Who am I and Why I am a Radio Amateur

Fernando R. Arroyo, EA4BB

I was born in Madrid in 1964.

Trying to recall how and when my interest in communications and international affairs began, I must now confess I had quite a naughty start.

When I was a small boy, payphones in Spain worked in a peculiar way: You could initiate a call without actually putting any money in the phone. For a few seconds you would hear the voice of the receiver of the call at the other end saying “Hello?... Hello?...” and then the communication would end unless you put a coin in the slot.

As a young child I never had too many coins, but I had loads of imagination instead. One of my favorite pastimes was making random international calls to exotic places, just for the thrill of hearing for a couple of seconds a voice from far away. All International Dialing Prefixes and area codes for the main cities were printed on a colorful chart conveniently fixed inside the booth, something I found of course very educational. I must have “worked”, as radio operators say, quite a few countries that way and I probably made some people wake up in the middle of the night in time zones far apart from that of Spain. No harm meant, just a 7 or 8-year-old boy in Madrid having a bit of fun when his parents weren’t looking.

My grandfather had a Philips 5-tube radio which had been in the family since the 1940s. That radio meant my real initiation to the hobby, as I spent many long nights tuning the shortwaves through it. Generally not
understanding a word of what was being said, but mesmerized by all those very suggestive names of different towns and radio stations printed on the dial, which glowed in the dark with a friendly yellowish light, while listening to the different radio identification signals that populated the airwaves on those days.

There were –and there still are- special broadcasts on shortwave targeting DXers (people interested in shortwave listening “per se”), and those were another step in my initiation to Amateur Radio, as I learnt through them about antennas, receivers, schedules... I remember and dearly miss the broadcasts in Spanish of “Sweden Calling DXers”, transmitted from Stockholm by Radio Sweden International and presented by Britta Brandt, whom I had the pleasure of meeting many years later in Stockholm, during my backpacking days.

Sometimes I would hear on my radio mysterious transmissions that appeared to be kind of muffled, sounding as if Donald Duck was speaking in Gaelic to someone. Now, that was a very intriguing thing indeed for me as I did know someone was obviously talking to someone there and then, and the fact I could not understand a word of what was being said made those communications all the more interesting. I guess I had in mind undercover agents, possibly talking to their bases about nuclear secrets etc, and I obviously got terribly interested in finding a way to crack the mystery. Another challenge for that very young listener; another possible step forward. It was only after quite some time that I learned that is the way SSB (Single Side Band, one of the modulation systems used by radio amateurs to transmit their voice) sounds in a conventional AM receiver such as my Philips, not equipped with a detector to make them intelligible.

I sent reception reports to all those broadcasting stations, as they were always keen to know who was listening, and how, and regularly advertised their mailing addresses during the programs. And I got many replies from them, and treasured the postcards, pennants, letters, badges and magazines those stations used to send to listeners as a reward for their reports. And of course this only did but further increase my interest in radio, and in foreign countries and cultures.

For me the next, big step, was acquiring a CB radio, that is, a real transmitter and receiver through which you can actually communicate with other people over the radio waves. CB radios operate on the 11-meter band, the so-called “Citizen Band”, and had the great advantage of being relatively inexpensive and not needing a license to be used. You have seen these radios in many movies, typically operated by the colorful character of a lonely truck driver during a long haul trip, anywhere on the roads of America. Once you got hold of one of those you just needed to procure a small 12v power supply, such as an old car battery, put up a simple antenna you usually made yourself with a few feet of wire (a dipole), and voilà, you were “on the air” and ready for new boundaries of excitement. And how exciting that was! I started making contacts first with neighbors, then people in Europe, then America, Asia… I still remember that summer afternoon when I logged in my first contact with Australia… With all that excitement my hand was shaking so bad that it could hardly hold the pencil :-)

As I learned more I improved my station and antennas, and eventually got quite an efficient setup. I had a lot of fun with it, but most importantly I made a number of new friends and I was exposed to other languages I could hardly read and didn’t speak at all
when I started in the hobby. English is the main bridge language used in amateur radio, and the one I would hear more often. And I was so eager to “get places” that I ended up speaking and, to my great surprise, actually understanding what others were saying to me in the language of Shakespeare. I also picked up bits of quite a few other foreign languages; each of them a golden key to a new, different universe.

The next step was quite predictable: At some point I decided to sit the test for an official Amateur Radio license, as that should provide access to additional frequencies and new exciting features, and that is how I got my first official “novice” call sign the early eighties, EB4AHJ, which I subsequently upgraded to the “upper class” call EA4CPX. After a few years I changed this one to EA4BB, or EA4 Brigitte Bardot, which was issued to its original holder sometime in 1934 and was appealing to me, and was available when I applied for it in 1985.

I eventually finished my studies and became an Architect by the Polytechnic University of Madrid. As a student I was already very much infected by that early interest in foreign countries and peoples. And then I was very lucky to get a student job as a tourist guide. Now, don’t get any romantic ideas about that kind of job, for it is extremely hard work and carries a very heavy responsibility with it. I was specialized in Scandinavia, one of the regions of Planet Earth I have a weaker spot for. This job allowed me on the other hand to work only during the holiday season, and study for the rest of the year, though I usually took much longer summer breaks so I could visit on my own other countries. Back then there were some great  travel possibilities for young backpackers: Inter Rail, very low budget Round-The-World trips from London… All this was quite cheap and straightforward, and there was a certain glamour to it, too. International travel was very, very different in good old pre-September 11 days, before we all became potential suspects of something and started being treated as such.

Soon after getting my degree I started working as a volunteer for an NGO, planning and building medical and education facilities in different African countries. I did that for a few years before moving into the private sector. In 2000 I joined the UN, and I still work there as a specialist in the coordination of humanitarian affairs. This is the job that brought me to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I have been living and working since March 2016. Before this I have been working in some other places for different periods of time and, wherever possible, I have obtained an amateur radio license and kept in contact with friends and the hobby. In the past I have signed TZ6BB (Mali), Z21BB (Zimbabwe), ST2BF (Sudan), D2BB (Angola), TU5BB (Ivory Coast) and 9Q5BB (Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo). Here in the DRC I hold the amateur radio callsign 9Q6BB, with which I am fairly active. Also, I “make noise” now and then from my station in Madrid EA4BB, whenever I am there on leave.

Still today, switching on my radio and turning the dial in search of something interesting is in no way less of the thrill it was when I did it so many years ago with my grandfather’s radio. The “radio bug” is still there, stronger than ever, and it seems it is there to stay :-)



Audio album

Photo albums

Restoration Philips BE382U

Radio Sweden

EA4BB through the years

QSL cards