Arkansas Radio Club Making Great (Air)waves

By Matt Doran
DAILY PRESS & ARGUS

Becoming a licensed amateur radio operator in 1968, when hobby radio was in its “infantile” stages, proved a fateful decision for Brighton Township’s Jim Kvochick.

As a young man, he landed a job with a radio station because employers there figured he could pass the commercial radio test if he’d passed his amateur radio test, he said. Now 54 years old, Kvochick has been able to leverage his hobby of exploring technology into a position as a technology consultant for AT&T, a job he said he enjoys.

“Radio was a very positive influence there,” Kvochick said. “It meant that because you were a licensed amateur, you had a broader understanding of the technologies that were available. My knowledge of radio and technology probably helps me out on my day job every single day.”

Now, Kvochick tries to share his love of amateur radio with others by serving as a technical director of the Livingston Amateur Radio Klub (LARK), a group which he’s been a member of for the past five years. The club, which has 90 active members and has been around for “darned near forever,” serves a variety of roles, including working with county emergency services, setting up radio technology demonstrations and helping people get their amateur radio operator licenses, he said.

“Amateur radio operators come from all walks of life,” Kvochick said. “There’s no magic rhyme or reason to that. In general, though, they have an interest in communications and in this thing we call radio communications, or a natural curiosity about electronics.”

Defining exactly what amateur radio is can be tricky because the hobby has so many facets, Kvochick said. Basically, amateur radio allows operators, who are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission after passing a test administered by local clubs like LARK, to communicate on either local bands or globally.

Operators can arrange to meet other operators they know at set times on specified frequencies, or they can search the airwaves for other operators anywhere in the world.

There is no charge to use the airwaves, though they are not private and users may not conduct any business because of FCC regulations, Kvochick said.

Kvochick said many astronauts become certified radio operators and sometimes set up times to call clubs or school groups from the international space station.

“It sounds a little geeky at first, I must admit,” Kvochick said. “(But) it’s growing all the time. It’s amazing how the hobby has expanded into everything.”

One of the most important aspects of amateur radio is the responsibility operators have to assist emergency responders in times of disaster, when conventional communications may be down, Kvochick said. The club sent some members to affected areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help authorities re-establish communications, he said.

Also, LARK coordinates closely with Livingston County emergency responders to ensure that communications remain available in disaster situations. The club participated in a 2005 simulated terrorist attack in the county, and some club members even invest in technology such as solar-powered battery chargers to ensure that their equipment will remain operational in a disaster, Kvochick said.

Amateur radio operators also can participate in a program with the National Weather Service called Skywarn, in which operators call in poor weather conditions.

“We’re always using our equipment and when there is a disaster or emergency need, we’ve already used our equipment,” Kvochick said. “We know it works.”

Some of the club’s other activities include radio demonstrations at an Interstate 96 rest stop each Memorial Day and Labor Day, giving visitors the chance to see club members operating the equipment, Kvochick said.

They have also participated in demonstrations at the Cromaine District Library in Hartland, communicating once with operators in France and Russia. The club will be back at the library for more demonstrations on Feb. 24. The club also gives people the chance to get their certification as amateur operators every other month when the FCC tests are offered, Kvochick said.

He said the tests are simple and relatively short and can be taken by anyone able to read. The club will next offer the tests on Tuesday.

Prices for radio equipment start at less than $100 for a pocket-sized radio for local frequencies, Kvochick said. Since there is no cost to use the airwaves, he said some families are becoming certified and investing in the small radios as a way to avoid pricey cell phones.

Larger radios that are capable of communicating globally typically start at $400-$500, but prices can go even higher depending on the different options ordered, Kvochick said.

“If you have a technical moxie, you can build your own equipment,” said Kvochick, who has built radios himself. “It’s a fascinating hobby.”

Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Matt Doran at (517) 548-7095 or at mdoran@gannett.com.