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Ringing the Bell: Amateur Radio Introspection

Here’s another notice of the ARRL annual report by Jenny List at Hackaday: Amateur Radio Just Isn’t Exciting. She adds to the list of suggestions. There are more than 100 comments on the post.

As ARRL president, [Rick Roderick, K5UR] spends a significant amount of time proselytising the hobby. He has a standard talk about amateur radio that involves tales gleaned from his many decades as a licence holder, and features QSL cards from rare DX contacts to show how radio amateurs talk all over the world. … Writing in the 2016 ARRL Annual Report, he said:

Change generally doesn’t come easy to us. But when I looked out at that group of young faces and saw their disinterest in traditional ham pursuits, I realized that I had to change. We have to change. It won’t come easy, but it’s essential that we get to work on it now.

If you were to profile a typical group of radio amateurs, it would not be difficult to see why [K5UR] found himself in this position. It might be an unflattering portrait for some amateurs, but it’s fair to say that amateur radio is a hobby pursued predominantly by older more well-off men with the means to spend thousands of dollars on commercial radios.
Were Hackaday to find ourselves in the position of advising the ARRL on such matters, we’d probably suggest a return to the roots of amateur radio, a time in the early 20th century when it was the technology that mattered rather than the collecting of DXCC entities or grid squares, and an amateur had first to build their own equipment rather than simply order a shiny radio before they could make a contact.

That tells me more about a perception problem than about an ARRL Amateur Radio problem. As Jenny notes “We’ve shown you some fantastic amateur radio builds over the years” and Hackaday is not alone here. There have been Amateur Radio equipment building projects as a regular feature in QST and elsewhere. It has never been easier to find projects to build that suit your interests, budget, and capabilities and it is also much easier to find help and assistance in getting them working.

The thing is, Amateur Radio is so much more and K5UR tried to share some of that. Contesting is indeed a significant interest to many hams. DX is still a thrill and the interest in WSJT provides an example. The Preppers have a long history in Amateur Radio as shown in Field Day activity and in the ARES participation. 

As for K5UR’s comment, this is perhaps the most encouraging indication I have seen regarding the health of the ARRL. It contrasts so much to what I hear from WBCCI leadership, for instance. K5UR noticed a problem and brought it to the light in such a way that people are noticing and discussing it in new ways. Whether it is KB6NU noting that begging for money is going in the wrong direction or List’s perception that the hobby is too full of old rich white guys (known as appliance operators in the hobby), there are people who recognize the problem and are offering ideas and suggestions.

It should be noted that the ARRL has been working this issue for years. It has put a number of ideas into practice. You can go back to Chod Harris and Tune in the World and the beginnings of the volunteer instructors in the 70’s as a starting point. It has been a long slog with ups and downs but it cannot be ignored. Even the most recent bulletin describes ideas being considered that fit into this.

The fact is that technical hobbies are not for everyone and Amateur Radio as a government licensed enterprise is set apart from many other technical hobbies. The RC crowd and the Preppers are two examples of non-traditional radio enthusiasts who have found reasons to get a license. The CB’ers are still out there and they are an example of social communications via radio bypassing the licensing burden despite the rise of cell phones and the I’net which are other ways to bypass user level governmental burdens. Trying to sell a technical hobby, much less a licensed one, to everyone is not effective targeting of efforts. This is a similar burden faced by all the PC hoopla about STEM education efforts.

The ARRL faces two major fronts. One is in the health of the hobby itself and the other is in the health of the ARRL itself. Both are in rough seas as fundamental changes wash over society in social interactions and communications capabilities … and in the role of government in individual lives. Recognizing a need for change and the fact that “it won’t come easy” is a good start towards coping with what is coming.