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I am *not* the CB Savage!
January 27, 2009 4:32 AM   Subscribe

What do ham radio operators talk about on their radios?

Spurred by this excellent response to a question, and more generally having known ham operators, I'm curious what the rewards of the hobby are.

One time, I was listening to Steve Dahl on the radio, and he had Joe Walsh (of Barnstorm fame, of course) on as a guest. Joe was talking about what he does in his down time, and it was ham. Being an indulgent rock star, he of course had a whole extra house filled with radios, dedicated to the craft. Then a caller called in, and they started talking 30 meter this, and long band that, and so on. It seemed quite enjoyable from an amateur radio engineer perspective. I think I would enjoy doing that.

I guess I'm not understanding the "point" of it. (Beyond the hobby process of constant tweaking and the joy of creating and all that.) If I build model airplanes, well, then I go out and fly them. If I restore cars, I have a sweet ride to cruise around in. If I build computers, now I have a computer.

OK, so you get the soldering iron, build the radio and the antennas and the plywood shack in your basement. What then? Who do you call, who do you talk to? What do you use it for?
posted by gjc to Human Relations (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've never talked but I've often monitored conversations. One of the more memorable ones I heard was on the Nashville TN 2-meter frequency several years ago. About 8 guys were having a really intense discussion about steaks, including mail-order steaks (Omaha Steak, etc). It was apparent that most of them were relieving the boredom while driving home, as it was rush hour and at some point they were sitting in their driveway trying to finish off the conversation. So in that respect it's like a mobile chat room.
posted by crapmatic at 5:00 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

In high school a friend used to have a CB radio in his car and for a while we would drive around town and see who was about.

I think in a region it quickly develops into a community like a message board.

People talk about loads of differnt things. - They argue then fight they discuss inanities, trivia etc. - except well its all over distance by radio - instead of sitting in the pub, or the chat room, or Second Life!! (whats up with that?).

We became bored of it pretty quickly though.
posted by mary8nne at 5:12 AM on January 27, 2009

You could ask the same question about the Internet. I guess they talk about stuff.
posted by ghost of a past number at 5:13 AM on January 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

It varies widely, but the subject of radio equipment and antennas are most popular. Some like to talk and others like to fill out their logbook with stations from around the world. Just hearing your callsign repeated from someone far away (or under difficult conditions) is pure pleasure.

It depends on different factors as well. Local VHF conversations are often about anything and everything, including relieving boredom while driving. Long distance shortwave (HF) conversations vary from a quick exchange of callsigns, signal report (and maybe local weather conditions) to, well, the sky is the limit. There are also "nets" that are regularly scheduled that cover a variety of topics, including public safety and disaster preparedness, a love for antique radios, submarine veterans, etc.

Subsets of the hobby include low power operations and weak signal receiving, antenna experimentation, satellite operations (yep), point-to-point microwave, radio teletype, television, Morse (CW), radio FAX, various digital modes and more. It's an amazingly broad hobby and the only one I know of that is regulated by international treaties.

In short, you can dabble in off the shelf equipment and ready to use antennas for talking to folks around town, or you can buy or build relatively simple (or incredibly complex) equipment for working the world on shortwave or via satellites. You can even talk to the International Space Station if you are very lucky.


PS: I've recently discovered Gene Shpeherd, of A Christmas Story fame. Look for his broadcast radio archives in the iTunes store under a podcast called "The Brass Figlagee". He was a lifelong Ham and several of his shows talk about the joys and follies of an obsession with amateur radio. Look for keywords in the show titles like CW, DX, HAM RADIO etc for some good radio related stories.
posted by ae4rv at 5:35 AM on January 27, 2009 [6 favorites]

In a way it's like Metafilter: People talk about, well, stuff. Technically, FCC regulations require that you talk about topics of "little importance" if I recall correctly, which means no ObamaFilter, although I can remember no end of "bomb 'em all" conversations on the local repeater a few years back.
You really do get all types, though. One guy was telling me about how he would make his coffee on a weekly basis and reheat it in the microwave, while one guy with an AA1xx (Extra) callsign was talking about how he didn't understand why we don't just use transistors to generate energy- this is a guy who had to pass a theory test as well as code.

As said above, there's LOTS of niches. You should check out Hellschreiber or PSK31.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:05 AM on January 27, 2009

I once eavesdropped on my shortband radio and they were talking about radio equipment, like how much so and so microphone costs and how they bought extra because they don't make them anymore.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:18 AM on January 27, 2009

Yeah, generally there isn't a lot of political debate-type-talk, the conversations I monitor in the SE are all about radio shacks, how's your wife and kids, that kind of thing. There are nets that happen during certain nights where everyone talks to everyone else.

Utility monitoring is another story entirely...
posted by arimathea at 6:24 AM on January 27, 2009

If I restore cars, I have a sweet ride to cruise around in. If I build computers, now I have a computer.

Yes, but what do you do with the computer?
posted by odinsdream at 6:28 AM on January 27, 2009

Well, on 2m/70cm, I generally hear people talking about radios, their lives, etc. Not anything really interesting. I'm a ham, just a technician though, and I've never actually keyed up my mic.
posted by majikstreet at 6:36 AM on January 27, 2009

A guy I know has his setup to talk to his old war buddies.

I used one when I drove around the country to talk to truckers.
posted by teabag at 6:50 AM on January 27, 2009

I got a ham license a few years back and for a while I'd listen on the local repeater while commuting. It's not really that interesting; there were some political discussions ("this is why I'm right", "no, you're wrong, this is why I'm right", etc.), people who know each other catching up (how was the vacation, how's work), and talk about radios.
posted by Godbert at 6:54 AM on January 27, 2009

I got a Tech Plus license back in 1997? 1998? Can't remember. Had a Novice license before that. I got the Tech Plus for one specific purpose -- to try to do packet radio. Then along came wifi and I sort of forgot about packet.

But really, I soured on ham radio when I went up to the roof of the library with a 2 meter HT (handheld radio) and started to work some local repeaters in 1998. This was like the first or second time I ever used the HT, and I got my ass *royally* chewed out by some local dipshit not, say, for failing to provide my call letters, or for keying the repeater or whatever, but for *having an HT*. Meaning, I hadn't rolled my own radio out of spit and baling wire. The guy just went on about how new people were ruining the hobby. I turned off my HT and never used it again.

To me, ham radio is like a more difficult Internet with a higher asshole-to-signal ratio.
posted by the dief at 6:56 AM on January 27, 2009

The internet is the model - except you have to go way back to the first time you used IRC and you realised that you were talking to actual people - Actual! People! - at a distance, without having to go to the trouble of dialling a number. All of sudden there was easy access, action at a distance, the thrill of anonymity, the feeling of being in a Secret Club, the knowledge that there were other Secret Clubs out there that you could attack or befriend and, best of all, there was a Special Language that only club members knew. That's why its awesome.
posted by Jofus at 8:13 AM on January 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Imagine Metafilter, only on the radio.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:16 AM on January 27, 2009

It's kind of like asking the guy with the pleasure boat where he goes on his boat— sure, he can and does go to various places, or maybe he fishes from it, etc., but usually the point of having the boat is just so you can mess around in boats.

There's a sizable sub-hobby that ae4rv doesn't mention which is emergency operations; many city/county governments have a ham radio auxiliary for disaster communications. Kind of like being a volunteer fireman except fires are very rare. This was probably a lot more useful before the universal appearance of cell phones, but floods etc. can still knock those out, and ARES groups train to work within the city's emergency response plan. But I suspect that the attraction of even this is partly that it justifies buying some more backup radio gear...
posted by hattifattener at 8:46 AM on January 27, 2009

I have an Extra Class amateur radio license and am also an accredited Volunteer Examiner for the ARRL (one of the organizations which helps administer ham radio licensing exams nationwide, among other things). What you talk about on the air depends on the type of communicating you're doing. If you're in a contest (a 24-48 hour event where you earn points by talking to people in as many different locations as possible, for example) then your conversations will consist of "the exchange" that is defined by the contest rules -- typically something like your callsign + signal report + location.

The same tends to go for working "DX" stations, which are typically international stations that are somewhat far away from you. Here in the U.S., DX typically means anything outside of mainland North America. Since DX stations are popular, and there may be few hams in a given country, contacts with them tend to be similar to contests -- callsign, signal report, location, and that's it. This is especially true during DXpeditions, when people from one country will travel to a remote location specifically to put it on the air for a few days (Scarborough Reef is an extreme example).

Satellite voice contacts are also pretty brief, due to the short period of time that the satellite is passing overhead in its low-earth orbit. Also, many voice satellites are FM, which introduces the problem of capture effect (the strongest FM signal is the only one heard, unlike SSB where signals can mix). So contacts via satellite are usually callsign + signal report + maidenhead grid square locator. And yes, you can talk to astronauts on the International Space Station, if you're lucky.

More casual types of conversations can be heard on the main HF bands (160 through 10 meters) in all kinds of modes -- voice, digital, Morse code. These conversations can go on forever (or so it seems) and typically involve mundane stuff like the weather, family updates, the radio equipment in use. HF signals can bounce off the ionosphere and end up on the other side of the world, so it is common to hear stations from pretty much every continent on the air, especially during times of heightened sunspot activity. Nets (roundtables) are also often found discussing common areas of interest. On VHF, these are often "drive-time" nets that occur when people are going to and from work, and can sometimes be hilarious to listen in on as people vent their frustrations from the day (or from the rush-hour traffic).

There is also a decent contingent of folks who help out with public safety, either in emergency response roles or as support for fairs, parades, and the like. In those situations, people are generally relaying messages between police, firefighters, EMTs, and other primary first responders. During Hurricane Katrina, hams around the country helped relay and deliver messages that originated from the flooded areas. The Boston Marathon recruits over a hundred hams to aid in communication during the race.

Political discussions are not necessarily forbidden (at least here in the U.S.) but you would use your common sense to know when not to get into those kinds of conversations. The only major prohibition is that you can't use amateur radio for anything in which you have a "pecuniary interest," meaning you can't use it as the communication mechanism for your fleet of delivery vehicles, and you can't advertise your business on the air, etc. You also can't play music on the air, as that privilege is reserved for broadcast stations.

I've just scratched the surface here. This hobby really does have niches for just about anyone with any sort of technical interest. Oh, and let me be clear -- amateur/ham radio is not CB radio, and people from both sides of that aisle are generally offended if you try to equate them... :-P
posted by Nothlit at 9:08 AM on January 27, 2009 [8 favorites]

And the weather. I grew up listening to my dad talk to people all over the world...about the weather.

(I dabbled a bit but, much to my dad's disappointment, never did get a license.)
posted by JoanArkham at 10:29 AM on January 27, 2009

As a stay-at-home dad (with a ham license), I'll listen in on the 2m band during the day sometimes. I've heard discussions about road conditions that were better than the ones on the radio/tv (partially because one of the guys involved was in charge of the area plows), interesting stuff about local planes/the private airport, and plenty of rag chewing about families/weather/whatnot.

For me, I'm working on getting a better license as a directed way of increasing my electronics knowledge and because the idea of building (say) a cheap QRP transmitter appeals to me.

Amateur radio is a place where people with an interest in certain types of technology can get together and just talk, or even experiment. It's even lead to advances in communications technology.
posted by drezdn at 12:34 PM on January 27, 2009

My previous answer to this question...
posted by dmd at 4:27 PM on January 27, 2009

Let's put it this way:

Ham Radio is To CB Radio as Metafilter is to 4chan.
posted by dunkadunc at 4:36 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

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