Ham radio hangs on
Every Saturday for the past couple of years, the members of the Tuscaloosa Amateur Radio Club have met here, in the back corner of the only Chick-fil-A in this low-slung Alabama river town. They meet to discuss politics and family and sports, but mostly they meet to discuss radio – the paddles, the repeaters, the boat anchors, the birds, and the brass pounders.Skip to next paragraph
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Radio is their hobby, their love. They pull up to the fast-food restaurant in trucks kitted out with all manner of antennas, which jut off the cabs like the quills of a metal porcupine, and before leaving, they gather in the parking lot to compare gear. For the two hours in between, they banter in the hyper-specialized slang of hams everywhere.
Ham radio, of course – the noncommercial use of certain radio bands – should be long since dead. It should have been replaced by the rise of the Internet or Facebook. It should have been killed by Twitter, which also allows users to communicate instantly across vast distances. But in towns across the country, hundreds of groups, such as the Tuscaloosa Amateur Radio Club, have soldiered on, hunkering down in basement offices and sending audio messages off into the ether. They have diligently recruited new members and shared their love of the pastime through community events and newsletters. And far from being made obsolete by the Web, hams have used it to create thousands of online message boards and speciality sites.
"You could compare getting on the radio to going fishing – you cast your line out into the airwaves, and you never know what you're going to get," says Richard Moseson, the editor of the amateur radio magazine CQ. "One of the great things about ham radio, as compared, say, to Twitter, is the challenge – that amazing feeling of accomplishment when you're successful. We bounce signals off the moon. We bounce signals off our own fleet of satellites. We bounce signals through ionized air. What other hobby has all of that?"
Before e-mail, a ham in Alabama could sit in his darkened living room and chat with a like-minded operator in France. Before Google Earth – the interactive 3-D atlas – hams were communicating with space stations, satellites, and a group of explorers in Antarctica. Ham radio makes the world small.
"I'm an old-timer by today's standards, and when I first came on, in the '70s, there were a lot of old-timers," says David Drummond, a veteran operator, reclining across the bench at the Chick-fil-A. "It's through older hams" – "Elmers," in ham patois – "that we learned how to talk, to get a radio on air, how to behave once you were on there. You learned the fascination of being able to talk to strangers and new friends with a little of nothing. That was the magic of radio. That's what we pass on."
Today, the Tuscaloosa Amateur Radio Club comprises both older hams, such as Mr. Drummond, and his friend Tommy Howell, as well as several men in their 20s, who are drawn by the reach and freedom of ham radio. (Drummond says women make great hams, but the club does not currently have any on its roster.) "At first I thought it would be just like talking on a cellphone," says Todd Kirby, one of the newest members. "But of course it's not. You get on a repeater, and suddenly so many people can hear you, and you realize that this is a totally different way of communication."
Justin Perry, another young ham, confessed that he didn't think he "was one for just talking. But I'm on my radio all day; I've just got it on. Some of those guys up in Alaska, they're long-winded. When I have time, I'll just sit and talk with them. Talk for hours."