Ham Radio vs. CB Radio      

The endless debate rages on. 


As long as I've been involved with my radio hobby, I have been aware of a mutual rivalry, or just good old fashioned animosity between the users of the Citizen's Band radio service, and the Amateur radio service.  Lately, thanks to the internet and the proliferation of chat groups, forums, and USENET newsgroups which puts users from both radio groups in direct confrontation, this debate seems to be raging on with a ferocity and intensity which seems much stronger than in years past.  The underlying reasons for this "debate" seem to revolve primarily upon the (mis?)perceptions of the intrinsic values displayed by the opposing side. To anyone not directly involved with either side or who (like me) are straddling the fence between both services, this debate seems senseless and counterproductive. To look at the rules and the intent for the two services, there is little in common, other than the use of two-way radios, that these two services shared, at least in the beginning.  So, knowing this, an apples to apples comparison seems fruitless (bad pun, sorry!) and there should be no reason for such competitive animosity.  Yet, the rivalry remains nonetheless.  Much of this has to do with how the two services evolved (devolved?) over time.  But to try to make heads or tails of this, we have to start somewhere.  So I'll start with a look at the two services as they once were, and what they grew to be.

Amateur or Ham Radio was created primarily to be a service which promotes and encourages the honing of technical and operational radio skills in order that our country would have a pool of qualified radio operators, which could be depended on in an emergency.  Secondarily, it was created as a "sandbox" to experiment on cutting edge communications technology and techniques, and to promote good will and the free exchange of technical knowledge among other Hams throughout the world.  In between honing communications skills and building the next radio project, hams were known to chit-chat among others, usually in a technical nature, or engaging in the pursuit of DX communicating as a competitively challenging activity.  Membership in the fraternity of ham radio required that the applicant demonstrate basic skills in technical theory, certain radio principles, a working knowledge of FCC operating rules, and a proficiency in Morse Code. The greater the depth of knowledge, the higher the class of license you could earn, with correspondingly greater operating privileges.  Since some amount of effort was required to earn the license, Hams tend to look at this as a source of pride in accomplishment, and treat their privileges with respect.  Because of their technical prowess, hams are allowed to construct their own radio equipment and are directly responsible for conformity to the FCC's technical standards.   Since they are well aware that their license is a privilege which can be taken away for misuse, they tend to pay greater attention to the FCC's operating rules.  Operators were also "self policing", in that hams kept each other honest, through informal "suggestions", peer pressure, and volunteer Official Observer notices. Those who didn't "tow the line" could face ostracism at the hands of their peers.

Citizens Band radio was originally created as a means for the average citizen to be able to communicate with members of their families or to conduct personal business. A license was originally required, although no test was required to obtain it.  Any U.S. citizen over the age of 18 qualified for a CB radio license. The license could be extended to cover the licensee's immediate family or business associates.  But as the CB service grew, it was discovered that CB radio was a great social outlet.  What began as sporadic relaxed causal conversations between the different local licensed stations after the day's work was done, evolved into a hobby of its own.  Many people were attracted to CB as a means of socializing over the air.  Since the service was not technical in nature, the cross section of users more closely resembled "common folks", and the range of topics discussed were wide ranging and diverse.  Sometimes, it was like a party atmosphere, where all sorts of nonsense and lighthearted antics would commence.  Like hams, many CB'ers also discovered and enjoyed the pursuit of DX although, unlike ham radio, talking over 150 miles was specifically against the rules for the service.  Without the rigid peer structure of discipline that hams had, CB operators often strayed from the letter of the law, with regard to FCC rules.  In fact, most of the loose and fast operating styles of a growing number of CB'ers were in violation of one FCC rule or another.   Since no technical knowledge was required to be a CB operator, the responsibility for technical conformity was designed into the equipment.  Consequently, CB radios were much more limited in capability than ham radios.  They were designed to be used by common citizens, for short range contacts, and could not generate an improper signal as long that they were not modified.  Since no test or real effort had to be taken in order to obtain a CB license, it was not something which was as respected, and consequently, there was less concern for potential FCC action.  This general disregard for FCC rules is likely what first attracted the negative ire of ham radio operators. 

So what are the major "beefs"? Well, as I see it, if you peal away the corollary layers which surround the controversy, the basic points of contention revolve around the following simple premises:

Many Hams see CB'ers as little more than a bunch lawless radio anarchists, with little or no respect for operating rules. They lack proper discipline and respect for their fellow radio operators, neighbors, or operators in other radio services. Anything goes, no matter how outrageous or illegal, in the name of "fun".

Many CB'ers see hams as a bunch of up-tight, overly strict, condescending, "parental-like" authoritarian radio nerds, who are wound up way too tightly, and who have no business involving themselves in the affairs of a service that they are not directly a part of.

So there you have it, simple and straightforward. And there is a good bit of truth in both of those statements.

Beyond this, there are all sorts of related corollaries and issues, but these two points are pretty much the core of the debate.

Personally, I have seen the prejudice from both sides. I was a CB radio op for about 11 years longer than I was a ham. As a CB'er I occasionally had to deal with derogatory comments, preconceived notions, and little condescending guffaws from hams once they were made aware of my "hobby". To their credit, some of them tried to actively recruit me into the ranks of ham radio.  But many others simply wrote me off as "another one of those lawless Chicken Banders".  Funny thing though, they never seemed to have any problem taking my money when I wanted to buy a piece of radio gear from them.  To be fair though, I was somewhat deserving of their criticism, as I did break a number of FCC rules in the pursuit of my "fun".  But be that as it may, as a CB'er, being exposed to this type of "radio racism" (even if some of it may have been deserved), it was no wonder that my opinion of hams at the time was consequently not all that positive.  Plus, the "Morse Code filter" was in effect, as most of my friends and I had no interest at all in learning the code. The strict "by the book" nature of Ham radio just didn't seem to be as much fun to us at the time. The operators seemed way too serious all the time.   We, on the other hand, were way too lighthearted to take radio THAT seriously.  Compound this with the fact that there were very few teenagers on ham radio that we could find, and ham radio just wasn't that appealing.   So we were fighting a generation gap as well as radio prejudice.

On the other hand, since becoming a ham in the early 80's, I have witnessed some increasingly bad behavior on the part of a growing number of CB operators.  In fact, it was this gradual, but continual erosion of moral standards, lack of respect for other people, and the increase in the use of abrasive attitudes and obscene language on CB that finally pushed me into getting a ham license.  A bunch of former local CB'ers left the band en-masse and jumped to the 2 meter ham band where we could continue to enjoy somewhat peaceful conversations and lighthearted banter, without interference.  So now I find myself thinking about many of today's bunch of CB'ers in much the same way that the hams of yesterday thought of my friends and I when we were CB'ers.  Have I become a hypocrite, or have I just matured in my attitude?  Or is it simply that the threshold for what I consider to be offensive behavior, had finally been crossed? I look back at the fun and games that my friends and I played back in the 70's on CB radio.  Yes, we broke some of the FCC rules.  Yes, we weren't totally serious operators.  We were interested in radio theory, but we also had fun while we learned.  But we never used the kind of language that you hear all too commonly today.  We also respected other operators (at least most of the time).  So in all honesty, if I were to run across CB'ers who were engaged in the same activities that we were 30+ years ago, I'd have no problem with it.  In fact I'd probably join in.  This probably makes me guilty of practicing a form of moral relativism, which normally is not a philosophy that I subscribe to....

So is it really all relative? Where do you draw the line? Were the hams that I dealt with back some 30 years ago, prophetic enough to sense the slippery slope that would result when Pandora's box was opened, and CB stopped being a personal radio service with a set of rules, and became a de-facto, no-holds-barred hobby band? Is it true that once you allow a few infractions to go unpunished that it just encourages more of the same? Many CB'ers in the 70's had a very real fear of the FCC. Today, the average CB'er either doesn't think about the FCC at all, or laughs at them. You can thank the lack of any meaningful enforcement actions for that. But how can someone expect to support the notion that it's ok to break a few "small" rules, while railing against those who break the big ones, and not be considered hypocritical?

Hams also have a legitimate beef with CB'ers when it comes to PR and public perception.  Since the general public does not understand the difference between a CB'er and a ham, many of the TV and broadcast service interference issues, resulting from the rampant use of illegal CB power amplifiers and other spectrally dirty equipment, get blamed on hams as well, as both CB and Ham radio get lumped in the same barrel.  Many neighborhood and municipality transmitter antenna restrictions have been borne from the desire of these communities to enjoy interference-free broadcast services.  These restrictions usually do not differentiate between hams and CB'ers.  At least until hams mount some legal pressure to make those distinctions. But many hams do not have the financial resources to "fight city hall", and suffer a loss in the usefulness of their hobby, much of it thanks to the actions of illegal CB operators. 

But in all fairness, CB radio is not the only service showing a decline in operator quality.  Ham radio is also showing many cracks in its once sterling operator mantra.  Tune across the upper part of 75 meters on any given night, and you might think you were listening to CB channel 19.  It would be all too easy to lay most of the blame for this decline in the "seriousness" of the operators, and the expected strict adherence to operating rules, on the "dumbing down" of the licensing requirements and the large influx of former "undisciplined" CB operators, who allegedly came "flooding" into the service as a result and diluting the gene pool as it were.  But there is more to it than that.  Where most hams, once upon a time, were very technically inclined and many homebrewed at least some major pieces of their equipment,  by contrast, a great percentage of today's hams seem to be little more than "appliance operators".  Granted, the level of current technology has gone far beyond point-point hand wiring and simple discrete circuits.  In many cases, it is beyond the capability of even technically adept hams to build comparable equipment to what is offered up commercially.  But even so, I've overheard more than a few hams who can't even wire up their microphones, or who can't even make a simple dipole antenna.  That's certainly not a proud example of the ham radio of old.  But even these glorified appliance operators try to elevate themselves above comparable CB operators, simply by virtue of having passed the ham test. A test that's not nearly as tough as it once was.  Part of this may also be explained by a faction of the politically correct bunch which feels that a person's self esteem is more important than doing something meaningful in order to earn it.  In other words, an "entitlement" generation.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever totally straight up and simple. Another likely contributor to the decline in the "quality" of radio operators could be the decline of society's moral standards in general.  You can't turn on a TV, on any given night, without finding gratuitous sex, veiled deception, or violence.  Modern "musicians" extol the "virtues" of killing cops, or raping women.  Many people defend the "rights" of the purveyors of increasingly deviant lifestyles (while at the same time looking to expunge any signs of religious-based morality from the public eye), and indoctrinating our kids into accepting actions and behavior which should be (and would be 35+ years ago) considered morally offensive.  Our whole culture has become titillated with instant gratification, rampant hedonism, and a sort of live fast and die young attitude, as well as becoming more and more disillusioned with assuming any sort of individual social responsibility.  It stands to reason then that radio operators represent a cross section of society in general.  So whatever moral degradation has infected our society as a whole, would naturally permeate down to the radio hobbies themselves.  So if we keep lowering the bar, should it be no surprise that what we get becomes increasingly inferior?

Personally, I have had way more rib-splittin' fun on CB. This was probably due to several factors, not the least of which had to do with my age at the time, and the amount of discretionary free time that I had.  On the other hand, ham radio is much more reliable, and I can maintain semi-regular chats with old friends, over greater distances, without having to deal with jamming and interference.  There is also a much broader liberty with respect to experimenting with strange modes, and playing with cutting edge technology.  But I wouldn't want to give up either service, as each has its own unique charm.  I keep ham radio for "tech stuff" and CB radio for general fooling around.  But I see no real need to be fighting each other in some sort of ego battle of the services.  It would seem that those who become too preoccupied in the affairs of the other radio service, may be making a big deal of it in order to bolster sagging self-esteem or possibly hiding some internal guilt of their own...

Food for thought?