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Come On, First Mama: Betty Ford’s Influence on CB Radio During the 1976 Election

The 1976 race for the Presidential Republican nomination between President Gerald Ford and California Governor Ronald Reagan was close. Ford was the incumbent but had never been a part of a presidential election and Reagan and the conservative wing of the Republican Party saw Ford as vulnerable to loss in the general election.

The Republican ticket had been elected in 1972 was Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. By 1976, both men would be out of their respective offices for completely different reasons. Agnew resigned on October 10, 1973 amidst numerous corruption and bribery scandals from his time as the Governor of Maryland. President Nixon would appoint Ford as Vice President.

Somerset Daily American – December 31, 1973

Less than one year later, Gerald Ford would become the 38th President of the United States after Richard Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal and the horrible decisions he made after that. Ford would pardon Nixon right away, sparing the now-former President from any charges.

At the same time, a form of communication known as Citizen’s Band Radio was starting to become popular across the United States. Citizens Band (CB) radio was not new. In fact, the first licenses were issued in 1960. It took 16 years for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue one million licenses.

CB radios began gaining popularity among truckers during the oil crisis imposed in 1973. Fuel shortages and rationing hit everywhere across the country. To save on fuel, the U.S. government imposed a  55 mph speed limit nationwide. In 1974, it was used to organize convoys and truck blocks in a strike protesting the speed limit. CB radio became a useful tool in aiding drivers, especially truckers, in their search for service stations with a bigger fuel supply and make other drivers aware of speed traps.

By 1974, CB had started making its way to everyday folks looking for a fun new hobby. The entertainment industry began to take notice of this new trend. A TV show called “Movin’ On” debuted in September 1974 on NBC. The show as about a grizzled big-rig trucker and his college-educated cohort showed trucking in a favorable light and CBs were a big part of that world. At the end of 1975, a novelty song about trucking and CBs would rise to the top of the pop music charts and change the course of CB forever.

CB radio and politics would collide head-on in 1976. 16 million CB licenses would be issued by the FCC that year alone and the reach and scope of Citizen’s Band proved to be a useful tool in the search for more votes.

In early 1976. Betty Ford was dealing with a chronic arthritic neck ailment and had difficulty traveling. She did not begin campaigning for weeks. In February it was announced that she would hit be hitting the campaign trail. With her travel abilities somewhat limited, the First Lady sought to utilize CB radio to get her message across.

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The Indianapolis Star – April 6, 1976

On April 6, 1976, the Associated Press reported that the Federal Communications Commission that Mrs. Ford had been granted a temporary Citizen’s Band license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The First Lady almost immediately put her temporary license to work.  While campaigning the next day in Madison, Wisconsin, Betty used the CB to reach out to Ford supporters over the airwaves.

When a group of some 240 Ford backers from Grand Rapids, Michigan, the President’s home town found out that she was going to be in Madison they set off on a convoy down to convac with her.

She spoke to the group, and everyone else on that channel in limited CB language and said, “Keep on talking for President Ford. We appreciate your help in keeping the Ford’s 10-20 (location) at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

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Indiana Gazette – April 7, 1976

This was new territory for the FCC and the nation. No major political candidate to this point had used the airwaves like that for campaigning on a mass scale. Many cried fowl, saying that politics had no place on CB, but the FCC stated time and again that there were no restrictions and no rules governing politics on the airwaves.

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The Indianapolis Star – April 9, 1976

Mrs. Ford was now a major CB celebrity and brought a “legitimate” name to the hobby. CBers were excited about the exposure and were willing to greet her with open arms.

Two days after receiving her temporary license the First Lady would receive a welcome message from the biggest name in CB radio, country singer C.W. McCall.

McCall, real name Bill Fries, was seemingly everywhere at the beginning of 1976. His novelty hit song “Convoy” about the exploits of truckers/CBers Rubber Duck and Pig Pen. “Convoy” was the number one song in America for most of  January 1976 and was one of the major catalysts for the CB radio boom of the next few years.

McCall sent the following telegram to Mrs. Ford on April 9 welcoming her to the CB airwaves:

“Mercy sakes alive, a big ten four and congratulations to our First Lady on becoming a member of the convoy.  You definitely have got the front door. Hope you enjoy your new CB rig and will look forward to modulating with you somewhere out there on the super-slab 3’s and 8’s.
We catch you on the flip. We gone, bye-bye.”

McCall also told the First Lady that he would be sending her two radios.

The First Lady had celebrity, a radio and a platform but she still needed a handle. Handles were radio nicknames, akin to modern screen names, that were fun, playful and conveyed how you wanted other to perceive you.

After a week of going back and forth on the decision, Betty would ultimately choose the handle “First Mama.” The moniker was bestowed upon her by comedian Flip Wilson during one of their encounters. Mrs. Ford felt that with that handle you still knew who she was and it wasn’t completely literal or dull.

Other handles being bandied about:

  • Mrs. America
  • Wonder Woman
  • D.C. Dancer
  • Steady Betty
  • Not a Lincoln
  • Queen Bee
  • Ready Betty
  • The First Lady
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Dixon Evening-Telegraph – April 13, 1976

However, it wasn’t all smooth, First Mama’s temporary license sparked some pretty strong outrage among CBers.  The FCC field offices were flooded with complaints after the First Lady’s quick license turnaround. It usually took about 70 days for the FCC to process a license due to the sheer volume of requests and it was perceived that the First Lady was granted a favor.

The FCC stated that emergency licenses had been granted in the past, and with Mrs. Ford’s special campaigning circumstances, time was of the essence and a temporary license was granted immediately.

Instead of trying to explain itself further, the FCC immediately announced plans to make instant temporary licenses for CB operators. Users would receive a 60 day license when they bought a radio and they would be able to get on the airwaves after the they filled out their application and put it in the mail. The FCC said that the plan had been in the works long before the complaints, but few bought that.

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Asbury Park Press – April 21, 1976

Armed with her new handle and license (call number KUY-9532), Mrs. Ford was out campaigning for her husband in the the Texas Primary that was taking place on May 1st.

On April 21, 1976, Mrs. Ford visited San Antonio, Texas to and hit the airwaves right away.

Using a portable CB unit with s in her car for the first time, First Mama spoke to anyone “with their ears on” tuned into CB Channel 12.

“There’s a lot of smokies on my front door,” she said, referring the police escort she was receiving from the airport.

First Mama would end up speaking with at least two operators that day. The CBers had the handles “Starship Enterprise” and “Peg Leg Charlie.”

After some polite conversation with the CBers, First Mama signed off the air as her motorcade arrived at the airport.

“This is the First Mama. KUY9532. Catch ya on the flip.”

On her next stop in Houston, Ford reached out to the local REACT unit. Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams or REACT was formed in 1962 during the early days of CB. The purpose of REACT was having CBers monitoring Channel 9, the CB emergency channel, around the clock for distress calls and to alert the proper authorities. Later, REACT would aid in storm spotting, disaster relief and civic events such and fun-runs or parades. Ford spent an hour in person with REACT group and got on the airways. First Mama had instantly become the most important CBer.

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The Brownsville Herald – April 22, 1976

Gerald Ford would ultimately lose the Texas Primary to Reagan but that did not deter him or Betty from continuing on the campaign trail. First Mama would get on her radio at every stop on the campaign trail.

However, whenever Mrs. Ford was in town, the already incredibly jammed channels would become more jammed with people hoping to speak with the First Lady. The 23 channels on CB were no longer enough. Ford would help spark the change to expand to 40 channels at the start of 1977.

Speaking with First Mama over the air wasn’t much in terms of conversation, but the enthusiasm of CBers that got the opportunity to speak with the First Lady could be felt all over the country.

Ford would send letters to people she spoke to over the radio over the next . People from Washington, D.C:

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El Paso Herald Post – August 16, 1976

to Nampa, Idaho,

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Idaho Free Press – May 29, 1976

and Salina, Kansas.

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The Salina Journal – August 10, 1976

There are numerous stories of people receiving letters from the first lady. Communicating with CBers after your encounter was part of CBing. However, letter writing was not as common as QSLing.

It was customary for a CBer, when they spoke to another over the air, to exchange street addresses so they could send each other a QSL Card. QSL cards started with amateur radio operators.  The “Q” came from the old HAM radio Q codes and the “SL” basically means acknowledgment received. The purpose of QSLing was almost the same as a souvenir from every state you’ve visited -it was to show off all of your radio exploits.

QSL cards were generally about the size of a postcard and would feature your handle, address, and a picture or illustration. Some users drew the cards by hand, others ordered stock art from a company called CBC radio out of North Carolina. Many more hired professional artists to design QSL cards for them.

By 1976, the nature of QSL cards had shifted. While,still used as souvenirs of radio interaction, the cards were also being collected similarly to baseball cards. To many it no longer mattered if you spoke over the radio to the person the cards was all that mattered.

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First Mama’s QSL card #393 by Brushstroke (from my collection)

In the Summer of 1976, First Mama would commission her first QSL card from an artist who went by the handle of Brushstroke. Brushstroke was probably the most popular QSL artist on the East Coast. Known for his caricature style artwork, his cards were sought after by QSL card collectors.

I have done serious research on QSL cards and artists of the era but have yet to find the real name and origin of Brushstroke. 

Ford’s cards would be swapped among collectors and collector clubs to the point that it is not easy to tell if First Mama ever actually exchanged QSL cards or if she had them commissioned and shipped out by others.

By the end of the Summer of 1976, Ford would no longer just use the CBs in her cars, she would have a base station installed in the White House. The unit would be the only CB ever installed in the White House.

The Cincinnati Enquirer – September 10, 1976

Ford kept multiple CB slang dictionaries by her radio and she would always sign off with: “Ten-four, good buddies, catch you on the flip.”

As the campaign began to wind down in the Fall of 1976, Betty Ford crisscrossed the nation in hopes of helping her husband be (re)elected.

St. Louis Post Dispatch – October 2, 1976

At almost every stop along the way her CB use became the topic of conversation. She would be invited to join numerous REACT teams and would be made an honorary member of numerous CB groups.

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Betty Ford used her CB constantly in hopes that it would help her husband win in November. It didn’t work.Gerald Ford would lose the 1976 to Jimmy Carter in a fairly tight race. That didn’t mean her efforts were in vain. Her enthusiasm sparked awareness of problems emerging with CBs – slowness in licenses and crowded channels. Her radio use sparked numerous people to become CBers on their own and put a face on the craze that swept the nation until it all came crashing down.But that’s a story for a different day.

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