Youth@HamRadio.Fun: An Elmer’s Guide to Explaining Ham Radio
By Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
ARRL Youth Editor
Hams have always been at the forefront of wireless technology since the dawn of radio in the late 1800s.
Long ago, we were granted an impressively diverse and expansive hobby that allowed the technologically and electronically curious to not only experiment on topics ranging from amplifier design to propagation studies, but to also come together as a worldwide social community to make contact and share various stories about countless topics. With such a large community of technically inclined people, things such as the Internet and cell phones became reality. Even things such as AM/FM radio are still getting attention as Chevy turned to Don Hibbard, W8DBH, to engineer a hidden antenna solution for the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro.
Today our hobby has more facets than the a hundred Hope Diamonds. A fantastic website to view all of what ham radio has to offer is one run by Jeff Dinkins, AC6V. This website contains links to over 700 topics of ham radio. Personally, I can think of at least 15 sub-hobbies of Amateur Radio that I most enjoy -- such as satellite contacts and contesting, as well as high altitude balloon telemetry and radio direction finding. These topics diverge into even smaller sub-categories that make our hobby one of the most diverse activities to think of.
I believe that a few caveats are brought about because of the expansiveness that our hobby has to bring -- how do we spark the interest of non-hams so that they will want to become licensed and bring something new to ham radio? Until coming to the Missouri University of Science and Technology, I’ve always thought that ham radio was one of those niches that were only for those with an intense passion and curiosity for it from a young age. Most of the hams I know have the commonality that they were radiomen in the armed forces, or their parents had an equal passion. I split this stereotype, as my family had no ties to radio. I simply became amazed at how 200 foot range walkie-talkies worked when I was a young child. It progressed from that to FRS radios, to CB radios and then finally I became immersed in the world of Amateur Radio. But for most of the technologically inclined in today’s youth, the idea of ham radio can be lost, either through the lack of knowing about it or hearing too much of it at the same time.
At my high school, I attempted to advertise Amateur Radio through word-of-mouth. Occasionally, during conversations with friends I would bring it up. Some were curious to hear more, but most were clearly uninterested because either they simply did not care, With others, I could not find the right angle and ultimately buried that person with a seemingly boring lecture. In all, I got one person to follow up in interest by attending a club meeting; however, I think the fact that many hams are older gentlemen and women, he became disinterested.
In the summer of 2010, I was accepted into the Missouri University of Science and Technology (MS&T) in Rolla, Missouri. I was sure that I would be able to influence a lot more with the idea of Amateur Radio where everyone at the school was a high-achieving student pursuing a career in a technical field. I was ecstatic to walk around with an antenna sticking out of my backpack to capture those with experience, and those with questions as to why there is an antenna. Together with a few other hams, we rebuilt the W0EEE club and recruited six new members in one semester.
My story still leaves the question: How do we get the average youth to become a ham? It seems that it is true that a predisposition for Amateur Radio is necessary to facilitate licensure. But it is also true that a well-versed description and perhaps a demonstration are almost enough to do the same.
Describing Amateur Radio depends on the listener. An Elmer will have to take steps to determine what kind of person he is talking to. Is he or she a leader? A socialite? Or a tinkerer? What are their other interests? Weather? Cars? Space exploration? Amateur Radio can be suited to almost any personality. It is easy to talk circles around your listener without realizing it. The difficulty lies in asking questions first, then catering to specific interests in the listener. A sporty individual might like the contests. A tinkerer might enjoy knowing how different antennas do different things. Stargazers may be shocked to hear that something as far away as the moon or meteors are reflectors to radio signals. It is always vital to establish a connection to your listeners. When describing ham radio, always keep in mind the listeners interests and try to ask questions like “What do you like to do?”
Another tactic that is especially effective with younger audiences is demonstration. To complement a description, a demonstration adds value and emphasis to your conversation. An example of a sort of demonstration is using a handheld transceiver to show how one can communicate around the world over a repeater that uses Echolink. A fun demonstration that the MS&T Amateur Radio Club likes to do is mini-Field Days, where we set up outside on campus to highlight emergency-style communications with the world. With kids, like the Boy Scouts of America during their Jamboree on the Air (JOTA), Elmers should try to involve their listeners as much as possible during such a demonstration, such as talking to a different state or country to demonstrate the lack of boundaries to HF radio. Although not necessary, demonstrations are powerful techniques of a presentation.
Sometimes your listener will want just a simple answer to the question “What is ham radio?” They may not be completely interested in the entire background, so a simple answer should ensue. But what should you do if your listener is truly interested? One of the biggest put-offs of new recruits is the necessity of licensure. Many people shudder at the fact that they must pass a test to become a ham, and even more so that more tests with increasing difficulty are required to gain solo privileges on HF. For those who don’t, you’re lucky. Simply forward them necessary information for exams and perhaps allow him or her to borrow your copy of The Ham Radio License Manual. For poor test takers, there are a few ways to get around this, but either way may take time. I tend to compare the vulgarity of CB radio to show what happens when a license is not required. More or less, this negative way might cause the listener to prefer the “freedom” to say anything; however, I think a better method is showing the positive aspects of ham radio that a license ensures.
If in the end, your listener doesn’t follow up, don’t be discouraged. There are still many more fish in the sea! Sometimes all you have to do is outreach --get your club to reach out to local schools or participate in ARRL Field Day in a public place where you can catch the attention of passersby -- the hams will come squealing in!
Thanks for reading!
73, Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is a freshman majoring in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers.