What is the Amateur Radio Service?
The Amateur Radio Service is licensed by national telecommunications authorities (the FCC, in the United States), and it is charged with providing a pool of technical experts and trained communicators ready to serve the nation in time of need. Hams also have a unique ability to foster international goodwill through people-to-people contacts, as people from all walks of life, from school kids to kings, chat as equals on a daily basis.
Hams are renowned for their ability to set up an emergency communications infrastructure after a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake. When regular communications channels are clogged or broken down after a disaster, Hams step in to create a network of communicators that can facilitate relief for the stricken area.
As with many "serious" aspects of life, the path to learning the tricks of the trade can be a lot of fun. Ham radio operators enjoy experimentation with electronics, antennas, and microphones, develop and communicate via computer-based digital communications modes, participate in contests that enhance both station performance and operating ability, and, day in and day out, just enjoy chatting with each other over the stations they've created.
Talking Around the World
For many Hams, the lure of talking to someone in a faraway place is the ultimate thrill of amateur radio. Hams call it "DX," which is an abbreviation for long-distance work. Using the ionosphere, 100 to 200 miles above the Earth's surface, to refract their signals long distances, Hams have long done pioneering work in understanding how radio waves behave, leading to more effective short-wave broadcasting stations, improved military communications, and better coverage for your local AM and FM broadcasters.
The fun comes in building and improving your station so that it can reach out farther, allowing you to talk to more and more places. You learn about building better antennas, find out which frequencies work best at different times of year, and even what microphone to use (Heil Sound's HC-4 element was specifically designed for DX work). And you learn a lot about people around the world, maybe even leading to an invitation to visit places like China, Russia, Argentina, Australia, or South Africa. You make friends fast through ham radio, and there's always a new friend to be found when you turn the radio on.
Ham Radio Adventures Away from Home
A family weekend excursion, vacation trip, or cruise can be a great opportunity to experience a whole new dimension of ham radio fun. A weekend at a campground can offer the opportunity to fling a wire into a tall tree, and see how well it works (good practice for an emergency!). Small portable radios being manufactured today offer great performance from a self-contained, battery-powered case, and they also fit conveniently inside a suitcase if you're flying somewhere. If you're on vacation on a Caribbean island, you'll enjoy the thrill of having people around the world call you, and you'll be an instant ham radio celebrity.
If you own a boat or yacht, your amateur station can be a valuable backup communications link in case your primary marine radio fails. It's great fun to talk to someone in a big city, and make them drool over your sunny afternoon out on the water.
And, once you're home, you can tuck the little radio away in your car's "emergency kit," so it will be ready for the day you hope never happens. And you'll have the confidence of knowing how well it worked during your vacation!
Learning Morse Code - If You Want To
Morse Code, long the staple of ham radio communications, is no longer something you are required to learn in order to become a ham radio operator. But it's more popular than ever as an efficient way to get a message through. And it's fun, too! If you're still in school, you and your friends can send each other "secret" messages that other kids won't be able to decipher. But be careful: if your teacher was in the military, he or she might just know what you're saying!!
Building and Learning
If you want a hands-on experience, you can actually build your own radio from a kit. There's nothing like the knowledge that you are talking around the world on something you actually built by hand. If that's a bit ambitious for your time budget, designing and building antennas is a favorite activity for radio amateurs. Software helps you design the antenna of your dreams, and then you actually get to hear the results when you've hoisted it into the air. Sometimes, the oddest-looking antenna works the best, so this is a great avenue for someone with a fertile mind!
Becoming a Ham Radio Operator
You need a license to operate an amateur radio station, but it's not difficult to do. The entry-level tests are crafted to give you the tools you need to operate a station properly, stay within the rules, and be on the path to years of ham radio fun.
ARRL, the National Association for Amateur Radio in the United States, has an excellent Web site for those interested in getting started in amateur radio. The ARRL's main Web site (www.arrl.org) has news and information about current events in amateur radio, and it's a very informative site to bookmark.
The Gordon West Radio School is the best-known center for classes and learning materials for prospective radio amateurs. His books and CDs are written in an easy-to-understand, straightforward manner, and you'll get a broad exposure to the many interesting facets of amateur radio that await your exploration. For Gordon West training materials, visit www.w5yi.org, or call 1-800-669-9594.
And, when you're looking for the right microphone for your station, remember to check out Heil Sound for sound products that will make you sound great on the air!