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Wishing for...a Ham Radio Lab!
Or: what I would do if I won the lottery
As an amateur radio operator without a good QTH for “playing radio,” I miss many things. I miss having access to top-of-the-line antennas and a tall tower. I miss having a workbench with good test gear, variable power supplies, and a soldering station. I miss having space for a library that would cover the breadth of ham radio as well as provide technical reference documents for my equipment (or for the equipment I’d like to have). I miss having several ham radio stations where I could get together with my fellow hams for radio play and socializing. I miss a big enough space to have a computer dedicated to amateur radio.
From wishes come ideas, and my idea is for a local “ham lab” for amateur radio operators. We’d need a safe, secure location. It would need to be accessible since we have people in our community with mobility challenges. We’d need it to be owned by the local club, because otherwise individual quirks may eventually get in the way of providing open and fair use of the lab’s resources to everyone.
We’d need a different business model for our local amateur radio club. Since this is all just a dream right now, I wonder what this might look like. To acquire real property takes real money, not just the small maintenance amount that club members pay annually to be members and support the club. Also, the service area might need to be expanded to something larger than the footprint of our county-wide club, so perhaps a cooperative of ham clubs would support this idea. No matter how much I spin this web, I know that without the will there is no way we can get from here to there.
(In fact, this dream seems so fantastical that I am tying another fantasy to this: winning the lottery. We rarely buy lottery tickets but I’ve promised myself that if we ever do win a big jackpot, I will help fund a permanent club headquarters, and hopefully, our very own ham lab.)
This idea of a ham lab surfaced as I reflected on how much time we amateur radio operators spend alone. We gather together once a month to deal with the lightweight business of the club and to talk about radio. Most recently, we’ve been talking about what’s on our workbenches, i.e., what are we fixing, building, or trying to figure out. That has been an unexpected success. It opened opportunities for people to share and they took it. Such sharing provides wonderful insights into the individual characters who make up our club.
These glimpses into the people who enjoy ham radio — a hobby of hobbies! — have revealed to me that we spend much of our time alone. We sit at a kitchen table, or in a basement room, or out in the garage, or in a car or truck. We connect things, we turn on power, we analyze what we’re doing so that we don’t damage our equipment or harm others nearby. Then we try to talk on the radio, or we pound a key on CW, or we work digital modes, or we bounce signals off the moon or use space-based repeaters. And we do these things almost entirely alone. Sure, there is somebody on the other end of the conversation or exchange of information, but it’s not the same as being together in the same physical space.
I think this is a root cause of why we have difficulty attracting young people to our hobby. Their need to socialize is hard to satisfy when most of what we do is physically isolated from others and most of our hobby time is spent alone.
I self-identify fundamentally as an introvert. I didn’t expect COVID-related isolation to be so difficult, but I learned that even introverts need social interaction. The last few years of avoiding people because of COVID have taught me many lessons.
Folks in my local amateur radio club seem to be responding very well to the increased sharing and socializing we’ve been attempting. (Of course, this might also be a rebound response after being separated for the past couple of years due to COVID!) Some of these folks have mobility problems that make it difficult for them to get out of the house and go see people, but they invest time and energy to attend club meetings and engage with their fellow radio hobbyists. Clearly, they get something of value from the club meetings, and it probably isn’t only what is being discussed. I think much of the value comes from the sense of belonging and acceptance that comes from being a part of such a wide and deep hobby where there is always something different to learn and do.
What does this have to do with a ham lab? To me, one hidden value of a lab would be its function as a social space. While we’d have tools and books and radios and maybe even an espresso machine, the real purpose would be to give us a place to spend time together doing things that we enjoy so much: playing radio. It would be a teaching space for preparing people to get licensed. Maybe, in a room full of radios and other technology, with erasable boards on the walls and places to sit comfortably and read or sit and operate a radio, we’d be able to attract and support a wider range of generations to our hobby.
I don’t think many of us in amateur radio subscribe to the concept in “I Drink Alone,” a song by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. “You know when I drink alone, I prefer to be by myself,” George sings. My recent experiences with my local amateur radio community belies the notion that even though we hams spend most of our time in ham radio alone, it is because we prefer to be by ourselves. There is a social aspect to our hobby, and fundamental social needs, that I am just beginning to see more deeply.
My dream is to have a place and space where we can play radio together — when we want to — rather than be alone.