Saturday, December 12, 2009

An example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people

I follow various hams on Twitter and in blogs. Some because they're friends, some because they're part of my local radio community, and some just because I like what they have to say. There's another smaller group I follow, which is people I tend to not agree with. In the same way that conservatives will listen to NPR and watch CNN as a way to better understand and counter the liberal/socialist viewpoint, reading these people's tweets and blogs helps me understand why amateur radio continues to slide into obscurity.

Mike WA4D's "MEWCOMM" blog and Twitter commentary is one which I typically don't agree with. His position on matters relating to amateur radio are highly representative of a mindset which pervades the hobby, and which I believe is ultimately counter-productive to the hobby's evolution. I will use Mike's writings as proxies for opinions held by others, so apologies to Mike in advance; this is not intended to be a personal attack at you. To be fair; I like and agree strongly with Mike's perspectives on politics and foreign policy, but his judgmental attitude towards no-code hams (i.e. those who have not learned Morse Code or "CW" in the parlance) happens to be a perfect example of why amateur radio is failing to attract young people into the hobby. A sampling of Mike's comments include:
  • People who don't know how CW "are not real hams".
  • Removal of the CW testing requirement was equivalent to "affirmative action" or a "back door".
  • CW defines the "soul of the hobby" and "defines what a real ham is in the 21st century".
In 2006 the FCC was in the process of implementing WRC-03 recommendations which would later eliminate CW testing as a requirement for amateur radio licensing. I filed comments with the FCC during the comment period in support of this decision, in which I asked "Is the true measure of technical prowess the ability to understand what amounts to a language?" Indeed; my experience is that hams who know code are no better or worse operators or technologists than hams who don't know code. Some of the smartest hams I know -- hams who have contributed real value in the application of computing technology to radio -- are Extra-class hams who never learned Morse Code. My opinion? These people, and the technology they're developing, will truly define amateur radio in the 21st century.

Mike recently wrote that no-code hams "know not of the 'thrill of recognition'", which I infer to mean that they're not real hams because they're never experienced the "satori" moment of completing their first Morse Code contact. Having experienced the "thrill of recognition" for CW and other modes I can say that while the satori moment for CW is indeed exciting, it's no stronger or more "real" than the satori moment I had when I made a 10,000+ mile contact using JT65A on HF at 50 watts of power into a hand-made antenna cobbled from $2.00 worth of spare parts and wire. I remember both experiences equally well, and yet the JT65A contact is more memorable (and a source of greater pride for me) because I did it using a new (at the time) mode on jury-rigged hardware. But following Mike's logic I guess this wasn't a real accomplishment because it involved use of a computer, and at the time I didn't know how to send & receive CW..?

Amateur radio is a "big tent" hobby which offers something for everyone. If the hobby were healthy, growing, and not in danger of obsolescence I would say "Live and let live" and be done with it. But opinions such as "people who don't know or use CW are not real hams" are too prevalent among a majority of hams, with the end result being that bright young people who might want to explore amateur radio's application to computers and digital communication are scared away by older hams who insist on defining "real radio" in terms that they can understand.

The danger is that, as older hams pass on and are not replaced by younger hams, we will reach a point where the government decides that amateur radio spectrum can be put to better use. ARRL or not, the ham population will be too small to defend our allocation, and combined with decreasing relevance and value to emergency communications we will eventually lose our spectrum. Proficiency in CW and adherence to traditions will not solve this problem and help us keep our spectrum. The only solution is to open our minds, embrace change, and get over this self-defeating need to hold up 100+ year old technology as the gold standard against which new technology must compare.

The crux of the problem is that the prevailing majority has defined amateur radio and its reverence of traditions as an immutable core. This is horribly wrong and ultimately self-defeating. We should instead be seeking ways that encourage the applying of amateur radio to new technologies, and in doing so continuously finding new relevance and recruiting new hams. "Real hams" are those that are creating innovative technology which applies amateur radio to technology, such as Chris K6DBG's hack that converts a Wi-Fi router into an APRS receiver. Speaking the "language" of Morse Code isn't proof of technical ingenuity, doesn't prove that a ham is innovative or intelligent, and arrogantly judging hams based on their ability (or not) to use CW drives away new recruits and will NOT save our hobby.


KB1LQC said...

I agree with most of what you stated. Personally I am an Amateur Extra class license holder and was originally licensed as a Technician with code credit in 2004 at the age of 14. Code is my favorite mode to operate but I by no means hold it as a mode for all to operate.

As for the future of amateur radio, I believe it lies in the experimentation with new and cutting edge technology on the amateur radio spectrum. We sadly do not have as much as we need nowadays but maybe that will change soon, I sure hope so.

My brother and I started a project at which also has a blog at both of which have a goal to create a community of college radio amateurs. We hope to inspire students to pursue the hobby as well as collaborate between schools on new and innovative technology projects. Check it out! thanks for the great post!

goody said...

"Big tent", "open our minds", "embrace change" and accept those who are different? Those are rather progressive concepts ;-)


MJM said...

The ARRL position on software defined radio is typical of the majority's embrace of the past. My 10/02 QST article outlines how SDR could attract a new generation of young people to ARS. ARRL had an SDR committee, but it faded away. The ads and articles in QST on DSP radios are always ambiguous about whether you can modify the DSP in the SDR manner.

If they can't deal with SDR, how will they deal with other new technologies?

I still think that SDR could be a breakthrough technology in ARS if handled properly.

Mike, N3JMM/7J1AKO

Dan said...

I also believe children in school today are taught with computers too much....there is a great influence on younsters to rely more on this kind of technology as games and other similar software are incorported in with computer technology. I truly think this is one of the major factors. Although yes, alot of what else you've highlighted here is influential, I believe the age of technology and computer hardware/software is the main culprit. I normally browse your site to generate new ham radio cartoon concepts but felt it imperative to offer my wo cents otherwise. Great rading....

6p00d8342092d553ef said...

I am unaccustomed to having such a and articulate response to my posts! As my Blog reflects, I post infrequently. I find myself in agreement with much of your position. Still, I see no reason to “grow” ham radio with youth. I came to the hobby enthusiastically, as did thousands of others. If the hobby can’t attract new entrants on its own, then to what end does it continue to exist? I feel no responsibility to encourage youth to join our ranks.

Now here’s a topic I’d like to hear your insights on. I’m in an HRO the other day. I ask one of the guys, what the general sales break down is in the store. VHF/UHF radios VS. HF. He suggests it’s near 90% VHF/UHF radio sales. 10% HF. Now this was off the cuff, and hardly a verifiable metric. But Jeezus! 90/10???? Even if it’s close, that hardly portends a fertile Hf garden in the future! And as a footnote, next time you drive through LA. Hit Scan on a UHF/VHF band radio. Listen to the solitude. Dozens and Dozens of repeaters sit dark, day after day after day……….

MJM said...

WA4D write " Still, I see no reason to “grow” ham radio with youth". Let me respectfully explain why I think he is wrong.

Section 97.1 of the FCC Rules - added at the insistence of the ARRL - by the way states:

"The rules and regulations in this part are designed to provide an amateur radio service having a fundamental purpose as expressed in the
following principles:
(a) Recognition and enhancement of the value of the amateur service to the public as a voluntary noncommercial communication service, particularly with respect to providing emergency communications.
(b) Continuation and extension of the amateur's proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.
(c) Encouragement and improvement of the amateur service through rules which provide for advancing skills in both the communication and
technical phases of the art.
(d) Expansion of the existing reservoir within the amateur radio service of trained operators, technicians, and electronics experts.
(e) Continuation and extension of the amateur's unique ability to enhance international goodwill."

The ham bands' spectrum is a very valuable commodity in today's economy. To give you a ballpark estimate, cellular spectrum is worth $1-2/MHz-pop where "pop" is the population of the are in question. Thus the 2m band is worth $1.2-2.4 billion in today's market.

There are commercial entities that covert the ham bands and the best, perhaps the only defense of the bands is showing they are being used for socially constructive purposes - presently defined as the 5 points in 97.1

I admire "brass pounders" who get great satisfaction using technology which is 50+ years old. I note that when I took the ham test 15 years ago virtually all the questions dealt with pre-WWII technology!

But if the ARS gets lost in the time warp not only will its numbers shrink due to demographic inevitability, but it will find itself unable to defend its spectrum.

Young people and contemporary technology are also key to fulfilling the goals of 97.1! Indeed the goals of 97.1 are also good for both our society and the economy. Generations of leaders of the American electronics industry were hams and they contributed greatly in war and peace. The next generation needs experience in their youth with contemporary radio technology issues. This is not to the exclusion of traditional technology but as a necessary parallel track.


KB1LQC said...


I disagree with your comment that we should not "grow" ham radio with youth. Particularly, I am an avid supporter of the importance that high school school students and above are given the chance to explore the hobby. As you stated, rule (d) talks about expanding the trained operators and electronics experts in the nation. I am currently studying Electrical engineering at College and will say that my experience from the hobby has helped me understand real world engineering. My brother explained it well on the article "Engineering Amateur Radio Today" which can be found at .

The biggest thing that society needs today (college society) are students who are willing to take a risk. Failing means you learned something and I am continually finding peers who are afraid to try something if they don't have a professor nudging them along or if they don't feel like they can do it. Heck Thomas Edison famously said he didn't fail 1000 times at building a lightbulb, he just found 1000 ways not to make it. That type of engineering mindset personally, will help well beyond what any paper and pencil engineering test will ever do. We need students who can engineer, not just get high SAT scores.

MJM said...

I was quoting WA4D on the issue of "growing".

I too believe that ARS has to have an active younger contingent and that was the purpose of my comment.

But trying to attract young people by only emphasizing 50 year old technology is unlikely to succeed.

In my 10/02 QST article I tried to show that software radio technology could be both attractive to young people and will give them the skills they need in today's job market.

KB1LQC said...

Ok sorry about the confusion, and yes I agree with you now. My personal feeling and being younger radio amateur that has been very active with promoting the hobby is that groups wishing to promote to younger generations need to push aside any thoughts of what they think would interest the most youths and see what most youths actually want. I co-founded N1CHS which is now a very active club, am a leader at K2GXT here at RIT, and my brother and I founded We continually reassess our approach which seems to be the right way to go. There will be a time in several years when we will ourselves need to abstract our approach as we will be that much more disconnected from the younger generations to come. It's a fact that can't be avoided, only dealt with.

I will have to read your article in QST. SDR is an amazing technology but must be approached carefully for promoting. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years within technology and amateur radio. Thanks for your input and I look forward to furthering this descussion. I also would suggest everyone to comment on the article I linked to earlier as it is a bit on the edge of being blunt! Lastly, thanks to the writer of this blog post for starting a great discussion, very timely.

Sparqi said...


Thanks for your posts, regardless of position on the issue. It's gratifying to see that my blog is generating debate; indeed it's gratifying to know that people are actually reading my blog! ;)

With all respect to WA4D; I agree with KB1LQC and others that a core value for all amateurs should be to evangelize and extend the hobby to young, old, and those in transition between those two states of being. N3JMM references FCC Part 97.1, and in support of that I'd also refer to the "The Amateur's Code" ( as set forth for many years by the ARRL which states that a core value of being an amateur is "friendly advice and counsel to the beginner". I suppose this could be construed to presume that a "beginner" is someone who came into the hobby on his own, versus through evangelism/promotion. However as N3JMM said if we don't recruit new amateurs there eventually won't be enough of us left to defend our spectrum.

Of course, what's the point of defending spectrum which is not being used? WA4D's branch question regarding the 90:10 split between VHF/UHF:HF sales at HRO, and his comment about the roaring silence of VHF/UHF repeaters in the Los Angeles area are relevant. I wrote about this in Feb 2008, see my blog post "The Sound of Silence" at (

We have the same problem here in Northern California where most repeaters are either "talking time clocks" which nobody uses or are at best used as a private chat channel for two or three guys during their commute hours. And yet people that want to do new/interesting things such as D*Star are unable to obtain spectrum because the NorCal coordination body (NARCC - is controlled by a bunch of old-guard analog repeater guys who refuse to give up spectrum -- even if it's not being used productively. NARCC's membership actually voted to "freeze" changes to the 2m bandplan for 3 years; which despite being a really short-sighted move was better than the 5 year freeze initially proposed. How much will change in 3 years? Likely a lot. Things like this are NOT productive, don't support advancement of new amateur technology, and ultimately if left unchallenged will lead to the death of our hobby through spectrum loss.