Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why The Hell Would You Want A Ham Radio?

In a recent post on his blog, Robert V. Bolton (KE7ZEA) reflects on the above question, which was asked of him by a neighbor. In his post, he asks "why would the average person want a ham radio?"

The simple answer is that the average person simply wouldn't want a ham radio, any more than the average person would want a finish planer, an anvil, or a Jacquard loom.  Ham radio simply isn't for everyone, any more than is woodworking, swordsmithing, painting, writing, or just about any other activity that isn't essential to personal maintenance. Fundamentally, there are two reasons why one would get a ham radio (or a ham radio license). One of them is because some other activity that one is interested in doing involves, or would be easier to do using, ham radio. The other is because one has a raw fascination with radio itself and with what can be done with radio, and having a ham radio license allows you to experiment without as much risk of getting in trouble.

I don't have a good feel for what proportion of hams fall into each of these categories, and I suspect there's quite a lot of overlap. I admit to feeling that those in the second category—the "hardcore radio geeks"—are somehow "purer" than those who are "hams of convenience", but I suppose that's not really fair.  And I'm not really sure where so-called "radiosport" falls in this scheme of things.

Also, the set of activities that are enabled or enhanced by having a ham radio or a ham radio license is quite large.  I mentioned in a previous blogpost that quite a few people in Indiana are obtaining ham radio licenses just so they can use a scanner while in a car.  This is an example of a totally artificial incentive to become a ham, driven entirely by the vagaries of Indiana's mobile scanner law; many of these people have no real interest in radio for its own sake, but are instead driven by whatever it is that drives people to listen to scanners, a motivation I confess I don't understand. 

SkyWarn is another program that drives people who are not fundamentally interested in radio into ham radio.  Stormspotters and stormchasers often get ham radio licenses not because they are interested in radio for its own sake, but because SkyWarn has developed over time to use amateur radio frequencies and repeaters as a primary means of communication.  Ironically, the spread of terrestrial cellphone coverage over the United States has reduced the importance of ham radio to SkyWarn, although it's certainly true that the ham radio communication channel continues to be important to volunteer severe weather reporting—for now.

One of the motivations that used to draw people to ham radio, but not so much, was the desire for communication with other people, often over long distances.  It used to be that if you wanted to chat with someone halfway across the country, or the world, the only way to do that without paying exorbitant telephone toll rates was going to be ham radio.  The Internet has completely undermined this motivation, however.  I talk to people from all over the world on a daily basis, in text and occasionally even in voice (via services like Skype), at no cost to me beyond that of my internet connection.  The connection may not be terribly reliable at times, but then again neither was the ham radio connection, what with sunspot cycles and solar flares and all the other vagaries of propogation.  I think this motivation drew a lot of people to the hobby in the middle part of last century, and is probably the basis of statements like Jeff Pulver's claim that twitter is "[t]he Ham Radio of Today".  At the same time, that motivation is no longer an effective draw, and that likely has a lot to do with the constant parade of predictions of the death of ham radio, as people who were drawn to the hobby for that reason find that there is an increasing dearth of likeminded people left in the hobby.

I'm not really sure what motivates people into contesting.  I don't participate in contesting, and don't really understand the appeal, but it sure seems to be popular with some people.  I'd be curious to hear if there's anyone who became a ham explicitly to participate in contests.  Much the same can be said of explicitly working toward awards such as "Worked All States"; I rather doubt that many people became hams for the explicit reason of accomplishing some award or set of awards, but instead such motivations come up after one has been in the hobby for some time. 

There's also the entire "EmComm" aspect of ham radio, which has been discussed quite a bit on Twitter and elsewhere recently.  Emergency communication support is clearly contemplated as part of the official purposes for the existence of amateur radio (at least in the United States), but of late the quality of that support seems to have lagged quite a bit.  This aspect of ham radio also seems to attract a particular type of individual known derogatorily as a "whacker": someone who wants to be involved in police, fire, or other first-response public safety activities, but is either unwilling or unable to complete the training or accept the responsibilities of a full-fledged police officer or firefighter.  These people often get involved in emcomm groups (such as ARES) because the barrier to entry is very low (many ARES groups will take anyone who shows up) and membership often gains them access to emergency operation centers and other first-response organizations, and may give them impressive-looking documentation to flash at people or even the legal authorization they need to mount a lightbar on their car.  Unfortunately, many of these people have no real understanding of or competence at what they're supposed to be doing, create more problems than they solve, and give amateur radio a poor name with both real emergency management entities and the public generally. 

I imagine that the analysis of why any particular ham became a ham, and why he or she remains a ham, would reveal a mix of motivations.  I have some clue as to what drew me to the hobby, and I must admit that it's a mix of several different things: a desire to know more about radio and electronics, a desire to give something back to the community, a desire for camaraderie.

Fundamentally, though, if you can't think of a reason why you would want a ham radio, you probably don't.  If you ask me, the recruitment strategy really needs to be more along the line of finding people who really are interested and helping them get started, rather than finding people who fundamentally aren't really interested, and giving them an excuse to be involved anyway.  Of course, there's probably some people out there who don't realize that they would be  interested simply because they don't really know what ham radio is.