Let me just tear this baind-aid off: amatuer/ham radio in the United States is almost entirely comprised of old nerdy (generally white) men.
You will never see a cool Hollywood action guy who has amatuer/ham radio as a hobby and while I’m sure this will offend some people it can be pretty insular too. Like any group, there are normal people but the hardcore folks are the loudest and most active therefore setting the tone.
From a practical perspective, even a lot of homeless people have cheap smart phones and hooked up to a public wifi they can talk to someone in 4K video chat on the other side of the world for free. To do so with an amatuer/ham radio requires a couple grand worth of gear, passing two tests with a fair amount of studying, and doing a better-than-laymen-level job of electrical routing and antenna construction.
On any T-chart of plusses and minuses, what kind of terrible math would have you arrive at the idea that an amatuer radio license and all the hassle associated with it would be worth your time? Let me give you my answer.
It started on December 27, 2017. Our phone system went offline here in Mammoth. Data via the Internet, cellular voice and 3G/4G: all offline. The only way information was coming in was via FM broadcast radio and hilariously enough the town broadcasting was Bishop which I assume couldn’t get a message that we had lost communications up here.
In our hyperconnected lives, everything was offline. 911, that important conference call you had to be on, checking on an Amazon package you needed, getting an Amber Alert: all gone. So to was the nature of the outage. While surely just some glitch in some technical box somewhere or a backhoe that pierced a fiber line, there’s always that lingering question:
Is something big going on that I don’t know about?
Here in my office, armed with my ham license, I have the iconic $30 Baofeng UV-5R. The antenna is also $30, a magnetic mount that’s supposed to be on a car but instead it’s sitting on a 5 pound can of artichokes. My wife mistakenly bought them, I needed something steel to put the antenna on, and bam: it works.
Here in my office I listen to 92.5 Sierra Wave on that little $30 radio, which really has a pretty sweet music list. But the radio also cuts over automatically whenever there’s someone on the repeater network that connects all the ham radio dorks (of which I proudly am one) between Lone Pine and Carson City: the entirety of the Eastern Sierra, essentially.
One day while working in my office the radio sparked up and said “Hey, any of you guys see that fire over there by the campground?” Before Twitter, before Facebook, before the 911 call even went out, I knew about it. As the fire started growing I was able to contact other amatuer/ham folk who on a whole take public safety quite seriously, and get up-to-the-second news on road closures, evacuations, and the fire’s path.
Texting my friends down in Bishop, he was getting bombarded by bogus Twitter updates from random sources and gossip from neighbors.
In our hyper-connected world what you may notice is that while much more information is flying around the majority of that information suffers from terrible qualify. The ham radio dorks, however, risk losing their licenses and certainly their reputation if they pass on incorrect information about something important.
Amatuer literally translates to “for the love of”, and amatuer radio is no different. For some it’s heavy on the technology of radio, for others (like myself) it’s more so the civil preparedness model. At the same time that I get to be more valuable to my community, I also get more benefit for my family, my friends, and myself.
If you want to talk to some guy on the other side of the planet (99% chance it will indeed be a male), you’ll need to drop a few grand in equipment and really get into this stuff. But if you want to have a cheap, reliable, and effective way of communicating in your area and a bit beyond, it’s $70 and a pretty simple test.
Step 1: Find an exam near you. You’ll be taking the technician exam.
Step 2: Buy a little handheld radio, the programming cable, and a magnet mount antenna. You can stick it on top of your car, or on top of a file cabinet in your house. My 5lb can of artichokes works.
Step 3: Study for your test. You can buy a book, use a free app, and/or take free sample tests. I did all three because I’m a nerd at heart and liked learning some things.
Step 4: Download chirp, find the repeaters in your area, and load them in. These are the ones in the Eastern Sierra, as an example.
Step 5: Go get a pocket protector, fellow radio dork! We can sit around and make fun of the jocks now.
We all use and rely on technology that we don’t understand. You don’t really know how your car’s computer works and if you do then you don’t also really know the chemical structure of medications you take. We tend to get a working knowledge of things in our lives and call it good, specializing deeper in areas that require it, that we make money from, or that we have an interest in.
I think there’s a valuable argument to be made that medium range communication with other civic-minded folks, and not entirely relying on the rather delicate nature of cell phones and the Internet is worth a few hours and few dollars.