Ham radio showing its gray; Aging hobbyists hope to reach new generation

Article from: The Boston Globe (Boston, MA) 
Article date: October 2, 2008 Author: Mark Arsenault


FRAMINGHAM - The spinning radio dial yielded pops and crackles, blips of Morse code from a ham radio operator in the Midwest, a warbling voice in a German accent, and, finally, a friend.

"CQ, CQ, CQ," came the call, strong and clear, amateur-radio shorthand for a general invitation to speak to anybody who's listening.

"This is Whiskey-1-Foxtrot-Yankee," replied Sumner Weisman in a smooth voice, giving his radio club's call letters, W1FY, assigned by the US government. "We're the Framingham Amateur Radio Association."

Knowledgeable radio buffs have connected on the airwaves in this way since practically the dawn of radio.

But these days, with the Internet at the cutting edge of communications, amateur radio - the term refers to its noncommercial status, not the skill level of its practitioners - is turning a bit gray.

The average age of the 659,000 licensed ham operators in the United States is in the 60s, according to the American Radio Relay League, a national association for enthusiasts, based in Newington, Conn.

The Framingham radio club has about 80 dues-paying members, but "maybe two or three" are younger than 40, said Gordy Bello, the club's president. "That's a major concern for us in the hobby. We go to the annual conferences and see the same people, but we're all a year older."

Radio buffs insist that young people who would rather type to each other in an Internet chat room are missing out on the intimacy of radio and the challenge of connecting with other hams in faraway places.

The Framingham club, founded in 1933, is one of the oldest ham radio organizations in the country. Many of its members have radios at home. The club also maintains transceivers and an amplifier in the lower level of the downtown Danforth Museum of Art, in a narrow cinderblock space cluttered with radio equipment like the secret room in a spy's basement. On a recent night they connected with K1UZK, a ham operator named Carl, transmitting from his car with a portable unit in South Weymouth. What followed was a friendly conversation about how the sunspot cycle is affecting long-distance radio chitchat.

Weisman is 76. He built his first crystal-controlled radio transmitter more than 50 years ago from a single vacuum tube and a long wire along the roof of his house serving as its antenna. He lived in Worcester back then.

"I was talking into Canada," he remembered, "and as far west as the Mississippi," with a system less than 5 percent as powerful as the one at the club.

Ashland resident Ed Weiss, the club's training director, is 88. He got his ham radio license in 1941. As a child, he learned Morse code from his father, a radio operator during World War I.

"My brother and I set up telegraph keys and wires between rooms in the house," he recalled.

Tapping those messages inspired a lifelong passion. He built his first transmitter nearly 70 years ago, he said.

"That was before radio was invented," Weisman joked dryly.

"A black-and-white radio," said club treasurer Tom Malloy, 79, of Natick.

Weiss continued, "I remember when I called CQ for the first time and a station in Ohio answered me. It was exciting. To think I could build something that could send out a signal I couldn't see, but that somebody else could hear. It's hard to describe the feeling. It was like somebody out there was calling my name from the distance."

Malloy said he fell in love with radio while listening to the 1930s serial, "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy."

"Sponsored by Wheaties, the breakfast of champions," Weisman recalled.

The old hams remembered that "Little Orphan Annie" was sponsored by Ovaltine. They remembered listening to Radio Moscow and Tokyo Rose during World War II. Radio made the world smaller for them.

The Internet does the same thing - just not as well, they said.

Web chat rooms may be populated by people from all over the globe, but there is no technical challenge to get into them.

"It's all instant gratification," said Steve Hewlett of Framingham, the club's secretary, who is 55.

"You have to be patient to do this sort of thing on radio," said Leo Cantin of Framingham, the club's vice president, 84.

A hobby that requires patience - as well as knowledge, training, and skill - draws a more interesting class of people than does the Web, club members said.

"There's not a lot of stimulating conversation going on in the Internet chat rooms, let me just leave it at that," said Hewlett, with a grim face.

In a push to recruit younger members, the club sponsors children's programs, works with Scout troops, and is pursuing a relationship with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metrowest, said Bello.

There may never have been an easier time to get started in amateur radio. In late 2006, the Federal Communications Commission, which licenses operators, dropped the requirement that applicants learn Morse code. Mastering the 19th-century language of dots and dashes requires long, hard study for most people.

"For some it was impossible to learn," said Weiss.

Club members grumble about the "dumbing down" of the requirements, but the use of Morse code on the air has actually increased since the FCC's decision, said Allen Pitts, public relations manager for the American Radio Relay League.

"When Morse code was a job you had to do, people didn't like it," he said. "Now there's braggin' rights to be able to use it."

Pitts said ham radio is attracting new fans from two groups: recent retirees who now have the free time to scratch some longtime itch to learn radio, and young people - late teens, early 20s - who "are interested in the emergency communication aspect of amateur radio."

In storms, when phone lines and cell towers are down or overloaded, ham radio still works. Ham operators have a long history of relaying information into disaster zones, such as after Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami in Asia, and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Pitts.

He said he is confident that certain people will continue to gravitate to amateur radio.

"It has never been a general activity," said Pitts. "It has always been a niche for the inquisitive kind of person, the kind who wants to take the cover off something and see how it works."