Ham radio hangs on
Northport, Ala. — 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.
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 It should have been replaced by the rise of the Internet or Facebook.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."
Hams to the rescue
Ham culture isn't only about idle chatter. It's also about public service. Even in 2011, in the age of Twitter and HDTV, the thousands of experienced hams across the country form a kind of shadow communication network, which can prove exceptionally useful when traditional channels go dark. On the afternoon of April 27, for instance, a particularly violent tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa, leveling hundreds of homes, and leaving at least 45 people dead, before hurtling northeast toward Birmingham.
The local police lost their communication tower, cellphone towers became overloaded, and landlines in many parts of greater Tuscaloosa were severed. "We were out there providing basic levels of communication," remembers Mr. Howell. "In the beginning, there wasn't a lot of means to do that. Cellphones were down for days." Some members of the club headed out into the field to help direct traffic, or assist "the walking wounded," as Howell says. Some served as weather spotters, logging regular reports on the progress of the tornado. Meanwhile, others channeled information from the field to the local bureau of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"The typical first responder isn't going to understand how a radio works, until it doesn't work, because it isn't their job," says Mr. Moseson, the editor of CQ. "But being hams, we do understand. We're used to scotch taping systems back together. Self-reliance and independence is part of our world. It always has been."
So, too, has gear. Thousands of dollars of gear: the teetering piles of transceivers, receivers, and rotators that every ham worth his salt ends up amassing, stripping down, and cobbling back together again. On a sweltering afternoon last month, Drummond and Howell stand in Drummond's backyard in suburban Northport, Ala., peering up at one of the gems of Drummond's collection – a towering metal antenna, which looms over the nearby houses. Drummond runs a hand through his silver hair and points at the cables that help hold the thing upright.
"And you can get ones even bigger," he chuckles.
"For a lot of money," says Howell.
"Well, this one wasn't cheap," Drummond says.
A guest wonders aloud if Drummond ever thinks about how much cash he's put into his ham equipment. "I think about it all the time. But I believe what you're really asking is if I'd do it again," he says. "And the answer is yes. I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat."
Back inside, Drummond's immaculately clean study, which he has converted into his home station, is filled with trophies and mementos. The desk bristles with radio gear, from expensive Yaesu transceivers to vintage radios. Drummond spins a dial, and Dutch fills the study, followed by rapid-fire Spanish. He calls off the countries as the dial turns – the Netherlands, Spain, France. Then a local voice filters through with the familiar Southern drawl. The man and Drummond exchange greetings.
"It feels like an accomplishment, doesn't it?" Drummond asks, turning to Howell. "So much more so than just picking up a phone."
Drummond rifles through his desk and produces a stack of cardboard rectangles marked up with old-fashioned stamps and ribbons of elegant cursive script. These are what hams call QSL cards, and in the old days, operators would exchange QSLs to confirm contact between two stations. The cards in Drummond's hand – several date from the 1930s – provide a nice contrast with the cutting-edge gear that clutters his station.
"You know," Drummond says, pointing at the call signs printed on one of the QSLs, "you start to dig back a little bit, and you think about all the places hams have traveled before, because they have definitely traveled – every time you get on the radio, you're taking a trip around the world. And you think, 'My, what a wonderful fraternity I belong to.' "