Youth@HamRadio.Fun: The First Contact -- Explaining the Excitement of Your First QSO


By Sterling Coffey, N0SSC
ARRL Youth Editor

Experienced hams knew it all too well. Volunteer Examiners expect it. And for some reason, newly licensed hams fear it. What could it be? As the title suggests, completing your first contact is a daunting -- yet exciting -- event for many. Why is that? What can we do to get over that lump-in-the-throat feeling known as “mic fright?”

You may have read some of my previous articles that mention how exciting my first few contacts were. What wasn’t mentioned is that I spent a few months simply getting over an irrational and unknown fear of talking on the radio – “mic fright,” as they called it. During the few months after getting my license, I merely listened to the almost daily 2 meter nets that occurred throughout the Greater St Louis area. My nearest one was the WA0FYA net out of Washington, Missouri, which was the same club that helped me get my license. Despite knowing almost all of the people who would check in to these nets, I stayed quiet behind the microphone, gathering up knowledge of how traffic is passed through the different are a nets.

One day on a WA0FYA net, the net control asked if I was out there. It sent a chill up my spine and I remained quiet, continuing the net after a few moments of listening. It’s worth mentioning that one of my other Amateur Radio activities at the time was “kerchunking,” or keying up repeaters without identifying oneself. This poor practice is against FCC regulations, so remember to always ID when transmitting. Despite that, I felt if anyone heard my call sign they would want to say something, and I was deathly afraid of that!

Toward the end of those few months, I attended a club meeting. I walked into the clubhouse and I immediately realized I was the center of an “intervention.” Everybody was curious why I wasn’t on the air yet. I fabricated a white lie: I said I don't have an antenna (when I really had a 4 element beam 10 feet above my roof). Someone left the room to the downstairs basement and came back with an 8-element Yagi antenna and tripod and forced me to take it! From that point, it was settled -- I have to get on the net now!

I arrived home and placed the new Yagi in the garage (I eventually gave it back). Tuesday evening came around and my heart was pounding as the net was about to start. The net controller began with an introduction and a call for emergency traffic. Immediately after that, he called for me! I was shocked and unprepared, so I remained silent. He waited, and waited and finally he said, “KD0BZE, come now or forever hold your peace.”

A dilemma of rationality buzzed through my mind. Why was I so hesitant to talk? What was I afraid of? I believe the answer lies in a side effect of studying and taking the Technician exam. After reading the Technician manual, learning things from more experienced hams and finally passing the test, a sort of doubt instilled in my mind that I would end up breaking the rules, causing a commotion and ruining a yet unformed reputation. But I knew exactly what to say, and how to say it after listening to so many nets over the course of two months.

The moment after he let go of his radio’s push-to-talk button, everything sort of “clicked,” and in a jumbled heap of phonetically pronounced letters, I checked into the net. Everyone promptly welcomed me and I felt tons of weight lift off my shoulders.

So why did I let myself miss out on the fun of actually communicating on the radio for the first few months of being a ham? Like I said, the exam trains you to be an effective communicator and I felt I couldn’t live up to the challenge, more worried that I would mess up than anything. Surprisingly, I'm not alone out there -- if you hear several repeaters in the area being kerchunked, it could very well be a timid youth like me, seeing how far his radio can reach, yet I believe I was one of the worst cases of mic fright. And if you are a timid newbie, there’s no need to be! Most hams are strongly welcoming to all, especially young enthusiasts like me and you, and you’re missing out on loads of fun on the air.

Let me put it this way: The worst (well, almost the worst) thing that could probably happen is that you find yourself in a conversation with a very long-winded ham (I like to call them “story tellers”) and a few things can happen here. Maybe a few minutes turn into a few hours of very deep and interesting conversation, whereas other times you find yourself falling asleep. If at any time you want to get off the radio in any QSO simply say so. I always say “I’ve got to get back to homework,” or “It’s dinner time for me so 73 for now.” Don’t feel like you have to stay in QSO with someone for a long period of time.

This was all on 2 meter FM through a repeater -- you probably couldn’t imagine what it was like when I got on HF! Ironically, it was a bit easier to respond to CQ calls than it was for my first FM repeater check-in, yet it wasn’t until the 2008 ARRL November Sweepstakes when I did! The formal atmosphere of simple exchanges in contesting makes it a lot easier to rack up QSOs without any fear of messing up. And even if you stumble onto a contest and don’t know the exchange (or even what it is), just ask and the contester will be happy to help.

If you would like to see what it was like to make my first CW QSO, check out this video. At W0EEE, we always have newcomers to the station, and I made a video of a few of them making their first HF QSO. You can see that the first QSO is exhilarating, and after leaping over that initial barrier, everyone at W0EEE was eager to make more!

So don’t fear the microphone -- we won't bite!

--Sterling Coffey, N0SSC

Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is just finishing up his sophomore year at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, where he is majoring in electrical engineering. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers.