How to Make Contacts in the Ham Radio Community - dummies

How to Make Contacts in the Ham Radio Community

By H. Ward Silver

If you were to tune a radio across the ham bands, what would you hear hams doing? They’re talking to other hams, of course. These chats, called contacts, consist of everything from simple conversations to on-the-air meetings to contesting. Here is a broad overview of ways to make contacts within the ham radio community:


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 across continents or across town. You don’t have to know another ham to have a great ragchew with him or her; ham radio is a friendly hobby with little class snobbery or distinctions. Just make contact, and start talking!

The origins of the word ragchew are fairly clear. The phrase chewing the rag was well known even in the late Middle Ages. Chew was slang for talk, and rag, derived from fat, was a reference to the tongue. Thus, people began to use chewing the rag to describe to conversations, frequently those that took place during meals.

Later, telegraph operators picked up that use, and hams picked it up from telegraphers. Because most of ham radio is in fact conversation, ragchewing has been part of radio since its earliest days.


Nets (an abbreviation for networks) are organized on-the-air meetings scheduled for hams who have a shared interest or purpose. Here are some of the types of nets you can find:

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

  • Emergency service: Most of the time, these nets meet only for training and practice. When disasters or other emergencies strike, hams organize around these nets to 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; stations call in with specific questions or problems. The net control station may help, but more frequently, one of the listening stations contributes the answer. Many technical-service nets are designed specifically to assist new hams.

  • Swap: Between the in-person hamfests and flea markets, in many areas a weekly local swap net allows hams to list items for sale or things they need. A net control station moderates the process, putting interested parties in contact with each other; then the parties generally conduct their business over the phone or by e-mail.

  • Mailbox: If you could listen to Internet systems make contact and exchange data, a mailbox net is what they’d sound like. Instead of transmitting ones and zeroes as voltages on wires, hams use tones. Mailbox nets use computer radio systems that monitor a single frequency all the time so that others can connect to it and send or retrieve messages.

    Mailboxes are used for emergency communications and for travel where the Internet isn’t available.

DXing, contests, and awards

Hams like engaging in challenging activities to build their skills and station capabilities. Following are a few of the most popular activities:

  • DX: In the world of ham radio, DX stands for distance, and the allure of making contacts ever more distant from one’s home station has always been part of the process. Hams compete to contact faraway stations and to log contacts with every country. They especially enjoy the thrill of contacting exotic locations, such as expeditions to uninhabited islands and remote territories, and making friends in foreign countries.

    When conditions are right and the band is full of foreign accents, succumbing to the lure of DX is easy.

  • Contests: Contests are ham radio’s version of a contact sport. The point is to make as many contacts as possible during the contest period by sending and receiving as many short messages as possible — sometimes thousands. 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 the most people.

  • Awards: Thousands of awards are available for various operating accomplishments, such as contacting different countries or states.

  • Special-event stations: These temporary stations are on the air for a short time to commemorate or celebrate an event or location, often with a special or collectible call sign. In December 2012, for example, the Marconi Cape Cod Radio Club set up a special temporary station at the location of Marconi’s Wellfleet trans-Atlantic operations.

    Find out more on the club’s Facebook page by searching for KM1CC – Marconi Cape Cod Radio Club.