It was back in July that I got my amateur radio license, and I haven’t written much about it since. It’s about time I do.
I’ve been really enjoying it. I am now wishing I hadn’t put off getting into it for so many years. It’s a lot of fun and promises to be a lot of fun for a long time.
I am frequently asked, “What can you do with amateur radio?” Yes, you can talk to people all around the world, but of course you can do that with the Internet. Talking to people all around the world can be done with no infrastructure in between, so that’s a pretty neat feature, but not compelling to everyone.
I have realized that the question is poorly-framed. I had asked that question myself for a long time and only recently realized that I was asking the wrong question.
I think the better question would be, “What makes amateur radio fun and a good way to spend your time?”
One thing I’ve discovered is that the amateur radio community has an amazing sense of community. Hams, almost universally, seem to love helping out each other, whatever the task may be: setting up antennas, learning how to operate a radio, even fixing a flat tire. I’ve seen this directly, and heard about it from others, time and time again. There’s an excellent article out there by Nate Bargmann called Why I consider Amateur Radio an asset in my life that makes for good reading.
There is a lot of fun in amateur radio. It was quite exciting the first time I talked to someone out of state, realizing that the piece of wire in my trees, and 100W of transmitter power, were all it took to get a message 700 miles away. And even more exciting when I talked to a person in Kazakhstan the same way. No satellites, no phone lines, no undersea cables — just my antenna, his, and radio waves.
Then there’s the fun in talking to somewhat random people. It’s not completely random, as I’m only talking to people that have passed a test — there are about a million of us in the USA. (And for the long-distance HF communication, a more rigorous exam is required, so the number is probably less than that.) But when I call “CQ” — an invitation for anyone listening to reply — I never know who will reply. I’ve talked to a retired Canadian museum curator, a Mississippi farmer, a resident of Long Island, Russians participating in a contest, two Hawaiians participating in a different contest, and the list goes on. Some of these have been brief contacts lasting only seconds, while others have been conversations that stretch on towards an hour.
I liken amateur radio to buying my first iPod. I had never owned a portable MP3 player. I had always figured, “why bother? How often am I away from a computer or a CD player?” But once I got one, I realized how nice it was. It was convenient to just store my entire library on there and not have to try to sync it across multiple devices. It was convenient to not have to carry CDs with me in the car, and to listen to music at places I hadn’t tried to before. The same sort of thing applied to getting a Kindle, and to amateur radio. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be until I tried.
Some Memorable Moments
Towards the end of showing you some things that have been exciting, here are a few memorable moments from my ham radio experience so far.
Saturday night was one. I was tuning around listening to anybody to talk to. I heard some people calling CQ in heavy accents. I eventually realized that the All-Asia contest was going on, and figured out how to participate. I made my first voice-mode contact with people on a different continent — and it was with Kazakhstan! Within a few minutes, I also talked with three stations in Russia. I had not expected that.
I’ve made contact with several stations in the Indianapolis area, where I used to live. It was particularly fun to talk to W9IMS, located at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which operates around race times only. Again I discovered that station simply by tuning around on the band.
I took a 5W handheld radio with me to New York City during my trip there for Debconf. It was a lot of fun to talk to random New Yorkers while visiting, and they were all very interested in my impression of the city, what I’ve done so far, and what they thought I ought to do. Some offered specific tips (such as which train from Manhattan to Brooklyn offers a good view while elevated).
A local ham, W0BH, gave me some basic training on how to operate during amateur radio contests. During these contests, hams try to make contact with as many other hams in as many places as they can. I didn’t think this sounded like a lot of fun. Until I tried it. It was indeed a lot of fun, and interesting being occasionally that rare Kansas station that a bunch of people are trying to talk to at once.
One evening, we lost power. I tried calling the electric company, but there was no answer over there for some reason. We’re out in the country, and there are no neighbors visible that can inform us whether it’s a big problem that the power company probably knows about, or whether it’s localized to us.
So after wondering what to do for a minute, I thought I’d get on the radio and ask. (We own a backup generator for these situations.) Almost right away I heard from a person driving in his pickup. He told me he saw a widespread outage, and heard on his police scanner about other towns that were down for the same reason. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.