Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial
Meeting New Hams Where They Are
BY RICH MOSESON,* W2VU
Exactly what is it that qualifies one as a "real" ham? I got a letter in response to my February editorial ("How Old Are You Now?") which raised some very interesting points about how we view hams and ham radio, and how we perceive those members of our community whose interests may not be in line with those of the "traditional" ham. The letter read, in part:
"I received my Technician license in February 2009. The room was filled with people waiting to take the exam. I thought to myself, "Wow, this is great." I had no idea so many people were interested in amateur radio. Prior to administering the exam, one of the VEs asked for a show of hands for people upgrading to General — two hands went up. Then he asked if anyone was upgrading to Extra — one hand went up. Then he asked how many people were taking the Technician exam to fulfill a requirement to gain credit for a radio-controlled balloon class. The remaining hands were raised except for mine and two other people's. After the exam, I had the opportunity to talk to several of individuals taking the exam for the balloon class. None expressed a desire to get into amateur radio."
Of course, they were getting into amateur radio by virtue of taking their license exams. What the writer meant, I believe, was getting into ham radio as a hobby in and of itself, rather than as part of a different hobby.
But let's take a quick look at what's involved in a typical balloon flight using amateur radio (there's enough of this activity in the hobby that it has an "official" acronym — ARHAB, or amateur radio high altitude ballooning): The balloon's payload will likely be transmitting telemetry on altitude, speed, temperature, and GPS location data; an APRS signal for tracking; and possibly live video via amateur television or digital stills via one data mode or another. The members of the ground crew will need to be equipped and trained to receive these transmissions and make use of the information. In addition, once the balloon bursts and the payload parachutes back to earth, the chase team will likely use ARDF (amateur radio direction finding) techniques to locate it, and if more than one vehicle is involved, will probably coordinate via 2-meter or 70-centimeter FM. That's pretty active hamming in my book, even if it is all in connection with a different primary activity.
The writer goes on to say that when he went back to take his General exam a month later, the VEs asked the candidates the same questions, and that the answers were pretty much the same, except that several members of this group identified themselves as "preppers," who saw ham radio as "their lifeline to survival when and if the apocalypse came." Well, here's the deal on that: If you're really going to be prepared, and ready to make use of your ham license in the aftermath of "the big one" (whichever "big one" that may be), that won't be the time to start setting up your station, learning how to use the gear and learning the ins and outs of effective ham radio communications. No, the time to do all that is now, by getting on the air and learning about different operating modes, antennas, propagation, QRP, etc., and keeping your skills sharp with regular practice, so that you're not starting from zero once you've wiped the you-know-what off the fan that it's hit. A serious prepper won't keep his or her ham gear locked up in a closet, but will use it regularly.
I consider myself to be a fairly active ham, and I love ham radio as a hobby in and of itself. But if you look at my HF logbook for the first two months of 2016, you would find it to be empty. That's right. Zero contacts. I got a bunch of little radio kits at Christmastime and I've been spending my "radio time" over the past couple of months building. I've still got a ways to go. It wouldn't be completely incorrect to describe me right now as a "maker" who is using ham radio projects in pursuit of a building hobby.
My local astronomy club here in New Jersey — whose advisor is a ham — is doing a program this month on EME (Earth-Moon-Earth, or Moonbounce). Perhaps some amateur astronomers will find that amateur radio can add a new dimension to their astronomy hobby. With talk of sending a ham radio satellite to Mars, we'll need astronomy skills to track it and tune it in if the project succeeds. Let's not forget that it was an amateur astronomer and amateur radio operator, Grote Reber, who is considered the father of radio astronomy.
All this brings us back to the age-old question of what constitutes a "real ham." Do you have to enjoy only traditional ham radio activities, such as DXing, contesting, or ragchewing? Do you have to operate HF? Do you need to know and use Morse code? Or are you a "real ham" if you hold an FCC amateur radio license and make use of the privileges that it confers, whether as ends unto themselves or as part of another activity, such as ballooning, building, hiking, biking, or being prepared for an uncertain future? Our vote is for the latter.
Here's a radical idea: Instead of lamenting new hams' lack of interest in traditional ham radio activities, how about if we "meet them where they are?" Let's invite the folks from the ballooning course to make a presentation at a club meeting about how they make use of ham radio. Let's invite local "makers" who are combining ham radio with other "making" activities to show them off at a club meeting. Who knows? You might just find yourself tagging along on the next balloon launch, joining the makers' group or setting up a telescope alongside your antenna. And if these non-traditional hams are made to feel welcome at your club meetings (and not pressured to conform to someone else's view of what constitutes "real" ham radio), maybe they'll discover additional aspects of the hobby and broaden their interests as well. But even if they don't, so what? How we make use of our privileges on the airwaves is a personal choice, and there is no "right" or "wrong" way to "do" ham radio.
A couple of quick notes relating to this month's issue: First of all, we have a different sort of Professor Heisseluft feature for you this April. It has been 40 years since the sage of Grossmaul-an Der Danau penned his first article for CQ, and to commemorate that anniversary, we have persuaded him to sit down for an interview with Ted Cohen, N4XX. Longtime readers will recall that Ted conducted a great number of "CQ Interviews…" with leading figures in amateur radio and the FCC back in the 1970s and '80s, so he is certainly well-qualified to chat with the good professor. You'll find Ted's interview beginning on page 28.
Much of this issue is dedicated to the results of the 2015 CQ World Wide DX Contest SSB weekend. We've brought back complete score listings after exiling them to the Internet for a few years. We also have two contest-related features, our cover story on the joint U.S./Cuban contest expedition from T42US and the story of how WB3D didn't let low power and a stealth antenna keep him from having a good time in the contest … and winning his category! But there's plenty more as well, even if contesting isn't your thing. Maybe ballooning? Enjoy the issue … and don't let the SWRs bite! (p. 54)
– 73, Rich, W2VU