The "Legend" of the F.C.C.
Most people like to play around at some time in their lives. We also like to occasionally push the envelope. Sometimes during our pursuit of recreational happiness, we do things which may break certain rules of society. I'm not talking about major crimes like murder or theft, but the little stuff, such as speeding. We usually don't do it out of malice, but rather from the perception that those rules are somehow "wrong", overly restrictive, or the justification that we are not harming anyone when we bend or break the seemingly trivial ordinances. With this in mind, it's no wonder that the people entrusted to uphold and enforce the law, are often viewed with contempt, fear, or viewed simply as "party poopers". These are the people who rain on our parades, or ruin an otherwise fun activity, when they cite us for being "bad" while trying to protect us from ourselves. When we were kids, and the police would regularly chase us off of the fields where we would ride our mini-bikes and go-carts, we knew that feeling. When we would get a ticket for driving 15 MPH over the speed limit, we know the feeling. In the CB radio world, the agency with the authority to enforce radio rules (and by doing so, became the de-facto "party pooper") was the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.). People who broke the CB rules by running more than the legal 4 watts, operated outside of the designated channels, or engaged in conduct which was contrary to the intent of the service, had to be wary of the F.C.C. and of the possibility that there may be a knock on their door someday.
Many of the people who are newly into CB radio today, have little knowledge of the much stricter rules and of the licensing requirements which used to be in place for the Citizen's Band Radio Service in the early days. In fact, CB radio was never intended to be a hobby at all (Click here for a brief history of the service), and the rules for the service specifically prohibited the kind of talking and activities which most of us hobby users regularly engaged in. The F.C.C. was given the thankless job of enforcing those rules and thereby being the bane of our CB radio existence. In the beginning, when most people dutifully used their assigned call letters, the F.C.C. only needed to monitor a particular channel, and when they observed a rule infraction, they would simply send out Notices of Apparent Liability (NAL) as required based on the offending station's call sign identifier. It didn't take long for people to figure out that if they were going to regularly ignore certain rules, they needed to stop using their call signs, to minimize the chance of getting easily cited for small infractions. And that's when the use of "handles" started. This then made the F.C.C.'s job a whole lot tougher. On the one hand, if the F.C.C. had to physically track an offender, the list of potential violations and fines would go up. On the other hand though, because the F.C.C. would now have to physically track an offending station's signal, which took a fair amount of resources as well as time to accomplish, they usually wouldn't go through the effort unless repeated major infractions were occurring. As the popularity of the CB band grew, it became very difficult to effectively manage the job of enforcement with their limited resources and budget. The F.C.C. was then forced to prioritize and, as a result, they would not waste their time on such small issues such as failure to identify, or talking for longer than the mandated 5 minutes, unless they were also investigating more serious issues as well. Those more serious issues usually revolved around running high power (Which usually resulted in interference claims), or operating on channels which were not authorized. In all likelihood, if you didn't have many high profile "power stations" in your area, or if the people kept their freebanding to a fairly low profile, the chances are that the F.C.C. would not be visiting your area all that frequently.
Despite the statistical improbability that the F.C.C. would actually visit your area, the perception of the F.C.C., and their rumored shadowy enforcement operations, was the type of material that urban legends were made of. Even the simplest enforcement action story was easy to spin into sinister conspiracy theories, which then worked to perpetuate an overall sense of rampant paranoia. Since there were normally no public announcement of their presence, rumors of the F.C.C. being "in town" were very hard to either confirm or deny with 100% certainty. It was that small chance that the rumors were true, which used to drive the paranoia throughout the channels in the early days of CB radio. For a while, it would seem that every other month the word was spread around the band that "Uncle Charlie", or "The Candy Man" , as the F.C.C. was known as back then, was in town. And for a little while afterward, the amplifiers would be left off, people refrained from using Channel 22A or other non-assigned channels, and some went as far as to operate totally "legally", going even as far as using their assigned call letters. Yet, when it was all said and done and we all stood down from "Red Alert", none of the locals could recall anyone who they knew personally, or had any first hand knowledge of, who was ever "busted" by the feds. I'm thinking that many of these "FCC-in-town" rumors may have actually been started by rival channel groups who were tired of getting bleed over and interference from the "power stations".
Since no one could either confirm or deny the validity of the "FCC" rumors with any degree of certainty, these stories tended to grow legs of their own, which then gave rise to other loosely related stories which would find their way onto the channels. These stories were usually about a friend of someone's friend, who knew someone, who's brother was popped by the FCC. There were also people who tried to strike fear into the hearts of the naive and gullible, with their embellished stories of how the F.C.C. would raid the house of some unsuspecting CB'er, forcibly yank the antenna from their roof, take all their equipment, arrest the whole family, and then sell the women and children into slavery to pay the fine (Well, not quite). Others, most notably Steve, tried to earn some respect among their radio peers by telling grand tales of defiance in the face of the F.C.C.'s might. Steve once told a story of how he noticed an F.C.C. "van" sitting in front of his house, and how he fired up some large amount of power (which back then was maybe 500 watts), pointed his beam in their direction, and ceremoniously blew the radio right out of the van, in a grand shower of sparks reminiscent of the short circuit scenes depicted in some 1960's sci-fi shows. Others told stories of how they skillfully eluded the F.C.C. while being chased by them while they were running mobile. Then there was Dennis the Menace, who's paranoia of the F.C.C., combined with his naive gullibility, prompted him to do silly things like whisper to everyone over the air to not mention that his linear was on when he would hit the switch. Naturally, with the passage of time and with the accumulation of wisdom, stories like these became very easy to spot as extreme embellishment or just pure fiction. But back then, when people were far more impressionable, some of these stories were almost believable, as well as entertaining.
Throughout the many stories which were told, there were some "facts" which always seemed to stay constant or nearly so. According to the legends, the FCC almost always ran around in white vans adorned with numerous antennas, and sporting U.S. government license plates. In some stories, the vans were red or blue, some even displaying the "F.C.C." emblem on them. In still other versions, it was a white Ford sedan with roof antennas. The common element, in each case, were the numerous antennas which made the vehicle look like a porcupine, and very conspicuous. Of course the consistency of these supposed "facts", presented the opportunity for people to use this information to their advantage. I knew of at least one guy who bought a white van and put a bunch of antennas on it, just to scare the heck out of people. I even tried myself to capitalize on the "multiple antenna" angle to put the fear of God (or at least the federal government) into a rival group of CB'ers who were causing us interference. It actually worked for a day or two, before someone got wise to what I was doing.
With all of the frequent talk of "Uncle Charlie" being in town, you would think that at least a couple of people I knew (or knew of) would've gotten popped. But, to be honest, up until the early 80's, I never knew anyone personally who ever got busted. Some of my associates had even been known to run a few hundred watts and venture out of band on occasion. In the early 80's though, that would change as a small group of very malicious CB'ers, created such a ruckus with the locals, and caused enough interference, that they caught the F.C.C.'s eye and they brought their wrath to bear on these malcontents. It even made the local 6:00 news. Most of the people who were caught cried poor and had their fines reduced. A few of the guys lost equipment as well. Ironically, none of them were off the air for very long. A few were back within days. One continued right were he left off, even more bitter at having to pay the F.C.C..
Personally, the only dealings I ever had with the FCC (other than applying for my ham license), was once in the early 80's, when I got a letter in the mail from the F.C.C. notifying me that a TVI complaint had been filed against me. Not knowing what type of station I had, they requested my station call sign. Wisely, I gave them my newly acquired ham call sign, even though I knew the neighbor who complained (ironically, a former CB'er himself) and knew darn well that it was my CB station which was the cause of the interference. But the F.C.C. respects hams much more so than CB'ers, and once they found out that I was a licensed ham, they pretty much dropped the matter.
Today, it takes almost an act of God to get the F.C.C. to take any enforcement action on the CB band. Since they dropped the licensing requirement, and lost the revenue generated from it, they more or less "threw in the towel". So unless you're interfering with a government or municipal entity, or wiping out your whole block, it's unlikely that you will get the F.C.C.'s attention. With this in mind, it's no wonder that the band has become the societal cesspool that it has. If you keep a low profile and do not attract a lot of attention to yourself, you can pretty much get away with anything.
But there once was a time when the mere mention of those 3 magic letters would evoke fear from the local CB crowd........