Sunday, August 06, 2017

Will Amateur Radio become extinct?

It's an interesting question that has been thrashed around the table more than a few times. I know that my club is in trouble--our youngest member is in his 30s, and I, the next youngest, and nearly 60. I maintain our web site and the Silent Key list is growing by several members per year now. At this rate, in two or three more years, we won't have enough members to have a viable club.

We're not the only local club in this fix. There are a multitude of amateur radio clubs across the US and around the world that have this problem. Ham radio is perceived to be an "old guys' hobby", and to a distressing level, it's true. Tam jokes about the number of fat old white guys at gun shows, and she once remarked about attending a hamfest with Roberta X. I told here that she was going to the only place guaranteed to have more fat old white guys than a gun show, and unfortunately, that's all too true.

For those of you who have been to a hamfest recently, ask yourself "How many female hams did I see?" (And I don't mean wives being good sports.) "How many interested young people did I see?" "How many 'people of color' did I see?" I'll give you my answers. It was the last Charlotte, NC Hamfest, and I saw 1 female ham, no kids and no people of color.

I do a hell of a lot better than that a gun show, I'll tell you.

Our national organization, the ARRL, has had its head in the sand for years on this issue, paying it what is essentially lip service. I hate saying it, but as long as we've kept sending in our dues, they kept sitting in Newington and pretending "All is Well!" and playing patty cake with the government on spectrum issues.

Times may be changing.

According to a note that dropped into my inbox this morning from the ICQ Podcast, it seems that the president of that august group may have had a wake up call. This is from the ARRL's 2016 Annual Report (a document I never read, but apparently someone does), and was written by Rick Roderick, K5UR, the president of the ARRL:

“I prepared my usual talk about some interesting ham radio stories over my 50 years as a ham, how we can talk all over the world, and I brought some QSL cards from rare places to show the group. I have given that talk many times, and it usually impresses people — but not this time. I was surprised to see flat, uninterested faces.”

”I realized that I had to change my approach to the presentation if I was going to keep the attention of these young people. After all, what could ham radio offer people who grew up in homes that had computers hooked up to the internet? Today’s young people are used to riding down the interstate at 70 MPH as a passenger while watching high-definition videos on their iPhones.”

”What we’re hearing from what I call the “new-generation ham,” is that they don’t view ham radio as being about talking around the world, contesting, or traditional aspects of our hobby.”

”Change generally doesn’t come easy to us. But when I looked out at that group of young faces and saw their disinterest in traditional ham pursuits, I realized that I had to change. We have to change. It won’t come easy, but it’s essential that we get to work on it now.”

I note the he "prepared his usual talk". The ARRL once again doing the same old thing they've been doing for years, and he expected it to impress people. Really? Even senior citizens these days "are used to riding down the interstate at 70 MPH as a passenger while watching high-definition videos on their iPhones," there, Rick. You're going to have to come up with more than the same old to impress folks these days. Technophobes have nearly been driven to extinction. I literally don't know anyone who doesn't own a smart phone these days. You folks in the League might want to travel outside of the Newington Time Warp a little more often. And while I'm at it, for Pete's sake, can you build a more modern web site?

Honestly, I'm not sure what it's going to take to renew interest in amateur radio as a hobby. Radio communication is still an important thing. It's used every day to communicate by police, fire, aircraft, ships, forestry workers, retail stores and a whole host of others. Even our cell phones, one of ham radios biggest competitors with the younger generations, uses radio. But there is quite frankly nothing out there that is "sexy" about radio. Sure, we have all the new digital modes, but really, no one but us hams cares. We're doing innovative work with Broadband Hamnet, but again, who outside of the amateur radio community and some emergency management types care? Name anything any of us is experimenting with and I'll ask you that same question and grow older waiting for a good answer.

While I'm waiting, the noise floor will continue to rise as poorly designed and cheaply produced electronics continue to flood into the markets in every country. In many urban areas, it's already so high that for all realistic purposes, the ability of hams to operate has ended.

I'll also watch as the national telecommunication agencies continue to delete our spectrum allocations and sell that spectrum off to the highest bidder. Eventually, we'll be back where we started, down in the AM bands. Anyone for a quarter wave dipole on 630? It'll only be 371 feet long, give or take a few inches (if I'm doing my math correctly). You'd better have a big back yard.

Yeah, I'm starting to sound like Debbie Downer here, and that's not really the point I want to make. We, as a hobby, need to start marketing our hobby, and we need to start now. I got into this via the emergency preparedness path, and there are quite a few folks who do. However most of them get a Technician Class license and stop there. I didn't; I have my General and am working ever so slowly on my Extra. I'm a rarity. The hobby can't count on outliers like me.

As a hobby, we have to find a message that takes the best of what we are and puts it out there for everyone to see. We need to put our tradition of experimentation and innovation into developing some new technologies that will attract the attention of generations who were raised on video games and the Internet. We probably have to come up with something I can't even conceive of that is going to drum up some serious interest among the geeks of the world. Face it, that is our target audience.

We damn sure can't continue to sit around, dumping the legal limit into a dipole and complaining that the bands are dead.


2 comments:

Debra KI4TON said...

I have a general license. (Only because I thought it was bad form to pass the Advanced or Extra test - or whatever it is today - before I owned my own radio). I own a couple of very nice radios. I am never on the air.

The attitude was (and seems to be) "You're a woman, you need us to tell you exactly what to do." Without knowing anything about me. I should be used to that attitude since I got the same thing at work. (The defense contractor was the worst.)

Then there is the group of "you don't know code" bigots. I always wanted them to be able to calculate satellite position data... because as general licensees they have access to the ham sats. But they never understood my point. Which was they were looking back not forward.

Then the ARRL decided that it wasn't about emergency communications, it is about community service. Sorry, but the spectrum isn't going to be defended because you help out at marathons, but because you help out in disasters.

The breaking point was the long/protracted argument I had - via email - with Bob Heil of Heil microphones about how his jokes were sexist, not funny, and he should get some material that was more current than the 1950s.

After that I got out fast. I still have my license because why not?

It would help if the technology got less expensive. You can buy SDRs for a couple of hundred bucks, but they are legal on the ham bands for broadcast. And the old guys don't like SDRs - Flex had to introduce a control panel that looks like a 1980s radio because of that.

The Freeholder said...

Debra, I understand where you're coming from. When I got my Technician class, like most people I got an HT to start. No one on the local repeaters would acknowledge my existence. I tried a few times over a period of weeks and then put it up.

We moved, but I never got it back out. One set of neighbors moved out and new ones moved in, and I noticed a WiFi network named with what looked like a ham call, so I did a lookup. It was, and it was my new neighbor. So I introduced myself, and eventually met his dad, who was an Extra class. They got me back into it, into a club and eventually interested enough to do my General.

I tell you that so I can tell you this--don't let that bunch of old stuffed shirts run you off from the hobby. If you don't want to do voice, try some of the digital modes. I've been watching FT8, a new mode, and it seems to be a "thing", as my kids would put it. But please get back on the air. We need folks like you.