It Takes a Club
Looking at variations in Amateur Radio licensing activity and new ARRL membership around the country, it's apparent that there are "hot spots" where newcomers are joining our ranks in relatively large numbers compared to other areas.
What does it take to make such a "hot spot"? One answer is that it takes a local radio club -- but not just any club. It takes a club that has made a commitment to reach out to the community or communities that it serves, with a program to bring friends and neighbors from a vague awareness of Amateur Radio all the way to being active radio amateurs.
Such clubs don't just happen. It takes vision, leadership and a lot of hard work. It takes club officers and members who are willing to venture beyond their normal comfort zone. It takes a welcoming, supportive and non-judgmental attitude on the part of everyone in the club that a newcomer is likely to encounter.
The good news is that once you have such a club it becomes -- almost -- a perpetual motion machine. Here's how it works.
Assuming that your community has a radio club and that you're a member, the first step is to develop a culture of outreach and welcome within the club. This takes conscious effort, especially if your members are in the comfortable rut of talking to the same group of friends all the time.
Imagine that you're listening to the club's repeater for the first time, as an amateur who is either new to the community or a new licensee. Would you feel welcome to join in the conversation, or would you feel that you would be regarded as an intruder? Now, imagine that you're attending a club meeting for the first time. You walk in and see knots of people talking among themselves. Would anyone greet you and introduce them-selves or would you be left standing by yourself? Before you're ready to make a serious outreach effort you must be able to answer these questions positively.
Being friendly and welcoming is necessary, but not sufficient. Does your club offer licensing classes? Do you help new licensees get over the many other hurdles -- selecting and installing antennas, learning how to use equipment, debugging interference to and from consumer electronic devices, and so on -- that stand in the way of aspiring operators? Do you make sure that their first on-the-air contact is a positive experience, and offer nets and roundtables that they will want to join? Do you expose them to the wide variety of activities that they can pursue as radio amateurs? Do you encourage ARRL membership, so they will enjoy full access to membership benefits and will receive the monthly stimulus of QST?
If you have all of these bases covered, congratulations! Your club is ready to promote itself to the community. Most clubs already have some experience doing this, with varying degrees of success. While a full discussion of the do's and don'ts is more than this page can accommodate, here are a couple of thoughts.
There are many amateur licensees in your community who are not presently active. With the caveat that some are Silent Keys and others have not kept their addresses current in the FCC data base, it's easy to compile a mailing list for an invitation to an Open House or other special event. If you succeed in reactivating them, their renewed enthusiasm may infect their friends and family members.
If you invite the general public to come and see your club, make sure there's something for them to look at. Even a static display with some QSL cards and photos of past club events can be an ice-breaker, giving your greeters something to talk and invite questions about.
Field Day is just around the corner. With proper planning it can be an ideal event for introducing Amateur Radio to your community, and your club to existing and prospective licensees. This year there is a new, easy-to-use tool for publicizing your club's Field Day site: the ARRL Field Day Station Locator Web Site, www.arrl.org/contests/announcements/fd/locator.php. But remember -- an invitation to visit your site carries with it the responsibility to ensure that visitors (including children) are safe and that they have a positive, informative experience. If your Field Day operation is open to the public, the proper greeting of visitors cannot be left to chance -- it's as important a part of Field Day planning as the antennas, equipment, operators and food.
Every club has its ups and downs. If yours has been in the downward part of the cycle, now is a good time to take stock -- to capitalize on the strengths and overcome the weaknesses. The opportunities for club growth, in quality as well as quantity, have never been greater.
Oh, about that "perpetual motion machine." Have you ever attended a club meeting where there was to be an election of officers, but there were more offices than candidates? If not, you're fortunate. Many clubs with static or shrinking membership lists find that it's difficult to fill club offices or undertake new projects. Once a club finds the formula for attracting and nurturing new members, maintaining the club's vibrancy and activity becomes much easier.
The best local clubs provide a logical path for identifying and developing their future leaders, from student to new member and in succession to greeter, committee member, committee chairman, and officer. Your club's president for 2012 may be someone who sees Amateur Radio in action for the first time on Field Day -- or may be sitting in your licensing class right now!
David Sumner, K1ZZ