By H. Ward Silver

Your ham radio license is really a license to study. Take advantage of every learning opportunity, including learning from your mistakes. (You’ll have plenty!) Each problem or goof is also a lesson.

Masters got to be masters by starting as raw recruits just like you and then making one improvement at a time, day in and day out. You may think that ham radio veterans surely have stores of secret knowledge that took years and years to acquire — knowledge that makes them the masters of all they survey. Certainly, the veterans have experience and expertise, but they also rely on simple principles that work in many situations. You can use these principles, too.

Listen to everything

Masters get more out of listening and monitoring than anyone else because they’ve learned the value of doing it. Every minute you spend listening is a minute learning and a minute closer to being a master, whether it’s as a net control, a top contest operator, setting up a balloon tracker, or just giving out directions to the club meeting. Listen and learn how.

Learn how it works

Operating a radio and building an efficient, effective station are much easier if you know how the equipment works. Even if you’re not terribly tech-savvy, take the time to get familiar with the basics of electronics and how your equipment functions. You will be much more effective if you learn the effects of controls and their adjustments. Learn how to make simple repairs to keep your station on the air.

Follow the protocol

Use the expected terms and give information in the form and order in which it is expected. When calling another station, follow “Gift Tag Order – To then From:” Start with that station’s call sign to alert that operator, then give your call once or twice as necessary. Use the recommended phonetics that others in your group prefer. In a competition, exchange your information in the same order published by the sponsor.

Keep your axe sharp

When asked what he would do if he had eight hours to cut down a tree, Abe Lincoln replied that he would spend the first six hours sharpening his axe.

If you have battery-powered equipment, be sure that the batteries are charged and fresh. Make sure fuel for a generator is fresh. Lay out your “go kit” from time to time so that you are sure it’s all there when you need it. Test your station’s basic operation from time to time on all bands and modes. Keep your equipment and skills sharp. When they’re needed on the air, you’ll be ready.

Practice to make perfect

Even a sharp axe gets dull if it isn’t used. Get on the air regularly, keeping in touch with conditions. An experienced operator knows what stations are active, from where, and when, as well as when important nets and on-the-air events take place. Even if you know the procedures by heart, check in to your local net each week. Take advantage of contests or special events to exercise your skills and make sure your equipment is working.

Make operating your radio station a natural and comfortable activity by keeping yourself in shape with regular radio exercise.

Pay attention to detail

Masters know that the little things are what make the difference between 100 percent and 90 percent performance — or even between being on the air and off the air. The most expensive station isn’t worth a nickel if it doesn’t work properly when you need it. Waterproofing that connector completely or having your CQ sound just right really pays off in the long run. Masters are on the radio for the long run.

Know what you don’t know

Take a tip from Mark Twain, who warned, “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” If you get something wrong, don’t be too proud to admit it. Find out the right way; track down the correct fact. People make their worst mistakes by ignoring the truth.

Radio waves and electricity don’t care about human pride. A master isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

Maintain radio discipline

When you are performing public service, whether in an emergency or not, practice your radio discipline: Know and follow the rules of the operation, follow the instructions of a net control station, transmit only when authorized and necessary, use plain language, and pay attention so you are ready to respond. Strive to make your operating crisp and clear so that anyone can understand.

Make small improvements continuously

Any improvement in the path between stations should not be neglected. Anything that makes your signal easier to understand — 1 dB (decibel) less noise received, 1 dB better audio quality, 1 dB stronger transmitted signal — makes the contact easier. Make your station and yourself better in small, regular steps and you’ll get a lot more out of ham radio!

Help others and accept help from others

Sooner or later, you will encounter operators needing assistance. If they ask for help, offer your services. They may not be aware there is a problem, such as with poor audio, a distorted signal, or erratic operation. New operators may not know the right way or time to call another station. Before informing them of the problem, ask yourself how you would want to learn about a problem with your station. When describing the problem, be polite and be as clear as you can in your description.

When other operators tell you that you have a problem, don’t get mad or embarrassed. Thank them for bringing the problem to your attention and make them feel good about helping you. Ask them to help you troubleshoot. Ham radio is all about helping each other, on and off the air.