Tuning in Ham Radio - dummies

By H. Ward Silver

Ham radio invokes a wide range of visions. Maybe you have a mental image of a ham radio operator (or ham) from a movie or newspaper article. But hams are a varied lot — from go-getter emergency communicators to casual chatters to workshop tinkerers. Everyone has a place, and you do, too.

Hams use all sorts of radios and antennas on a wide variety of frequencies to communicate with other hams across town and around the world. They use ham radio for personal enjoyment, for keeping in touch with friends and family, for emergency communications, and for experimenting with radios and radio equipment. They communicate using microphones, telegraph or Morse keys, computers, cameras, lasers, and even their own satellites.

Hams meet on the air and in person. Ham radio clubs and organizations are devoted to every conceivable purpose. They have special ham radio flea markets and host conventions, large and small. Hams as young as six years old and centenarians have been hams since before ham radio licenses. Some have a technical background, but most do not. One thing all these diverse individuals do have, however, is an interest in radio that can express itself in many different ways.

Hams enjoy three different aspects of ham radio — the technology, operating, and social points of view. Your interest in the hobby may be technical; you may want to use ham radio for a specific purpose; or you may just want to join the fun. All are perfectly valid reasons for getting a ham radio license.

Using electronics and technology

Ham radio is full of electronics and technology. To start with, transmitting and receiving radio signals is a very electronics-intensive endeavor. After you open the hood on ham radio, you’re exposed to everything from basic direct-current electronics to cutting-edge radio-frequency techniques. Everything from analog electronics to the very latest in digital signal processing and computing is available in ham radio. You can be into the hobby for more than 30 years and still never meet anyone who is an expert on it all.

You may choose to design and build your own equipment or assemble a station from factory-built components, just like an audiophile might do. All that you need for either path is widely available in stores and on the Web. Hams delight in a do-it-yourself ethic known as homebrewing and help each other out to build and maintain their stations.

Hams also develop their own software and use the Internet along with radios to create novel hybrid systems. Hams developed packet radio by adapting data transmission protocols used over computer networks to amateur radio links. Packet radio is now widely used in many commercial applications. By combining GPS radiolocation technology with the Web and amateur mobile radios, the Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS) was developed and is now widely used.

Voice and Morse code communications are still the most popular technologies by which hams talk to each other, but computer-based digital operation is gaining fast. The most common home station configuration today is a hybrid of the computer and radio. Some of the newer radios are exploring software-defined radio (SDR) technology that allows reconfiguration of the circuitry that processes radio signals under software control.

Along with the equipment and computers, hams are students of antennas and propagation, which is the means by which radio signals bounce around from place to place. Hams take an interest in solar cycles, sunspots, and how they affect the Earth’s ionosphere. For hams, weather takes on a whole new importance, generating static or fronts along which radio signals can sometimes travel long distances. Antennas, with which signals are launched to take advantage of all this propagation, provide a fertile universe for the station builder and experimenter.

Antenna experimentation is a hotbed of activity for hams. New designs are created every day and hams have contributed many advances and refinements to the antenna designer’s art. Antenna systems range from small patches of printed circuit board material to multiple towers festooned with large rotating arrays. All you need is some wire, a feedline, and a soldering iron.

Hams also use radio technology in support of hobbies such as radio control (R/C), model rocketry, and meteorology. Hams have special frequencies for R/C operation in the 6-meter band, away from the crowded unlicensed R/C frequencies. Miniature ham radio video transmitters are frequently flown in model aircraft, rockets, and balloons, beaming back pictures from heights of hundreds and thousands of feet. Ham radio data links are also used in support of astronomy, aviation, auto racing and rallies, and many other pastimes.

Whatever part of electronic and computing technology you most enjoy, it’s all used in ham radio somewhere . . . and sometimes all at once!

Operating a ham radio: Making contacts

If you were to tune a radio across the ham bands, what would you hear hams doing? Contacts run the range from simple conversation to on-the-air meetings to contesting (recording the highest number of contacts).


By far the most common type of activity for hams is just engaging in conversation, which is called chewing the rag; such contacts are called ragchews. Ragchews take place between continents or across town. You don’t have to know another ham to have a great ragchew — ham radio is a very friendly hobby with little class snobbery or distinctions. Just make contact and start talking!


Nets (an abbreviation for networks) are organized on-the-air meetings scheduled for hams with a similar interest or purpose. Some of the nets you can find are

col2mark*tabmarkTraffic nets: These are part of the North American system that moves text messages or traffic via ham radio. Operators meet to exchange or relay messages, sometimes handling dozens in a day. Messages range from the mundane to emergency health-and-welfare.

  • Emergency service nets: Most of the time, these nets just meet for training and practice. When disasters or other emergencies strike, hams organize around these nets and provide crucial communications into and out of the stricken areas until normal links are restored.
  • Technical Service: These nets are like radio call-in programs in which stations call with specific questions or problems. The net control station may help, but more frequently, one of the listening stations contributes the answer. Many are designed specifically to assist new hams.
  • ALE Mailboxes and Bulletin Boards: If you could listen to Internet systems make contact and exchange data, this is what they’d sound like. Instead of transmitting 1s and 0s as voltages on wires, hams use tones. ALE stands for Automatic Link Establishment and means that a computer system is monitoring a frequency all the time so that others can connect to it and send or retrieve messages. Sailors and other travelers use ham radio where the Internet isn’t available.
  • Swap Nets: In between the in-person hamfests and flea markets, in many areas a weekly swap net allows hams to list items for sale or things they need. A net control station moderates the process and business is generally conducted over the phone once the parties have been put in contact with each other.

DX-ing, contests, and awards

DX stands for distance and the lure of making contacts ever-farther from home has always been a part of ham radio. Hams compete to contact faraway stations and to log contacts with every country. They enjoy contacting islands and making personal friends in a foreign country. When conditions are right and the band is full of foreign accents, succumbing to the lure of DX is easy!

Ham radio’s version of rugby, contests are events in which the point is to make as many contacts as possible, sometimes thousands, during the contest time period, by sending and receiving short messages. These exchanges are related to the purpose of the contest — to contact a specific area, use a certain band, find a special station, or just contact everybody.

Along with contests, thousands of special-event stations and awards are available for various operating accomplishments, such as contacting different countries or states. For example, in December 2003, the station W4B was set up at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and operated during the centennial of the Wright Brother’s first flight.