turns out that this was all the work of the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.  The issue first came to their attention in the mid 70's, with an alarming rise in electrocutions as a result of CB antenna installations.  In response, they enacted their first CB antenna regulation in 1978 which required labeling (Those little yellow "you could be killed!" stickers) to be placed, not only on the antennas themselves, but on metal masting used to support the antennas as well.  Evidently these steps were not effective enough and people were still turning themselves into life-sized hot-dog cookers, so in 1982 the CPSC enacted 16 CFR 1204 which called for omni-directional CB antennas to either be made of a material which would insulate the antenna from conducting electric current, or employing an blocking insulator which would isolate the antenna from the supporting mast.  Most manufacturers chose the insulated element route, since it was relatively easy to make an antenna out of fiberglass, which served to fit the letter of the law.  In any case, the regulations apply to any omni-directional CB antenna, either produced or imported into this country. There are still some imported metal antennas out there, but I guess they are treated the same as "export" radios.  They're frowned upon by the feds, but not much is done to limit their importation.  The question that remains is why manufacturers chose to limit their new designs to straight sticks only.  It would not be all that hard to make a full sized 5/8th wave ground plane, complete with the proper decoupling radials, out of fiberglass.  I guess that's a question which will not be answered any time soon.  The rule does not appear to apply to directional (beam) antennas.  But for some reason (perhaps due to a fear of lawsuits), there are not many companies making beam antennas for CB either.  The rule does leave one glaring loophole though. The rule specifically stipulates "CB" antennas.  There are no limitations to Amateur Radio or commercial antennas (Which are presumably installed by more competent people).  Since the 10 meter amateur band is just above CB, an antenna made (or simply advertised) for 10 meters could also be used for CB with just minor tuning.  In fact there are a few custom antenna makers selling products, that are clearly intended for CB, as "10 meter" antennas.  But be prepared to pay. These antennas are priced in the $250 range! Who would've thought that the day would come where the antenna would cost more than the radio.

In conclusion, I am unable to resist going into soap-box mode.  Here again is yet another example of liberal "big government" solutions adversely affecting our lives.  Yes, there are some incredibly stupid or careless people who managed to kill themselves.  But that's on them.   Life is inherently risky.  Has the government forgotten the term "Personal Responsibility"? Why should the manufacturers be held legally liable for the "oopses" of the end user, and the rest of us be denied superior products in the process? It's one thing to be on the lookout for truly defective products (The Ford Pinto), where the manufacturer is responsible for the defect.  But there's no way to truly control how an end user installs or operates an otherwise well-designed product.  To assume as much is dangerous thinking considering all the potentially lethal products we use on a daily basis.  The manufacturers of these products could be forced out of business, or be forced to pay so much in insurance to fight these responsibility deflecting lawsuits, that our cost of goods will significantly increase, if they could be held liable for all mishaps in the eyes of the law (Maybe that $250 for an antenna is understandable considering).  I just wish the government would stop trying to protect us from ourselves.  How else can we weed out the gene pool?

So if you're a classic CB radio enthusiast, and are looking for a classic base antenna to go with your vintage radio, your best bet may very well be to scan the rooftops for some long forgotten piece of radio history.   Make the owner an offer to take it down, and then clean it up and use it.  It's doubtful that you'll find much excitement on the new antenna market...