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Radio Scouting

Jim Wilson, K5ND

Scouting and Ham Radio — From Yesterday, Toward Tomorrow

Ham radio has been a part of Scouting since 1918 with the inauguration of the Wireless merit badge. The ARRL was a key contributor in establishing those early requirements and in pulling together that first merit badge pamphlet. This merit badge, among many, is part of Scouting’s legacy of providing concise information and rigorous requirements to introduce Scouts to hobbies, vocations and generally fun stuff. The list of merit badges today numbers over 130, covering diverse topics from Nuclear Science to a recently introduced Welding merit badge. This article provides a brief overview of Radio Scouting, yesterday and today. The images described in this article are visible at lower left. Click on the individual images to see the full-size versions.

Radio Merit BadgeRadio_Merit_Badges_Earned.jpg

Not surprisingly, the history of the Radio merit badge (see Figure 1) reflects the history of Amateur Radio. For example, the 1922 merit badge pamphlet shows a requirement of receiving Morse code at a rate of 10 WPM, in 1930 the requirement was 5 WPM and in 1984 the code requirement was dropped completely. Since then, the number of Radio merit badges earned each year has grown from roughly 1000 per year to more than 7000 in 2009 (click on the chart at right).

Morse Code Interpreter Strip

Even though Scouting dropped the Morse code requirement from the Radio merit badge, it has recently introduced a Morse code interpreter strip. An interpreter strip, worn on the youth or adult Scout uniform over the right pocket, designates those who are proficient in a language and denotes their availability to translate that language for others. In this case, the patch indicates that a Scout or Scout leader is available for disaster communication or other types of supporting communication for Scouting and the community. The patch is in code, with the word M-O-R-S-E spelled out. See Figure 2.

The requirements for the interpreter badge are to show knowledge of Morse code by carrying on a 5 minute conversation at 5 WPM, copying correctly a 2 minute message sent at 5 WPM and sending a 25 word message at 5 WPM. These requirements are very similar to those for other languages such as French, Spanish, American Sign Language, etc.


Jamboree-on-the-Air is an annual event that fosters Scout-to-Scout communication across borders — be it city, county, state, country or even between continents. It is not a contest but a way to get everyone on the air at the same time to communicate with their fellow Scouts, learn about their Scouting experiences, wherever they live, and introduce them to the fun and technology of Amateur Radio. Its purpose is to foster conversations rather than multiple contacts.

JOTA is the largest Scouting event in the world. In 2011 nearly 750,000 Scouts participated with over 6000 stations in operation from 150 countries. The 55th JOTA will be held October 20–21, 2012. Participation in the US has been at a high, but generally unmeasured level. In 2011, with the first US reporting system in place, 68 stations reported over 3000 Scouts in attendance and this with many active stations not reporting. Hopefully, that can be increased in 2012.

This event is organized by the World Organization of the Scout Movement and in each country by the country’s national JOTA organizer and national Radio Scouting committee. See Figure 3.

National Radio Scouting Committee

In early 2011, The National Radio Scouting Committee was formed with a specific focus on improving the results of Jamboree-on-the-Air in the United States. This effort followed on the heels of the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Boy Scouts of America and the ARRL. That MOU formalized a longtime relationship that began with the introduction of the Wireless merit badge in 1918. It also helped set the stage for improved communication and cooperation between the BSA and ARRL around all Radio Scouting activities.

The first step the National Radio Scouting Committee made was to develop a complete website of support materials and information about Jamboree-on-the-Air for both Scout leaders and Amateur Radio operators at This effort continues with the enhancement of JOTA systems and support publications. This support includes materials for teaching the Radio merit badge, which can often be a supporting activity.

The committee also designed a Radio Scouting emblem for use in representing all Radio Scouting activities. This emblem provides an enduring symbol that is unchanged from year to year, as opposed to the JOTA patch design that changes each year. See Figure 4.

K2BSA Amateur Radio Association

The Amateur Radio station associated with the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America began in 1952 at the Schiff Scout Reservation in New Jersey. The call sign, K2BFW, was licensed to the Boys’ Life Amateur Radio Club. In the late 1960s, Walter Maxwell, W2DU, a frequent contributor to QST, began working with the BSA and the FCC to establish a special club call sign. His efforts were rewarded in 1971 with the call sign K2BSA. This was well before vanity call signs and demonstrated the passionate effort made by Walter, the BSA and the FCC to secure this special call sign.

Today the K2BSA Amateur Radio Association is a nonprofit organization that promotes Radio Scouting and provides a great deal of Radio Scouting information at Be sure to check out the history pages, including copies of the K2BFW license and Walter Maxwell’s story of how the K2BSA call sign was obtained.

National Scout Jamboree

K2BSA has been in action at every national Scout jamboree since 1977. However, Amateur Radio has been present since at least 1953, when K6BSA was in operation from Irvine, California. Jamborees are held every 4 years. Scouting estimates that roughly 50,000 Scouts have experienced Amateur Radio over the intervening 15 events.

The 2013 National Scout Jamboree will be held at Scouting’s newest national high-adventure base, the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve, in West Virginia. The exciting news is that the Summit will be the permanent home of the jamboree. This means any Amateur Radio infrastructure put in place can benefit all Scouting programs held at the Summit, as well as future jamborees. ICOM America’s jamboree sponsorship will result in the permanent installation of three repeaters on the property to serve not only the jamboree but also all Scouting programs at the Summit and the local community.

Local Council Station Loans

As part of the sponsorship agreement with ICOM America, up to 10 complete Amateur Radio stations will be available for long-term or short-term event loans to local councils. This will serve not only to help local Scout councils get Amateur Radio up and running, but also to create community and national visibility around Amateur Radio and Scouting.


Amateur Radio and Scouting have gone together since 1918 and over that time the activities have not only grown but thrived. The fantastic growth in the number of Scouts earning the Radio merit badge in the first decade of the 21st century is just one example. If you’re involved in Radio Scouting in your local community, thank you so much for all you’ve done to support introducing Amateur Radio to youths. If you’re not involved, what are you waiting for? Check with your local radio club and see how they’re connected to Scouting. If they are, get involved. If not, check with your local Scout council to determine how you can get involved. Set up a JOTA station at a local camporee. Volunteer as a Radio merit badge counselor. It’s a great time to introduce youth to the fun and adventure of Amateur Radio.

For more information, see the following websites:

Facebook page:


Radio Scouting Yahoo group:

Jim Wilson’s, K5ND, day job is with the Boy Scouts of America, working in communication and publishing as director of communication services. His volunteer jobs are K2BSA Amateur Radio Association president and trustee, K2BSA 2013 jamboree chairman, national Jamboree-on-the-Air organizer and chairman of the National Radio Scouting Committee. He publishes a weblog titled “My Ham Radio Adventures” at He began his career working at Heathkit Educational Systems, writing the General Class License Home Study Course, among many other projects and assignments. Jim, an ARRL member, can be contacted at 2605 Valleywood Dr, Grapevine, TX 76051-6584,

All images provided by the author



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