I don’t believe that Ham radio is the first thing to come to anyone’s mind when the when that particular pork product is mentioned. I think I know why as well.
First, “Ham” radio has a pretty crummy name, let’s face it. I mean that word “Ham.” I can’t think of why introducing yourself as a “Ham,” would do anyone any good, except possibly when addressing other “Hams.” The alternative is not much better, “Hello, I’m an amateur radio operator.” When it’s not the Olympics, the word “amateur” just reeks of “not professional” and “ kinda-sorta.” I don’t know which would drain the life out of a conversation faster, mentioning that you’re a Ham or that you work for the IRS.
Second, having tried desperately to get my kids interested in Ham radio, I know quite a bit about it’s lack of allure. It’s hard to master, a very expensive hobby and 10 minutes of listening to Hams talk over the radio about their latest visit to the chiropractor or what they had for lunch sends most would-be practitioners running.
Third, I have to admit at this point that a great deal of active amateur radio operators are the hobby’s own worst enemy. Because it is an expensive hobby, at least 85% of Hams are older men. Persnickety and prone to quoting regulations in almost any circumstance these operators are not the dashing, suave basis for dreams of youthful adventure. Rather than daring the tables of Montecarlo, svelte in their crisp white dinner jackets, they are more likely to be found in musty old basements clad in an ancient and stained terry cloth bathrobes sporting well ventilated underwear.
Yet even with these detractions it is often the Hams who are first to scenes of disaster. That’s because, although you can communicate farther, faster and much more easily with a cell phone, it only works when the local cell tower does. Accomplished operators regularly bounce their signals off the Moon to reach distant areas of Earth. Ham radio requires no infrastructure and still can reach thousands of miles. During hurricane Katrina when cell phones and the police radio system failed it was a rag tag bunch of hams from all over the country who stepped in to help coordinate the relief efforts.
We actually don’t hear much else about Ham radio, just the occasional operator who becomes instrumental in a rescue or contacting a stranded ship at sea. But did you know that Ham radio has it’s own very powerful lobby in Washington?
Most recently they have fought against the adoption of the use of certain systems that provide Internet access over power lines, and have had quite a bit to say on the subject of the proposed nationwide first responders system. Both of these are examples of the hidden efforts of Amateur radio to keep the FCC from selling off the entire radio spectrum to commercial ventures. Quietly, in the background, Hams wait like guerilla fighters to ambush those who would curtail their activities.
For instance, did you know that Hams are exempt from the “hands free only” rules while in the car in most states? Did you know that while a utility needs a plethora of permits and must withstand endless town meetings to put up a 30 foot pole or tower, just about any Ham can install a 100 foot antenna anytime they feel like it? While hams are held “responsible” for any interference their equipment may cause, the FCC is more likely to suggest that it’s the problem of those that are being interfered with. However, because of experience, power and utility companies move like lightning to resolve problems that Hams claim. That didn’t happen by magic. It took years of dedication from leagues of grumpy old men who would rather fight than quit.
It’s also because hams can legitimately claim “Emergency responder status.” That beer bellied individual that goes on and on endlessly about whatever subject least interests you at the moment, has all the equipment and the knowledge to provide communication when no one else can.
Llike a shadowy underground, Hams are everywhere. From the top of mount Everest to the deepest basement in Caracus, hams are tinkering and talking. They can talk to the astronauts on the space station as it passes over because they had a special radio installed. They can talk to each other across the world because they have their own satellites. That’s right, their own satellites, bought and paid for. Hams even launched a radio in an old Russian spacesuit so they could track it in orbit and see what the current temperature in the suit was. Mostly cold, with a chance of a nasty chill.
There are Ham radios at the north and south polar stations, and amateur radio operators routinely fund radio expeditions to the loneliest most bedraggled part of the world they can think of, just to see if they can talk to it.
Still with all the wonders of Ham radio, the name still sucks and it’s very hard to get anyone interested. I got into it because I love the wonder of radio, the indisputable magic of faraway voices. I love all the equipment, the technical challenge and even though I really have nothing to say “on the air,” I still listen in regularly.
What I hear mostly is the news. The most local news available is readily accessible on my rigs. I hear fire dispatch calls, police ticketing cars, utilities picking trees off the power lines and, unfortunately, other hams complaining about what their wives packed for lunch. Of course with the advent of digital Internet enabled repeater systems I can sample the lunch satisfaction index in 208 countries.
Lately I’m in to VHF (Very High Frequency) marine radios. As a owner of “a hole in the water” I have a real need, or so I tell my wife. My latest is a Ross DSC-500, a progenitor of the DSC (Digital Selective Call) system being set-up by the Coast Guard all over the country. No doubt another fine example of the noble work of the “Ham PAC.” It’s 12 years old and used to belong to the LA county fire department, I got it off eBay for $47. See, I can be long and boring too, just like a real Ham.
Copyright Prentiss Gray 2011