This is an amazing hobby and has many sides to it, but as anything it’s far from perfect. A Twitter challenge by Ria N2RJ (@RiaJairam) made me think about what can be improved about Amateur Radio.

What is Amateur Radio, really ?

First of all, Amateur Radio is constantly changing, people are in it for different reasons and each think it is a sum of different things.

The essence of AR used to be experimentation with radio waves; this is the era that gave its fame as a technically spearheading hobby, around the middle of the 20th century. You would build your own equipment from spare parts retrieved from TVs, or if you were lucky you would have access to some factory-built kits that you still needed to spend days to get going. This “romantic” era was very significant and equally powerful for those that took part; it established a high level of expectations & rewards from the hobby which later generations struggled to reach. Many mentalities are still stuck in that past (and those technical solutions).

The first shift came when affordable, mass-produced equipment became available (1970s ?). It opened up the hobby to a much larger audience, maybe less technically inclined; this boosted local repeaters, nets and the communication & social side of the hobby. People weren’t in it for experimentation & learning anymore, they’re in it for talking to eachother. You’re part of a world-wide exclusive club, fire up your handheld in any city you travel to and you’ll be in touch with your people in no-time.

The second shift is going on right now and is about internet (we are in fact in the middle of the 5th industrial revolution, but who’s counting anymore). This replaced AR as a means of communication; there is nothing cool about carrying a handheld when everyone has smartphones. This put AR in a crisis as we’re searching for ways to stay relevant. Some are trying to make it useful as an emergency service, which has good PR value but has limited (and quickly diminishing) applicability. Some are going back to the highly technical branch of the hobby, but we are so behind the current communications technology that it will take decades to catch up. Some are trying to diversify it by coming up with different activities that also include AR, like SOTA, POTA etc. It is still not very clear what will Amateur Radio be in the following decades.

Is there really anything wrong with Amateur Radio ?

There is always something wrong; and it has to be, otherwise we wouldn’t move forward.

1. Cost of entry & age. The money/time/energy triangle is relevant here, young people need the hobby to be affordable in terms of money, the middle-aged group needs quick rewards and seniors appreciate less challenging activities. As the equipment market is driven by profit, the first age category is being mostly overlooked, resulting in a seriously aged Amateur Radio population. Luckily some key products are now adressing this, but we definitely could use more of the likes of uBITX, Baofeng and RTL-SDR to fix the age imbalance. What to do ? Give much more visibility to kits and affordable products instead or praising every “bench-queen” US$ 5,000 transceiver from the established brands. Promote radio enjoyment at every level.

2. Attractiveness (or “the cool factor”). This results from the age imbalance, as the older age categories are more likely to promote outdated “selling points”. We do have some fascinating activities and technologies (space communications, SDR, digital modes, SOTA etc) and we could definitely use more, but we need the right people to make them look cool. What to do ? Have young spokespersons, involve them in decision making, let them have their say about what they like/need/want. 

3. Gatekeeping. For a group of people interested in communications technology, Radio Amateurs are pretty bad communicators; in fact, the pursuit of a hobby is in many cases just an effort to relate to people. We feel we’re part of a special club and we challenge others that want to join in an effort to feel better about ourselves and also artificially give more value to our own membership to that club. This comes from a place of frustration which quickly becomes elitism. What to do ? This is hard to fight against, as it requires for the entire hobby to be more enjoyable so it attracts less frustration. I guess campaigning that “gate keeping is not cool” and massively cutting jargon should be high on the list of things to improve.

4. Diversity. This is something that is so obvious and yet so ignored. For such a world-wide hobby, AR has one of the least diverse communities and part of it comes from that gate keeping. Looking around, I can easily see how women or people of a different ethnicity might feel uncomfortable among the average AR community. What to do ? Apart from a general direction of promoting diversity, maybe we should all point out things that stand out. Using women as eye candy in your Youtube videos is sad and discussing “how hot the ladies in the Icom IC-705 video are” is a sign of an emotionally undeveloped personality; don’t be that person, you’re embarrassing everyone.

5. General public perception. The fact that Amateur Radio has so many sides to it is also a disadvantage. We do have a PR problem and every time someone meets a Radio Amateur they see a very narrow side of it, that mostly confirms their prejudice set by “an uncle that had a CB too” or a movie with a sad, nerdy, lonely guy playing with his radio. What to do ? Stop showing people keying CW at 40wpm as if that defines our hobby; stop talking about the F-layer and how to calculate a dipole length. Focus on a simpler and clearer message about what we do, that is interesting and relevant to a wider audience. Get people to watch Contact and the ad with the kid that builds a station and talks to astronauts. Educate instead of focusing on showing off your knowledge and jargon.

Are there other issues ? Certainly. These stand out for me. Let me know what’s your opinion in the comments.