Loud and clear – Ham radio enthusiasm still resounds in an age of e-mail, cellphones
by William Nettleton, Special to the Times Union
As Steve VanSickle scanned through frequencies on his radio, listening for any voice or Morse code communications, only the sound of varying high-pitched squeals broke through the static.
“This is WB2HPR in Troy, looking for someone on the TARA repeater for demonstration of the station,” he said into a small microphone. “WB2HPR standing by.”
VanSickle sat waiting for a reply in the second-floor room of his Troy home that looked like a small museum of old-fashioned radio equipment. To the right rested a functional radio from the 1960s. A table lining the back wall had equipment from the 1980s and an empty space for a 1970s radio, which was elsewhere awaiting repairs. A computer and two current radios, one large and one small, were off to the left, where VanSickle sat waiting.
Then came a voice from the static: “KB2KFV, go ahead.”
“Oh, it’s Ken,” VanSickle said, recognizing the call sign of a friend from Green Island. The two men traded pleasantries for a few minutes, and then the communication was over.
This contact, though short, is an example of what VanSickle and thousands of others across the United States do for a hobby. They are amateur radio operators or, as they call themselves, hams. They are people who, in the age of cellphones, instant messenger, e-mail and chat rooms, still enjoy contacting friends and strangers on the radio.
“This was probably one of my first loves,” VanSickle said. The 60-year-old retired electrical technician said he has been a ham radio operator for 44 years.
There have been huge technological advances since the time he built his first radio at 11, but Morse code is still his favorite way to operate, VanSickle said.
“You can actually talk a lot farther on Morse code than most any other transmission media,” he said. For instance, he recently contacted a Japanese research station in Antarctica.
The reason he is able to talk farther is because hams operate using groups of radio frequencies called bands, which can reach varying distances. Amateurs are allocated 26 different bands that no one else has access to. Hams can also relay signals through local amplifying stations called repeaters and satellites called Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio. Some people even bounce signals off the moon, VanSickle said.
VanSickle is a member of the Troy Amateur Radio Association, one of several local amateur radio clubs in the area. Members of the clubs include people who have been operating for decades and also those who have just begun.
Lee Hatfield, 48, signed up to get his license three months ago, because of a lifelong fascination with the airwaves.
“I always thought wireless communication was a really neat idea,” Hatfield said. “You don’t have to be plugged into anything to be able to communicate with somebody, whether they’re a mile away or literally on the other side of the world.”
Amateur radio is exciting, because you could be talking to someone in South America one minute and then to someone in England or Portugal the next, Hatfield said. There’s no predicting who you might end up talking to.
Ham radio dates back to the beginnings of wireless communication in the early 1900s. Today, the practice is regulated; the Federal Communication Commission licenses operators to transmit over designated frequencies. Amateurs are given call signs, such as VanSickle’s WB2HPR, which they use to identify themselves during transmissions.
There are 650,000 licensed amateur operators in the United States and 2.5 million in the world, according to Allen Pitts, the media and public relations manager of the Amateur Radio Relay League. The ARRL, based in Newington, Conn., is one of the largest amateur radio organizations in the U.S. with around 150,000 members.
The range of users is diverse, with some more than 100 years old and others as young as 7, Pitt said. Still, the majority of current operators are middle-aged, and most new members are people who have recently retired, he said.
Daniel Bradke, 17, of Niskayuna belongs to the minority of younger members of the hobby. When he was 11 he became interested in amateur radio after his father, also a ham, explained what it was and encouraged him to learn Morse code.
“I love it,” Bradke said. “There’s always that mystery of, like, ‘Who can I get?’
“It’s not like I could just pick up my ham radio and call someone in Taiwan or North Korea,” he said. Instead, contacting someone from Taiwan or North Korea happens completely by chance, which is thrilling, Bradke said. “It’s just not the same when you use your cellphone or send someone an e-mail.”
While Bradke operates for fun, Pitts said there are others in their teens and early 20s joining the hobby out of “civic mindedness.” After seeing what happened during Hurricane Katrina and on Sept. 11, they want to be able to help out when future disasters occur, he said.
“Really one of the areas where we shine is in emergency communications,” VanSickle said at TARA’s Field Day, which was held in late June.
The field day is an annual emergency preparedness exercise practiced by amateur operators throughout the United States and Canada. “The reasons we do this is to simulate emergency communications setups and practice our skills,” VanSickle said. “Test our equipment in a field setting where we might find ourselves should a Hurricane Katrina-type thing come along, where we were the only ones communicating for a long time.”
Although technically an emergency readiness test, the event is also a picnic and social gathering. Each local club sets up a site in a different location, having barbecues and contests to see which group can contact the most stations across the country.
George Wilner, 66, the president of the Albany Amateur Radio Association, said that one of the fastest growing segments of amateur radio is the “radio sport” called contesting. These worldwide contests vary, but most involve hams operating for 48 hours to contact as many people, on as many different frequencies, as possible, Wilner said.
While many are entering the hobby for this competitive aspect of it, those who’ve been involved for years enjoy it for the friendships, as well as a fascination with the medium, Wilner said.
“I always thought it was magical,” he said. “Being able to hear these signals that came down from afar.”
A declining hobby
Saul Abrams, 59, the treasurer of AARA, said he and many others became interested in radio during the Sputnik era of the 1960s, when the technology was cutting-edge. Today, though, other types of multimedia technology distract from the old-fashioned activity.
“There are loads and loads of people who have dropped out,” Abrams said. “It’s a declining hobby. With cellphones and computers, it just doesn’t have the same aura as it had for us as kids.”
Pitts doesn’t see the hobby as dying out anytime soon, though. He said there are twice as many people involved today as during what might be considered the heyday of radio: the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
“We have tapered off in the sense we are not gaining,” he said. “But we are far from dying off.”
VanSickle admits that there have been fewer joining the hobby in recent years, but that it still has its supporters. He said that the ARRL promotes amateur radio at the grade-school level, and there are hams who help Boy Scout troops build crystal radios, so some children are still exposed to it.
It may be an old pastime, but it’s still satisfying, even in 2007, VanSickle said. “Forty-four years of doing it and it’s always been fun, it’s never been boring,” he said.
It’s never been boring because he continues to discover new and unfamiliar contacts. He recently had a conversation with a man in Beirut, who told him all about his country and its problems. Communications like that, with strangers from faraway places, are what interest him the most, VanSickle said.
It’s what draws him back to his radio room day after day, to listen and wait for unknown signals to break through the static.