What is ham radio, my barista asked...
Or, what I should have said when she said she'd never heard of it!
Every morning, I go out and buy a cup of coffee. I don’t know why I can’t make coffee that tastes as good as that produced by most regular coffee stands, but there it is. I can program and tune a radio, I can solder (usually), but I can’t make coffee.
Yesterday, at one of my favorite coffee vendors, the barista just turning the corner from her teens to her twenties asked me what I planned to do today. “Play radio,” was my reply. She gave me such a quizzical look that I amplified my answer, explaining that I had the day off and I planned to spend it working on some amateur radio projects.
“What is amateur radio? I’ve never heard of it before,” she said. And as I tried to formulate a cogent reply, I was struck dumb. The sheer variety of topics in amateur radio overwhelmed me, leaving me tongue tied.
What might I have said?
As I drove away, I pondered what I might have said, and as I reflected, here’s what I came up with:
Amateur radio is a hobby that involves the use of radio and other communication mediums to talk to people in your community, around the world, or even space. Amateurs provide public service, assist with public safety, and advance the science of radio through experimentation and practice. We also have a lot of fun meeting with other amateur radio licensees, talking on the air, exploring old technology and new, and many other things. It is easy to get started in amateur radio!
And then I got to wondering what other hams might have said in a similar situation. What is our elevator speech about amateur radio when faced with someone who not only knows nothing about it, but has not even heard about it? Seeking wisdom, I posted this on Facebook in the HAM RADIO group and waited for the usual mix of sass and serious answers to surface. After a day, my posted generated 46 comments. I put together a word cloud of most of the serious responses and it looks like this:
In the handful of minutes I’ve been typing this post, the Facebook comments have grown to 52 total. What I had planned to do was harvest the best bits of wisdom contributed by commenters, consolidate it into a brief paragraph, and print up some business cards I could hand people when they ask me: what is ham radio? I’m still in that frame of mind because I haven’t found that kind of statement yet.
Some of the comments
These are quotes from the Facebook thread with some minor spelling corrections here and there by me. I include these here to feed the conversation about what we can say to people who haven’t heard of amateur radio to explain it and possibly interest them in the hobby/service.
Right now there are thousands of signals being sent from people all around the world and Ham Radio lets me listen to them and respond through a wire hanging in my trees.
Ham radio is the freedom to use radio technology at its raw, elemental form without corporate influence or infrastructure if you so desire.
You know, Morse code, talk around the world stuff.
Imagine being able to talk to someone around the world without the internet or a cell phone, and it takes less power than your microwave.
Amateur radio uses radios and other methods to communicate virtually anywhere...especially when other communications systems are unavailable.
Amateur Radio is a service enabled by the FCC in the US and other similar agencies in almost every country on the planet to foster study, sharing, and pioneering of new radio techniques, practices, and theories, as well as promoting friendship and comradery all over the world.
Ham radio, or amateur radio, is a fascinating hobby and service that allows individuals to explore the world of radio communication. Unlike commercial radio, hams use designated frequency bands to communicate with each other for personal enjoyment, emergency communication, and community service. It's a platform where enthusiasts, known as 'hams,' can build and experiment with their own radio equipment, connecting with people globally, honing technical skills, and providing crucial support during emergencies when traditional communication may fail. Ham radio is a dynamic and inclusive community, fostering learning, innovation, and a sense of camaraderie among its practitioners. It's not just a hobby; it's a gateway to a world of exploration, connection, and public service.
It is not one or two things, but offers many different options for people to learn and use radio technology for everything from chatting locally to local emergency operations, from speaking with others around the world to supporting relief operations hundreds of miles away, from chatting with astronauts to tracking deep space missions, and many other things. Most of all, it is a "door" to allow open communication between people without politics getting involved.
It is a means of two way radio communication that with the right equipment allows for worldwide communication without using a cell phone or an internet connection.
It is a war emergency pool of radio operators and a disaster emergency communications team and a peacetime hobby.
Hobby, it's a hobby.
There is a lot more in this HAM RADIO thread on Facebook.
How would you describe ham radio to someone who had never heard of it?
Business card thoughts
There are business cards for hams available online (example: https://www.printbusinesscards.com/ordering/Ham-Radio-Operator-Business-Cards.php) but they don’t explain what amateur radio is at a level a completely unknowing person might understand. (I like the look of the cards at https://www.kb3ifhqslcards.com/eyeball-cards with the idea of putting an explainer on the back of the card.)
For those who don’t click links, I’m picturing something the size of a regular business card that looks like a QSL card on the front and has an explanation of what ham radio is on the back.
I’m thinking about how to help a newly interested person find resources near them. As I Googled around the interwebs, I stumbled on Any Other Hams Near You? which routed me to an Amateur Radio License Map. The map can locate a single licensee, or you can punch in your ZIP code or even your actual address and see who is licensed near you.
Here’s the result for my street address in Oregon (but note that my call sign of KJ7T does not show up because I’m licensed at a post office box):
I had no idea there were so many ham licensees so close!
And, of course, there is always QRZ.com. I could include a generic address of https://qrz.com or I could include my own QRZ page. I also have a bit of information posted on a cover page for my AllStar node-in-the-cloud.
And learning from the community
At the same time, I’m learning more about my hobby. For example, I did not know until today about the very interesting M17 project:
M17 is developing open source hardware, software, and offers a complete digital radio protocol for data and voice, made by and for amateur radio operators.
One commenter added information about the ARRL book titled 200 Meters & Down, written in 1936 about the dawn of ham radio. I just ordered a copy from Amazon.
I think I’ll proceed with the business card idea. Having a couple of those in my wallet to give to people who show interest is a small service I can provide at low personal cost to the amateur radio community.
I’m going to explore the M17 project and read the ARRL book I ordered.
The best part: asking this question and interacting has generated some new ham radio friends. That’s always good! One of the commenters is a fellow Substack author, so it was fun to make that connection, too.
I appreciate the time so many people took to response to my question on Facebook. There is a lot to distil from their comments…and in the time it took for me to type this post today, the comment count has grown to 66!