Youth@HamRadio.Fun: Getting on the Air
By Sterling Coffey
ARRL Youth Editor
The best things in life are free-- including ham radio.
As a member of my college’s Amateur Radio club, I come across so much free stuff, including a giant Yaesu FT-1000MP HF transceiver, a smaller FT-897D and a Cushcraft beam -- more than $3000 of equipment. These rigs and antenna were donated to our college station. Even before I left for college, I got to use equipment loaned to me by members of my local Amateur Radio club, the WA0FYA Zerobeaters. They gave me my first fully fledged HF rig. It was a faulty Yaesu FT-767GX, a 30 year old brick that wouldn’t transmit or tune using the knob and had sticky buttons, too. It did still receive, and after cleaning the buttons, I heard my first few HF signals on a wire I put together from a discarded set of Christmas lights. I even cracked it open and found the problem -- the final transistors for transmit and a small LED for the tuning knob were all faulty. Before getting my IC-746, I returned it to the Zerobeaters Club and they were glad I cleaned it and found the problem. I was only 15 at the time, so they were quite surprised I found the problem.
Getting on the air can be free! It doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars, and here is how it can be done.
Get involved with a radio club. One of the best ways to get on the air, as well as to find an “Elmer” is to involve yourself in a local ham radio club. I started out with the WA0FYA Zerobeaters Amateur Radio Club. One Tuesday night, I showed up at a meeting and everybody wanted to shake my hand, say hello and see why this 15 year old kid is in an old bank building full of old folks. Over time, I got to use the ham shack inside the clubhouse and even got to take home one of the radios for myself. Amateur Radio clubs often have centrally located clubhouses with a ham shack that is free for its members to use. Finding a local radio club is easy -- just go to the ARRL website and click on “Clubs” above the main banner. Then type in your ZIP code in the left-side search form. For a regional search, only enter your state in the drop down menu.
Visit a local hamfest. A hamfest is like a flea market with vendors and individuals selling their equipment. Other events take place, such as licensing sessions, cool forums and raffles. Incredible deals await you at hamfests --I got a set of Heil headphones from the St Louis Winterfest for only $40 when they easily sell for more than $150. The man who sold it to me gave me the “High Schooler Discount,” as he called it. I bought it right after meeting the man himself, Bob Heil, K9EID, who owns Heil Sound. As a ham, Bob caters to the Amateur Radio community and has a whole line of products for us.
Sometimes, but not all the time, there is an entrance fee for local hamfests, and most offer a raffle where you can buy tickets to be randomly drawn for prizes. I don’t have Lady Luck on my side; the only thing I’ve won is a book, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop buying raffle tickets!
The same process for finding clubs applies for finding hamfests -- right next to “Clubs” is “Hamfests,” and a search form will appear.
Research online auction sites and Amateur Radio classified sites for good deals. These places of online commerce are much like hamfests, for you can find hidden jewels within their web pages. It can take a lot of time to look for the right deal. Both eHam.net and QRZ.com have online classifieds, places to buy, sell and trade equipment. I bought my first handheld transceiver from eBay for $50. By watching eBay carefully, I saved more than $150 dollars. I have also purchased coax and antennas from eBay and QRZ.com for very good prices.
One thing to note is that it would help to have a free membership with both eHam and QRZ when browsing their ads, because sometimes the better ones are blocked because of being operated anonymously.
Get on the air from the web. The Internet has a myriad of web-connected receivers and transmitters for you to use. EchoLink is also a great way to get started with Amateur Radio and have conversations with people around the world. The easiest way to hear stations all over the world on web-based receiver is a website called WebSDR.org. Here you can find several stations pinpointed on a map that you can click on and all of a sudden, static will come through the speakers and a screen will show up with a clickable “waterfall” type display. The easy-to-use interface allows navigation through the airwaves with just a mouse by clicking on the purple display where you can see live signals bouncing through the ionosphere. The only thing you need is a computer with Java installed.
Another very interesting thing is a program called SDR-RADIO by Simon Brown, GD4ELI. SDR-RADIO is a program designed to operate with small, home-built software defined radios, but it can also connect to other SDRs connected to the Internet. The program can be difficult to use at first, but Simon does a great job providing plenty of documentation for help when you need it. It provides full functionality as if it were connected to a SDR directly, allowing you to click and navigate the bands just like the WebSDR interface does, except with a lot more features.
The WebSDR receivers and SDR-RADIO program are great programs to hear and understand what different radio signals sound like, and you do not even need to have a license to use them. To get on the air, there is one more way I know of that has the ability to send your voice to repeaters across the world. EchoLink is a great way to get on the air using only your computer and Internet connection. EchoLink is a program that allows you to connect to repeaters connected to the web all around the world. The program is free, but since your voice is sent through regular repeaters, you need just a Technician license. You will find EchoLink here, along with plenty of information on how to get started.
It takes some determination, patience and initiative to get on the air, but it will pay off in the end. Acquiring equipment at little or no cost can be difficult, but if you let others know of your situation, many hams would be happy to donate or loan your equipment to you. In fact, Carole Perry, WB2MGP, and the Radio Club of America donate stipends and equipment to schools as an attempt to educate students in elementary, middle and high school about wireless technology. It is surprisingly easy to get a school club started, thanks to all the help from the ARRL and Mrs. Perry, along with several other generous hams across the nation. See if you can get a club started at your school. Let your science teachers know about the idea of ham radio and how it can help teach students about electronics, physics and wireless technology, as well as spark interest in other students! You can e-mail Carole is reachable, and if you have any questions about starting a club, or about getting on the air, or even figuring out how to get your license, you can email her or me -- or ask just about any ham and they will be happy to help!
Thanks for reading and 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.