Categories: In the shack

What’s wrong with ham radio

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.

Razvan: Interested in computers, electronics, building radio equipment, portable/SOTA operations and SDR. I think amateur radio is all about building, experimenting and testing new stuff. Licensed M0HZH / YO9IRF.

View Comments (69)

  • I would add another aspect of amateur radio that I believe is very important and often overlooked.

    Civilization depends increasingly on technologies with their development dominated by large corporations and governments. Because of this, the dissemination of new technology tends to be very consumer-oriented and centralized. Instead of individual citizens being active participants in the development of technology, citizens are disengaged from the process of innovation.

    This was not always the case, and in the early days of amateur radio, there was so much to discover that an amateur radio operator could easily be on the forefront of communications invention.

    I think amateur radio still has an important role to play to reengage individual creators with the process of technological innovation. It is crucial for a free and democratic society that individuals are empowered to both understand, manipulate, and advance the technology on which their welfare and happiness depends. Any society which has its citizens dependent on an elite to provide the technology needed for their health and welfare is not free.

    Of course, this aspect of maintaining a democracy is not exclusive to the amateur service alone, but as the communication airwaves are a contentious resource, it is important that access to this resource is preserved for the purposes of education and invention of private citizens.

    • Large corporations no longer to research and development, like in the 20th century.

      Nowadays, large corporations to aqui-hire. The buy out startups and then, either integrate their research, or simply sit on it, to stifle Innovation.

      Apple has acquired a popular weather app and killed off the Android version. A tactic they have done many times.

      So many of these innovations can be traced back to amateur radio. The biggest secret of ww2, the radio proximity fuse, was developed with the help of radio hams. The world needs technical hobbies, like amateur radio.

  • > Have young spokespersons, involve them in decision making, let them have their say about what they like/need/want.

    This resonates with me. I've been playing this angle for a long time (almost 10 years) and it's been incredibly difficult to get a word in edgewise, with all of the political-type drama and infighting that plagues radio organizations and societies like IARU and ARRL. I've been fortunate to have a pretty big amplifier on my blog, youtube channel, and other venues like the Young Amateurs Radio Club (YARC) and Youth on the Air (YOTA), so things are a-changing rapidly!

    This was a really well spoken and thought out contribution. Thank you!

  • Excellent article... This is a topic I've been thinking of lately, although not with the author's focus and intensity. I agree with every one of his points! As one who's tried to get my sons interested in the hobby (and they are both technology-savvy), I recognize the points about both the cool factor and our poor job of gatekeeping.

    As an aside, young people and those just entering are not the only ones who'd benefit from 'kits and affordable products.' When I see some of the rigs on the market today, I realize that I could get one and NEVER master its features (but, that's a joke, because I can't afford even a $3,000 rig). There should be many more IC-718s and FT-450Ds, but more affordable, available as kits, and ready to use on digital modes.

    Thanks for this, Razvan! I wish ARRL and other such organizations would think outside the box like this!

  • The main problem with amateur radio in this day and age is that it is a venue that has run out of frontiers. There are a lot of reasons for this and it's not necessarily the internet, but technology itself. We have gone from tubes to the transistor to integrated circuits to surface mount technology. We have gone from CW, to AM, to SSB, to FM and now, the overall commercial industry is digital. Same with fast-scan television, we went from monochrome to NTSC color and now to digital transmission. We have also gone from a culture of builders to a culture of coders. There's only so much you can code to support amateur radio. In some ways, the end of the cold war has also played a part. When I was growing up, there was a significant defense sector and a significant manufacturing segment. Much of the manufacturing and R&D has left our shores and is now overseas in mass produced environments. Much of the new development takes place in the commercial private sector. There are no more pioneers. All of the possible frontiers have been crossed.

    In our country, we have a national organization that cares more about their political structure and being a publisher than it is about being a "club". Yes, many IARU societies are publishers but they also are smaller. Our national organization has also put way too much emphasis on emergency communications. They have realized that there are no more frontiers , so they must use what they have. The emergency communications application is more attractive to preppers/militia types, this is tied to a second-amendment movement, which is tied to right-wing conservatism, which is tied to white supremacy. A twist of the dial will show that this type of behavior is rampant from 160 to light.

    As humans, our historic culture of misogyny also plays a huge role. A time when women were still property and did not have a real role in the development of our nation. A time when women were historically denied an education and those who were educated were never put in roles that were deemed as "man's work". This was a time when amateur radio still had many uncrossed frontiers ahead. If you walk into a club meeting, you will see the hair color of most members is gray, except for the few, who in their spare time worship their AR-15. Amateur radio clubs are intimidating to women, minorities and even children and are not welcoming and in some cases, hostile towards people of color and the LGBT. We as a service do not leave a positive first impression for potential amateurs. Just look at that cesspool called the QRZ.com Forums. A couple of years ago, I filed a Petition for Rulemaking to start to nudge the FCC and the NTIA into looking at the possibility of an amateur radio allocation in the 40 MHz band on a secondary basis. One of the things I stated in there was that with the growth of FT8 and its propagation on 10 and 6 meters, it may be a good idea to open a mid-band at 8 meters in order to experiment with transatlantic propagation. I said in the Petition that we need something new in amateur radio to attract "makers" and those willing to build hardware, antennas and software to support digital modes. Then perhaps I made the mistake of mentioning that "we need to do everything we can to get more women and girls interested in STEM subjects". I was raked over the coals for that and as a result, 8 meters was known by some as "the band for girls."

    Our national association is too hung up on its history and is not interested in moving forward. They need to let Hiram Percy Maxim and the Wouf-Hong go. The league is losing membership because those that were life members from a time when there was frontiers are now dying off and those who are new are not necessarily interested in how the spark gap worked. Instead, of improving the quality of life for the average amateur, the League is more interested in raising their membership numbers (i.e. more eyes reading QST, meaning more advertising sales) by further trying to lower the bar for licensing. A prime example of this is the League's petition to give Technician class (i.e. entry level) amateurs not just more data privileges in the HF bands, but also expanded phone privileges. The League is further deteriorating the concept of incentive licensing in order to gain more members. There was a time when if you wanted extra physical privileges, you had to work for them by studying. This meant upgrading from Novice to Technician to get the VHF bands. This meant upgrading from Technician to General to gain HF phone privileges. Going to Advanced and Extra gave you more "administrative" privileges (i.e. shorter call signs and the ability to be a VE as well as frequency privileges in bands they already had as a General). If the ARRL gets their way and further devalues incentive licensing, then all upgrades will be for purely administrative reasons.

    Most of our bands that have any real commercial value (420 MHz to light) are already secondary to the Amateur Radio Service and also include federal allocations, which at the drop of a hat or through Congressional mandate can result in the NTIA releasing this spectrum to commercial interests. The loss of these UHF and microwave bands is eminent. The HF and VHF bands, less likely. Places like Ireland have recognized that there is no value in low band VHF that they practically gave amateurs a huge allocation including most of 30 to 70 MHz to amateur radio. We need to be more creative with the spectrum we have. Experimentation needs to come first, emergency communications second, training third and rag-chewing last. We are out of frontiers and it's not the internet to blame, but instead, the many advances in technology that eventually resulted in today's internet.

    de KU3N

    • Excellent write-up Michelle. Indeed, most Amateur Radio organizations are too set in their ways to push the hobby forward, the change must come individuals.

      Don't lose too much sleep over the 8m band, if it doesn't happen now it will happen later, it's being discussed in many countries and organizations, IARU is supporting it etc. But the fact that you managed to open the discussion about women and girls in STEM and Amateur Radio is more important, I think.

    • It seems like your experience mirrors mine, with the cherry of misogyny on the sundae. My experience with amateur radio is that hams are the reason people don't become hams.

    • One of the most important arguments to justify the amateur service allocations in the future is the training of future engineers and scientists. STEM should be a major justification for the existence of ARRL. This is something that ARRL must firmly get behind and they have been completely absent from this! Is it because they are afraid of offending their anti-intellectual constituency? If so, the amateur service is doomed, because once the current voting cohort of ARRL dies off, there will be no one to replace them. Every issue of QST should have instances of smart kids using amateur radio for something new. It should be using amateur radio as a way of elmering kids into getting excited about radio, electronics, and science. If I look at the August 2020 issue of QST, I see a DXexpedition article and a few rehashed antenna designs. A most of the issue is just repeats of the ads from previous issues. I really am not sure what will motivate ARRL to do what needs to be done to save it from itself. But it is not acting as an advocate anymore for a future for amateur radio.

    • Very nicely written, Michelle! It's a real problem that old, misogynistic (and sometimes racist) white men are the face of our hobby. The hobby grew at a time when the "XYL" served at men's beck and call, taking care of the kids and changing diapers while you did your 48 hour contest 5 times a year. Very few of the professional, scientifically trained persons who could bring life back to the hobby live that life anymore. Meanwhile, we've sacrificed an opportunity to make the hobby attractive to over half of the population!

      • I agree ... But now "we" need to find a solution if we want Amateur radio to continue to exist. My view (and I am 67 years old) is that we need to put aside the "old farts" (I am old so I can say that ;-)) "not in my turf" and accept the integration of new technologies. Stop saying that HotSpots are not amateur radio; that no-coders are not hams; that we must keep the archaic data limits on HF; that we "promote" out hobby with archaic Morse code and technobabble.

        We need to open our eyes and adapt our hubby to the 21st century. New blood are not fascinated by being able to push to someone overseas on a noisy HF channel when they can do this from their phones.

        HF only attracts a small number of kids. Yes, we see many getting licenses but how many upgrade to General? Most are content with the tech license as they can play with current technology in V/UHF and it doesn't require crazy antennas and power.

        As for our public safety speech, let's get over it. Yes, we can be useful but only as the last resort. Most first responders consider us as "amateurs" and judging by some of the "trained hams" I hear, they are right. Yes, some have experience and know what to do, but the majority don't.

        I can still cruise at 20 wpm and I have lots of experience with emergency communications but I am sad when I hear the obstructionist hams who block advancements claiming that it will destroy our hobby while not realizing that their actions are doing just that
        I am also sad that our ARRL lacks the vision and tries to be politically correct by supporting the obstructionist views of a vocal minority.

        I play with CW, FT8, JS8call, RTTY, (other data modes), voice, HotSpots, Echolink, DMR, D-Dtar and I set up a remote base to get around the CC&R restrictions. Not bad for a 67-year old ham who has been in the hobby since 1969. Prior to COVID I also demonstrated our hobby in schools ... Focusing on new technologies and not in the archaic Morse Code.

        If and by the way, those who claim that CW works when all else doesn't haven't used ALE (they probably didn't even know what it is). You can see message being displayed without hearing anything. Try that with CW. Professional emergency HF use ALE to link and to be able to communicate below the noise level. There are many new modes that are more effective and usable than CW and that's what I focus on.

        You want to attract new blood? Don't use 19th century technology.

        Ok, off my soap box ✌️😷

    • A well thought out response that mirrors the situation here in EI-land (minus the politics & guns). The lack of diversity is staggering, the acute inward focus of publications & many amateur radio websites & clubs is also very noticeable. It makes the whole hobby impenetrable to many.
      Consider what goes on in the "maker" movement... the collaboration, the cross-disciplinary approach... it's a beacon of openess. We should leverage the STEM policy agenda, AR is the original STEM hobby & why we are not out there promoting this fact is beyond me. Could you imagine all those coder maker kids, coding & making for small radio projects... then wanting a licence so they can do more "cool stuff" with radio & other technologies. We are failing big time...

      • There are plenty of new frontiers to conquer,but they must be developed by people willing to work and have more them a push button mentality...Price point is an issue with many hams...Used equipment has become in short supply. I try to push Kits as Ubitx, and if PCB experience Phaser.. FM has been pushed very well. However,more can be done to make it simpler... VHF/UHF CW/digital and Phone has been left behind a bit. AX25 is still being used, we used to have DX Clusters but the internet has changed that. FBB and other systems are being used to connect the states. HF us another story.. Some bands need less issues with phone portions... The digital side is still being pushed...It seems that more digital is leaving the operator out...We can experiment and develop new video modes.. CW has also been automated.. HF areas, noise reduction, bandwidth reduction, design and development of smaller HF antennas, grounding systems, and emergency power systems.

    • The siren song of leftists... we're all "white supremacists" and "misogynists". Talk about identity politics!

      • Uh? The problem is that We The People have forgotten what it means to compromise. It's not the Dems or the GOP, it's all of us. After all we are leaderless these days so it's easier to point fingers than to compromise on solutions. Remember that they are as many Dems in the USA as there are GOPers so your are vilifying adjust half of the USA.

        As for ham radio, to attract a be generation it needs to be appealing to them and CW - HF are not in they fields of view. Then we have our small but vocal "not in my backyard" group who oppose technology advancements by pushing to maintain archaic "Baud" rate limits on HF, who call those who integrate hotspots into their hobby as non-hams, who claim that no coders are not "real hams", etc. If a prospective ham listens to select HF frequencies and hear what goes on there (most are extra chat hams), that's enough for them to drop the idea.

        Many new hams have introduced new concepts but as they are in V/UHF, which doesn't require anything more than a tech license, but that same minority denigrate them because they don't want to upgrade. Heck, they don't need to as they find their niche.

        My point is that we hams are our own worst enemy.

    • You had me squarely in your camp Michelle, that is, until you started the misogynic and LGBQT "arguments". As a father of two very successful daughters and as a Christian Conservative who fulfilled my undergraduate studies during the seventies, my personal perspective is that the "woman's movement" was and continues to be "men's liberation". As long as you insist on thinking of men as competitors rather than partners, as long as you value "diversity" FOR ITS OWN SAKE, as long as you support a "lifestyle" that is defined by habits that are antithetical to major Western and Eastern religious faiths [as if someone's unorthodox proclivities were ANY of my business], you're going to succeed only if finding reasons for your own failures, real of perceived. Take a lesson from Miquel de Cervantes: The windmills are NOT the enemy. SO tired of politically correct politics polluting EVERYTHING these days. Sorry for MY rant, but that's MY perspective.

  • Good analysis. Unfortunately astronauts are very inaccessible. It is a great shame since these youth spent time getting xmit privileges and get ignored in favor of school groups or other milquetoast activities. Radio amateurs should be the first in line.

  • Gatekeeping? Um, uh, there is in fact a license required, and most of the “jargon” appears on the test. I am all for inclusiveness, but look at what letting down the gates did to CB. We do NOT want to go there

  • I can fill in a "?" from the article, though not really relevant to the topic. I was first licensed in 1965, and by then most hams were using commercial equipent. There was still some homebrew going on, and QST had a construction project every month, but I didn't know very many hams who built most of their gear, excluding kits, as Heathkit was a major force in equipment back then, and EVERYONE built a Heathkit at one time or another. Hammerlund, Hallicrafters, Johnson, Collins, Galaxy and Swan are some of the big names I remember, but I could easily refresh that looking at ads in QST. I think the switch actually happened in the late 50's to early 60's. By the 70's, the equipment news was the shift from those American manufacturers I listed to the Japanese Big Three, ICOM, Yaesu and Kenwood.

    • Hi Gary,

      The shift had different timings depending on the part of the world you were in. You are talking specifically about the USA, where the industry flourished after WW II. Europe had to rebuild and was industrially behind for a decade or two, not so much manufactured equipment available. The half of Europe behind the Iron Curtain didn't have any real options until the 90's (!), it was either build your own stuff or be very lucky to obtain old equipment donated by the military via the local clubs. Some parts of the world haven't seen this at all due to political or economic context.

  • Pretty spot on me feels except for including calculating. dipole length with a list of what to no longer encourage. With the super complex computerized nature of todays equipment already taking away the average hams ability to tinker with that as stated.. Well, antennas haven't changed and caN be tinkered with and surely the nature of the relationship between wavelength and frequency should be understood by every ham.. I mean, cmon its simple division not radio rocket science

  • Advancement in the hobby is good. How ever what happens to the infinstructure involved in those advancements when power goes down in a disaster? Thats when back to basics of the hobby radio to radio still works for emergency communications. Cant improve on perfection.

  • Ham Radio has not changed, it's the people who now populate the bands and the FCC.. Years ago you had to take an FCC Exam that was very technical with little or no idea of what the test was like...Also, we had a code test of up to 20 wpm.. Commercial equipment was there from American manufactures, as Collins, Hammerlaund, National, E.F. Johnson, Gonset, Knight Kit, Allied Radio, Heath Kit, Ameco, Central Electronics, Eico, Eldico, and many others..My novice station cost under $80.00 HB 6L6 xmtr Lafayette KT200...The latest hams have no interest in continuing the ham community as an on the forefront of technology...Most can't even program an HT. Because the loss of ham tickets do to the study and work involved the FCC made the test very simple...Here's the questions study and you get a license...NO Code needed...So now what do we have populating the ham bands ? Many ex CB'er's, and those who want to talk without a phone bill. The technical achievements are from the VHF/UHF spectrum as to FM channelized communication... Sound like CB ? I've seen many changes in the FM community since the late 60's when we started making repeaters from surplus commercial equipment. In summation, it's a new breed,less technical with a few who carry the torch of the ham spirit...The question is will it last,is it just a passing fad as CB ?

    • Gilbert, so you think Amateur Radio's problems in 2020 are:

      1. There is no CW test anymore
      2. New licensees don't already know stuff and have to ask
      3. If you were ever on CB you're not welcome in the Amateur Radio community
      4. The "new breed" is less technical.

      Are you sure you're not wishing for things to go back to a much simpler time ?

      Because Amateur Radio is more complex than ever and were' doing things that previous generations didn't even dream about, knowledge is much more accessible, we're building more than ever and there are more hams than there ever was. What you see as "less technical" is actually a different set of skills, more adjusted to modern times and to the resources available. Every generation is smarter than the one before (by about 3 IQ points, studies show) and thinks differently, it's not easy to keep up when things that used to matter become irrellevant and others take their place.

    • We have new challenges, computer interfacing, new modes ( digital), new Channelized FM...i worked on the Oscar series, fun, we install and developed antennas that could be deployed in space. All of this is new but it'snot new to many because it's being used in other areas...I do feel the testing could be brought abit.. However, we need to use the frequencies we have and populate them all the time..If not we will loose them..I'm not against CB'ers.. I was a ARRL OO, ARES EC, VE and a Laural VE an ELMER and a contester FRC...For over 50 years I've enjoyed ham radio and most of it's aspects...I'm not crazy about FT8, it's been hacked and no op needed. Check 7.200 mhz it's a mess. Ham Radio has the most ingenious people I've ever seen. Many work in small groups as QRP, AMSAT, contesters and new digital technology...The playing field is so vast I can't keep up with it. Ham Radio is as it's known, we innovate and integrate the latest technology into the hobby...That's what I believe Ham Radio is ! People innovating and moving the bar upwards..

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