THE WALKIE TALKIE

By Bill Continelli, W2XOY

(INTRO) -- This is Bill Continelli, W2XOY, and I want to discuss a once popular radio which is now heading for extinction. ml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

I'll be back in a moment, here on "This Week in Amateur Radio".

If you were born between 1945 and 1960, you know what I'm talking about.  When you were a kid, you had that Christmas electronics "wish list".  It probably included:

>>>A tape recorder (usually a direct drive reel to reel unit)

>>>A pocket transistor AM radio

>>>A multiband AM--Marine Band--Shortwave radio

And, of course....

>>>A CB Walkie Talkie.

I was fortunate enough to receive all of the above by my 12th birthday.  Over the past 45 years, these items have evolved.  Cassettes replaced reel to reel and, in turn, were replaced by digital recorders.  AM only radios gave way to AM-FM pocket radios, and in some cases, just FM only, usually combined with a tape player.  The shortwave radio is still with us, and it's even pocket sized, with a digital tuner.

But the CB Walkie Talkie?

It's heading the way of the Dodo Bird.  And the end may be near.

When CB radio was created in September, 1958, transistors were still primitive and expensive.  As a result, the first Walkie Talkies that appeared circa 1960 were high priced.  A typical 1 channel, 100 mw transceiver cost $100.  That's $400 today, adjusted for inflation. 

The cheapest Walkie Talkie on the market in 1960 was from Heathkit.  Featuring 4 transistors and a super regenerative receiver, it cost $33---in kit form.  Early users were usually businesses, hunters, security companies, news reporters, and even small town police agencies.  The high prices kept the casual users and the kids away.

But two things happened.  First, transistors dropped in price, and second, Walkie Talkie production was moved overseas (where enslaved labor was paid 3 cents per hour).  Thus was born the affordable Walkie Talkie.

By the mid 1960's, Walkie Talkies were everywhere.  A general hierarchy was established among the numerous Walkie Talkie manufacturers.  At the $15 level, you got a 1 channel, 100 mw, 4 transistor unit with super regenerative receive.  The range was maybe 1 or 2 city blocks, and you could hear everyone on all 23 channels.  For $30, you got a 9 transistor, 100 mw, 1 channel radio. 

At the $40 level, you still had only 100 mw, but you now had 10 transistors, 3 channels, an RF amplifier, and a squelch control.

Above the $40 level, you were past the Part 15 unlicensed radios.  $50 gave you 1 watt and 3 channels.  $60 presented you with 2 watts, and $70 gave you a 3 watt, 3 channel Walkie Talkie.  At $90, you were in the big leagues, 5 watts, 6 channels, and jacks for external power and antennas.  Finally, $130 or so gave you the full 5 watts plus 23 channels.

Multiply these prices by three to get today's equivalent cost.

Smart kids bypassed the super regenerative toys and went directly to the 100 mw, 3 channel unit as their entry into the land of 2 way radio.  The range on these Walkie Talkies was actually good--at least 2/3 of a mile (1 kilometer) unit to unit in the city, and 2 or more miles in the country, or when talking to a base or mobile unit.  I lived on the west side of Buffalo, NY in the 60's, and I could regularly talk up to 3/4 of a mile to another 100 mw unit, more than 2 miles to a 5 watt mobile, and 3 miles to a base station, with just 100 mw.  That's because these Walkie Talkies, although only 100 mw, had a 50" antenna, and a metal case that provided a good "ground" through our bodies.

Walkie Talkies were sold everywhere at that time.  All the department stores carried them, as well as neighborhood stores and pharmacies.  Every kid in a 5 block radius of my house was "on the air" almost every evening.  We did our homework, ran a running commentary while watching "Star Trek" or "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", joked about girls, and talked about our teachers nightly on Channel 10.

 

We had the channel to ourselves---the "Big Boys" were on other frequencies, and the kiddies were on channel 14.  We were too young to have CB coffee breaks, but we used our Walkie Talkies to coordinate meetings at the park, or the local hobby shop.  We didn't mind that our Walkie Talkies were 10 inches tall, weighed two pounds, and had a 50" antenna.  This was our internet, our chat room.

As for the range, my "world" was my neighborhood.  Everything --- the school, church, City Park, hobby store, a Radio Shack, and all my friends, were within 1 mile of my house.

In 1967, after saving my allowance for almost one year, I bought a 2 watt, 3 channel Walkie Talkie from Olson Electronics on sale for "only" $39 --- about $120 in today's dollars.  My father had a CB call sign, KEL8691, and I slowly worked my way in with the "big boys".

A 3 watt, 3 channel Lafayette followed next year, a 5 watt, 6 channel Midland arrived in 1970, and finally, by the early 1970's, I had 5 watt, 23 channel Walkie Talkies from Midland, Lafayette, and Radio Shack.

When I became a ham, I discovered other uses for a CB Walkie Talkie.  For the price of a set of 10 meter crystals, and 15 minutes of realignment, I had a 10 meter rig.  A few of us set up a local 10 meter Walkie Talkie frequency (28.8 MHz) and had our own private channel. 

The Walkie Talkie market was healthy throughout the 70's.  Many people---who didn't want to become CB'ers---bought one or two radios for emergency or other use.  The late 70's brought a variation of the Walkie Talkie---the emergency CB Radio.  Basically a CB Walkie Talkie with a temporary magnet mount antenna, these radios sold by the millions.

The bubble began to burst in the late 70's.  The FCC authorized low power 100 mw units on 5 channels at 49 MHz.  This killed the Part 15, 100 mw, 27 MHz radios.  Then, in the early 80's, most manufacturers---except for Radio Shack---discontinued all the crystal controlled Walkie Talkies.  The collapse of CB radio as a fad also added to the decline in popularity of CB Walkie Talkies.

By 1996, Walkie Talkies were reeling from two more blows---the introduction of FRS radios, and the affordability of cell phones.  Walkie Talkies started to disappear from the stores, often at fire sale prices.  I picked up brand new, 40 channel Cobra and Midland units from K-Mart at $15 each.  Even Radio Shack was downsizing their Walkie Talkie inventory. 

In the summer of 2002, Radio Shack cleared out almost all of their stock of Walkie Talkies.  Their final crystal controlled model, a 2 watt, 3 channel unit, was $2.97.  You heard me right---$2.97.  I hit every Radio Shack in a 50 mile radius and picked up a dozen of them.  At many stores, the managers were so happy that they threw in all their stock of crystals FOR FREE!!! 

Think of it---I paid $2.97 to get what cost me $39 in 1967!!!

But times had changed.  I kept six of the Walkie Talkies for myself, and gave away the other six. 

But people didn't seem to want them. 

One good friend, who shall remain nameless (Pete in Buffalo), is an avid railfan, along with his son.  They often separate while rail fanning, so I thought a pair of Walkie Talkies would be a Godsend.  His reaction was lukewarm.  I found out from a mutual friend that he hated the radios.  They were too big, they used too many "AA" batteries, and the telescoping antenna is too long. 

He and his son use the Walkie Talkie feature on their Nextel cell phones.  And the really sad thing is.....Pete was one of the boys who shared channel 10 with me over 40 years ago.

Today, Midland has two CB Walkie Talkies on the market, and Cobra has two.  Radio Shack has one Walkie Talkie in their on line catalogue, but it's not stocked in the local stores.  In fact, I haven't seen a CB Walkie Talkie ANYWHERE in a local store.  In a year or two, they will quietly disappear from the market.  No one will be there to mourn.

But there is still e-bay, with an almost inexhaustible supply of "classic" CB Walkie Talkies.  And there is my basement, where over 50 CB Walkie Talkies from the past 45 years reside in a sort of museum. 

And, once in a while, I tune to channel 10 and see if anyone wants to talk about The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  

I'm still waiting for a reply.

This is Bill Continelli, W2XOY, for "This Week In Amateur Radio".