My Beef with Ham Radio

My amateur radio journey began back in the mid-1970s. I was about 12 at the time, with an interest in electronics that baffled my parents. With little to guide me and fear for my life as I routinely explored the innards of the TVs and radios in the house, they turned to the kindly older gentleman across the street from us, Mr. Brown. He had the traditional calling card of the suburban ham — a gigantic beam antenna on a 60′ mast in the backyard – so they figured he could act as a mentor to me.

Mr. Brown taught me a lot about electronics, and very nearly got me far enough along to take the test for my Novice class license. But I lost interest, probably because I was an adolescent male and didn’t figure a ham ticket would improve my chances with the young ladies. My ham ambitions remained well below the surface as life happened over the next 40 or so years. But as my circumstances changed, the idea of working the airwaves resurfaced, and in 2015 I finally took the plunge and earned my General class license.

The next part of my ham story is all-too-familiar these days: I haven’t done a damn thing with my license. Oh, sure, I bought a couple of Baofeng and Wouxun handy-talkies and lurked on the local repeaters. I even bought a good, solid HF rig and built some antennas, but I’ve made a grand total of one QSO — a brief chat with a ham in Texas from my old home in Connecticut on the 10-meter band. That’s it.

Obviously, there’s a problem. It’s not lack of understanding the art and science of amateur radio. More so than the average Joe who comes in off the street to sit for a license test (and there are far more of those folks than you might think), I have a pretty good grasp of the theory and practice of RF communications. It’s not a money problem, either. At least for now I have enough disposable income to spend on “The World’s Greatest Hobby.” It’s not time either, at least not really. My kids are old enough now to be self-reliant, so it’s not like I’d be working the bands while there are dirty diapers to deal with. And my wife is supportive too, so it’s not that either. So what’s my problem? Why am I not active on the HF bands and checking in on the local repeaters?

Because as it turns out, when you’re a ham you end up talking to other hams. And I don’t like talking to hams.

Lest this be construed as ham-hate, it’s not. Truth be told, I don’t really want to talk to anyone, face to face or over the air. But there’s really something off-putting about the ham style of communication, at least to my ears. Part of this is due to listening to public service radio all my life. My dad was a cop, and hearing dispatches on the radio in his cruiser was the soundtrack of my life from the day I was born. I later listened to scanners as a civilian hobbyist, then with a more professional interest as an EMT and volunteer firefighter. I even worked the other side of the mic as a dispatcher for multiple agencies. So I developed a strong preference in radio style — brief, clipped messages that minimize time on the air while maximizing information content.

In other words, the exact opposite of what hams do.

When I hear two hams chewing the rag, I find myself thinking, “Please, just stop talking and take your thumb off the mic switch.” It’s not so much what they’re talking about, although that certainly plays into it; lots of recounting what the “XYL” made for dinner and updates on everyone’s prostate woes. I could overlook the content choice if someone, somewhere would just unkey the mic once in while and take a breath.

I know, I know — that’s not what ham radio is for. The ham bands are for conversation more than anything else, at least from the sound of it. I think I might have a better experience if I explore the HF nets that meet regularly in preparation for providing emergency communications in disasters; they might be more my style. Or perhaps the digital modes would suit me better – being able to type brief, content-rich messages and make contacts without any of that pesky talking sounds pretty keen to me.

But as it stands, I’m pretty sure I won’t be hanging around the local 2-meter repeater to make sure everyone knows what I’m getting at the grocery store. I’m glad the local hams have built out the infrastructure to do so, and I’m heartened to know they’re practicing the craft. I just don’t want to talk to them that much.

So, active hams, what part of the craft to you find engaging? I’d love to hear your suggestions for ways I, or anyone else, can make greater use of the license and help keep the hobby fun for new and old hams alike.

190 thoughts on “My Beef with Ham Radio

  1. We have some of that stuff you dislike in our area, but overall, I’m finding ham radio to be a great way to find the technologists in the crowd. I can’t really walk into a bar and have a discussion about peak detector circuits, impedance matching, antenna designs, standing wave ratio, or any of that with the people I find there. With a radio in my hand, I can just key the local repeater with the question either during a net or when others are on the air and I can have a really useful conversation where I can get someone else’s perspective. To me, that’s the real value of having the license – to further the art and learn something new along the way.

    Now, with that said, most other repeaters I’ve listened to are pretty much dead. There’s a one-off conversation between two strangers now and then, but not much of technical discussion. Even the national nets tend to avoid complex topics, leading to a mind numbing array of reports of what the weather is doing in other areas of the world. This could be improved with a topic of the day which some implement, but most don’t seem to. Maybe try your hand at being net control somewhere and see if you can stimulate the discussion you want with a themed net…

  2. I’ve been a Ham since high school back in 1986. I’ve done a lot of different modes, CW, SSB, Packet, 2m, SSTV and a few other things. I never did like “talking” on the radio very much since it usually ended up talking meaningless stuff about the weather, how long I’ve been in ham radio, how much power I’m squirting out the wire dipole. Ok, the antenna and power stuff is kind of interesting, but after that it was just a bunch of “Uh….uh…uhm….Ok 73, send me your QSL card!”
    For that reason, I’ve mostly been a CW guy since it would usually avoid a lot of the meaningless chatter stuff and last a little longer. 14wpm was my favorite speed. Still need to setup a station again one of these days and get back on CW – Voice? Nah….don’t like talking about things that much. 73, de KAVIK

  3. I had a ham license back in the 80s and early 90s. My initial motivation was to find geeks like myself to talk to. Once I got the on the air, I quickly discovered that the vast majority of hams don’t have much to talk about except their radios and antennas and the local weather. Then the internet came along, with forums dedicated to whatever interests I had. That pretty much killed ham radio for me.

    There’s no doubt that radio skills can be useful, especially when the crap hits the fan. Maybe with the coming Trumpocalypse, radio will be especially handy to locate food, TP, or other basic necessities like bullets, but until then, I’ll stick with the internet.

  4. What I’ve taken from my experience with amateur radio:

    1) Yes, there is an older crowd that takes joy in talking to other members of the older crowd.
    – I love listening to them. They don’t care what they talk about, so I hear some really funny, and sometimes crazy stuff.

    2) I’ve honed my skills so that, and I hope it never does, when SHTF and our infrastructure goes down, I can maintain some kind of infrastructure independent communication with others. Particularly family and other important people to me.

    But, of course, your mileage may vary.

  5. I don’t agree at all with you, Dan. You could be one of the HAMs that contribute and bring interesting conversation, instead you decide to lurk and avoid participating.
    It is because of people with your attitude that we only hear rag chewers. At least they take advantage of the license and they use the equipment they invested in.
    You seem to be in the category of people that only participate if someone else is keeping up the good interesting conversation, but your contribution in none.
    Next time, pick up the mike and start something interesting yourself. People will follow.
    Start a net, go to the club and make presentations to inspire other HAMs.
    It’s based on self promotion and volunteering, it is not a payed cable service to complain about when the shows are not good.
    You are the show. Lurking does not give you the right to complain about how others use their license.
    So many like you out there, complaining but not doing anything to help the change.
    HAM does not work well with entitlement.
    I really hope you change your attitude, else I hope you stay a lurker.
    I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but as a wake up call.
    Good luck

    1. Wow, well said. IF one is on voice, CW, digital, SSTV, or any mode, you are in control and set the content of your own QSOs. If one is diligent enough to sit for an exam and set up a station, why is transmitting something relevant so hard?

      And can we please be hams and use our call signs we are all so proud of?

      de VE3EEI

  6. Dan,
    From your post I’ll guess you’re KC1DJT. As you, I became interested in electronics and radio in the mid-70’s in CT. At the age of 12 I earned my Novice ticket in ’76 and I’m celebrating 40 years as a ham this month. My first year on the air was tapping out morse code using CW, following the typical script, RST (signal report), name, QTH (location), age, weather, 73 (regards) end of QSO (contact). No long chats, though a 5 wpm (word per minute) QSOs did take awhile. I used that more to hone my operating skills than make acquaintances or “talk” to hams. In ’77 earned my general and was able to use voice (SSB & FM) but as a youngster didn’t have anything in common with folks on the air 2 to 7+ times my age so I wasn’t into rag chewing. I will admit though that back then it seems ham radio was more about a true interest in radio communications, building, designing, understanding theory, etc. than today. In this day and age its much easier to attain a license and those on the air may be family and friends who’ve entered because of something other than a true interest or understanding of “radio”. If you’re not in their circle of friends/family I can see why you might not wish to talk on the air. That’s not to say I haven’t and you can’t work into a group of local hams who share similar technical interests. It just may take a bit longer to find them.

    So given my status back then, I ended up getting involved in contesting or radiosport. No one cared about my age and actually many of the older contesters were more than happy to induct me into that facet of the hobby and mentor new hams like myself. I got excited about building and improving my station and learning operating skills, watching the pros and trying to understand their techniques. I began setting personal goals and eventually began going after state, division and national records. Today I continue to learn new things, design and build equipment and generate RF and push the envelope in an attempt to see how far I can be heard, many times with as little as possible or on frequencies well into the microwaves. I enjoy sharing my knowledge with newer, younger and older hams alike in an attempt to get them excited about “radio”. There lies the key! Find something that excites you and someone interested or willing to learn or share that interest. That’s what makes the hobby fun and has kept me active and in the loop for all this time.

    Here’s some topics I’ve found interesting over the last few years that you might consider investigating and hopefully peak your interests as well – just Google to learn more:

    SDR – software defined radios, RTL-SDR, RTL2832U ($<20) – start receiving signals with minimal hardware and free software. Or, build your own with some inexpensive discrete components, a cheap PC and soundcard.

    WSPR – "Whisper" – beacon low power digital signals and see how far around the world you can be detected. You don't even need a radio. I've used a Raspberry Pi that can generate 10mw from 0-200 MHz using free software and have been detected as far away as Austrilia.

    JT65-HF – low power digital 2-way comms. No rag chewing – just simple precanned signal report and location exchanges. See how many countries you can contact.

    Radiosport – enter a contest, state QSO party, ARRL or CQ national or DX international contest. Set a goal of number of contacts, counties, states, or countries depending on the contest. Make station and operating skill improvements, learn contesting software packages and try to best your score next time.

    Digital Voice – look into free s/w FreeDV and try your hand at something that allows one to play with digital radio that isn't proprietary like DSTAR, Fusion, etc.

    VoIP – build a internet linked FM gateway using cheap HT and free Echolink, SvxLink, Allstar Link software and link up with others around the world without need for HF and big antennas.

    APRS – a packet radio GPS system for FM that allows some brief messaging as well as location tracking of RF based systems. Also useful for VHF propagation testing (APRS Tropo)

    Broadband Hamnet – or HSMM-Mesh – go high speed with converted off the shelf WiFi gear and begin building out a ham based network infrastructure where u can publish various digital services

    CW – Learn the code – an old skill, but still quite in use today. Tap out a CQ and use ReverseBeaconNetwork and see how far away your signal can be heard without ever talking to someone. I'd suggest trying your hand at a real 2-way contact though – even if you're just following the script :)

    73, good luck and hope to hear u on the air!

    andyz

  7. This article was to the point. I have been licensed for 40 plus years. Many hams complain about some bad operators on a few frequencies. I find that to be cheap entertainment. I certainly have not pursued every aspect of the hobby. Any ham who says that he has done it all is a liar. I will not repeat many of the arguments expressed on eham.net or other places. It is not the illegal activity that bothers me much. Rather, it is the common, sanctioned activities that really get under my skin. For instance, the ubiquitous presence of HF contests. Every blasted weekend there seems to be one. Then, during the week, some guys are just always in contest mode. Many are sponsored by both the sacred cow and whipping boy, yep, you guessed right, the ARRL. Last weekend, there was winter Field Day. What in blazes is that? Does that mean that those of us in the frozen north must dress in parkas and try to operate CW with mittens on in a makeshift shelter? I know, no contesting allowed on the new WARC bands. So, how many hours is 17 meters actually open during the day? If you go to 30 meters, the snooty high speed CW boys are still sending wham bam thank you ma’am. Those of us who want an old fashioned CQ followed by a QSO are running out of options. Most nets seem to be totally useless and are as much of a waste of time as Facebook is. So now, we have those that come along and admonish guys like me with an ultimatum. “Quit bitching and leave the hobby”. Well, no. The hobby has left me. This could be a really good time for hams, even with the down sunspot cycle. I relish the new technology, like SDR, which has come along. Any new radio is a much better value than its counterpart from a couple of decades ago. The slow demise of this man’s hobby has been a long time in the making. It started before Al Gore invented the Internet and cell phones became universal. Certainly, it began before thr bottom of this sunspot cycle.
    73

  8. Get involved with emergency communications via AmRRON/TAPRN. They are using everything from GMRS and CB as part of their Channel 3 Project to Ham Radio to monitor and pass emergency traffic. They use not only VHF and HF phone modes but digital modes too for sending reports and ICS forms.
    AmRRON Corps members are dedicated to upgrading their Emcom skills to be better prepared to assist each other and their communities.

  9. Dan, it makes sense that most people would primarily use ham radios for communication during cases of emergency. I feel like every community should have a designated ham radio operator. It seems like it would be an excellent way to allow us to communicate with first responders if there happened to be a severe emergency.

  10. Dan,
    I totally agree with you about talking on the ham bands. But my “affliction” also includes cell phones and VOIP. I am just not a big talker but once in awhile I will talk just to make sure my rigs are working. So why did I get a license ? Two reasons really one is for emergency communications when all else fails and the other is for experimenting. I really enjoy tinkering with the hardware (and the software nowadays). This is what gets my blood pumping. I keep saying I should join a local club or something. Maybe someday I will. But in the meantime I am having a good time experimenting.

  11. i’am having a very hard time with hf mobile. been there done that. no one will talk to you more than a minute. and if they do theywant to brag about all the equipment they have,or talk about building some project. i have been a ham since 2000. i did cb radio and had more fun. i feel hf mobile is a waste of time and money.. but i really need help. i’am always confused what to do in my truck.

  12. My ham activity is building systems. I work on repeaters. I am building a new digitally based message system. I do antennas for a living so I build ham antennas as well. Once built I don’t use them much with a few exceptions like contesting… the ultimate way to test these new systems.

    So yes like you I tend to not talk to other hams, but very much enjoy helping them do so.

  13. I’ve been a ham for 3 years now. I’m not much of a “rag chewer” either. Not a big talker even in person. I’m kind of like “Mr Ed”, I don’t speak unless I got something to say. I enjoy building antennas, built a 6m moxon bean a couple of weeks ago and don’t even have a 6m rig hihi
    On SSB I enjoy contesting which has short responses. I really like working DX, trying to see how far I can communicate and how many different countries I can reach. I’m really into digital modes. I’m very close to having 5 band WAS with digital modes. I’ve found a lot of other hams seem to think digital isn’t being a “real ham”. Sorry, but not everyone likes just talking about nothing. If you want to discuss equipment, antennas etc thats fine. I really could care less about your weather or your last surgery :)

  14. Many people have mentioned all of the new ways of exploring ham radio (digital modes, etc.). For me, the hobby has gone the opposite way, I’ve gone totally retro. My only rig at present is the Heathkit HW-8 that I soldered together back in 1978. Two watts into a classic antenna….600 ohm ladder line doublet. Every QSO is a challenge and a small victory. So, if you’re bored with ham radio, think about the QRP route….lots of building projects to be had online, etc.

  15. I’ve invented a word for the kind of communication some hams gravitate to: “Nonversation”. Nets, EmComm, events, contests, working DX.. They don’t require smalltalk. And they’re as legitimate as any other form of hamming. Although everyone has a passion for something, and if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in conversation with someone who shares that passion, you just may find yourself in a ragchew.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s