The Hams of Radio: Amateur radio operators harness the potential of radio

14 Nov

WDARC was established in 1995 as a local arm of the Utah Amateur Radio Club. Its mission is to provide education and foster a mentoring atmosphere for ham radio. The club boasts nearly 50 members — and each has their own story.

This article originally appeared in the November 10, 2011 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Amateur radio operator Ray Riding twists the tuning dial of the Tooele County Emergency Operations Center’s high frequency radio, catching sporadic strings of human voice as he scans the 20 meter band. The voices phase in and out of the white noise like mini movements in an ethereal symphony. It’s music to the radio lover’s ears.

Sitting next to Riding, fellow amateur operator Richard Shaw keys a repeater code into another radio while another ham, Doug Higley, translates their radio lingo into plain English. The three men are members of the West Desert Amateur Radio Club (WDARC), which promotes amateur — or “ham” — radio in Tooele County.

“CQ, CQ, KC7GMN,” calls Shaw over the air via a repeater on Farnsworth Peak. (KC7GMN is Shaw’s call sign. ‘CQ’ is a general call for contact.) It’s time, as hams say, to “chew the rag.”

Amateur radio traces its roots back to the early 20th century when private citizens began experimenting with radio transmission and wireless messaging using Morse code. The pastime continues today as both a hobby and a bastion of volunteer and emergency communication. According to Shaw, WDARC’s current president, there are more than 260 licensed amateur radio operators in Tooele County.

Exactly how the craft became known as “ham radio” is uncertain. “Ham” could be an abbreviation of “amateur,” but most hams agree that the moniker originated as a taunt from military professionals.

“Back when radio was just starting out,” explained Shaw, “the military were the ones that used it. When private individuals started transmitting with crude equipment, the military made fun of them, saying snidely, ‘They’re just a bunch of hams.’ But everybody who was private took that as a badge of honor.”

Beginning with the Radio Act of 1912, ham radio operation was licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. Currently there are three license classes: general, technician, and amateur extra. Ham radio is strictly non-commercial. Aside from emergency communications, ham transmissions consist mostly of short contacts and “rag chewing,” the ham term for casual conversation. Many hams also volunteer to provide communication infrastructure to races and other public events.

WDARC was established in 1995 as a local arm of the Utah Amateur Radio Club. Its mission is to provide education and foster a mentoring atmosphere for ham radio. The club boasts nearly 50 members — and each has their own story.

Shaw fell in love with radio at age 10 when he and his older brother received crystal radio kits for Christmas. A crystal receiver is a simple radio built primarily of wire and a crystalline mineral, powered only by radio waves in the air. Transmissions are heard through a single earbud. Shaw and his brother built their kits that very day and spent many hours listening to KDYL and KSL — the only stations they could pick up reliably from their home in Murray.

“On Sundays we’d kick it on before church and listen to the [Mormon] Tabernacle Choir,” Shaw recalled. “Mother would be listening to it upstairs on an AM radio, but we were downstairs listening to it through our little earbuds. It was a very pure form of radio.”

Riding (call sign AC7RR) has always been fascinated by radio, but his interest in emergency communications stems from a 1978 incident when he was the first responder to an auto-pedestrian accident on SR-89 in Weber County. Radio was the only form of mobile communication back then, and Riding used his Citizens’ Band radio to call for help.

“That’s why I always want to have a radio with me,” he said.

Riding is vice president of WDARC and currently serves as the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) Emergency Coordinator for Tooele County. In the event that established government emergency communications fail, Riding will spearhead backup amateur network to temporarily bridge the gap.

Ham operators also form the backbone of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ emergency communications network. Volunteer ham operators representing each ward and stake are on constant standby to facilitate communications and welfare supply delivery during disasters. During a major 1994 wildfire in Skull Valley, Shaw participated in an LDS Church-led operation to establish a communication network and full-service shelter. Though the shelter was ultimately not used, Shaw considers it a testament to the effectiveness of ham radio.

Beyond emergency communications, ham radio is the model of technical experimentation and do-it-yourself electronics. Hams have made considerable contributions to the fields of science, engineering and aerospace. Numerous innovators in the technology and media industries got their start in ham radio, and most astronauts are licensed. Hams were using satellites to boost their communication as early as 1961. In the 1970s they pioneered packet radio, a precursor to modern computer networks and the Internet. In turn, ham radio incorporates modern Internet technology to extend its range and capabilities. The Internet Radio Linking Project (IRLP) enables the linking of stations worldwide via Voice over IP. Higley (KD7FXS) believes that IRLP is a key to sustained enthusiasm for ham radio.

“Basically that gives you worldwide communication — and you have access to that at entry level,” he said.

Back at the EOC, a ham in Bountiful with call sign KF7MTE responds to Shaw’s CQ call and spends several minutes chatting about equipment and getting started with ham radio. This kind of talk is typical, as are conversations about weather, traffic, news relevant to ham radio and other pleasantries.

Shaw said getting licensed can be quick and relatively inexpensive. WDARC meets monthly at the EOC and sponsors two training courses per year for newcomers. The club encourages anybody interested to contact them about training. Potential amateur radio operators must pass a multiple choice exam to prove their knowledge of radio operation and FCC regulations. There is no age limit. According to Shaw, the youngest ham operator in Tooele County is 14 years old. Equipment costs vary according to need and interest.

Listening to the WDARC guys, it’s difficult to identify a single source of their passion. Many are attracted to the emergency service aspects of ham radio. Others are drawn by a sense of community. Some crave long-distance contact and competition. Riding described ham radio as a hobby with many sub-hobbies, offering the example of building “homebrewed” radios.

“You’ll have extremely low power operations where they’ll build a transmitter out of an Altoids can or a tuna can,” he said.

Underlying all of these interests seems to be a wide-eyed fascination with the radio phenomenon and a desire to harness its potential.

“RF [Radio Frequency] is out there, and radio is a way to capture it,” Shaw explained. “Amateur radio lets you control it.”

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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Radio, Tech


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