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No SOS needed for amateur radio

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Jim McDonald has been a licensed amateur radio operator for 12 years. He has a radio in his truck and is active in his community's emergency service. (Photo by Liz McDonald)

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Jim McDonald enjoys amateur radio because many of his friends have the same hobby. (Photo by Liz McDonald)

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Grant Morine, 18, won the 2007 Ham of the Year Award. He received his amateur radio license when he was 11. (Photo courtesy of Bill Morine)

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The Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) is a program of the ARRL, the national association for Amateur Radio. (Photo courtesy of ARRL)

Several summers ago, Bill Morine, of Wilmington, N.C., urged his two sons to attend a camp where they would learn to become amateur radio operators. Besides studying elementary physics, they would get to take apart real radios, cut and solder components, build simple antennas and develop technical skills.

His sons weren’t quite so eager. “At the time we didn’t really want to,” said Grant, now 18. “We live by the beach, and we figured three weeks being inside and learning stuff was not how we want to spend our summer vacation.”

But Dad prevailed, and the boys soon understood what all the fuss was about. “We did it, and we passed our test and got our licenses and haven’t looked back since,” said Grant.

What they learned were the ways of amateur radio enthusiasts, also known as hams, who communicate via radio waves with likeminded hobbyists--from around the corner or across the planet--and are fascinated by the inner workings of sophisticated technical devices.

Despite the rise of instant messaging, wireless Internet and Skype, amateur radio is an increasingly popular pastime. In 1988 there were 1,744,000 amateur stations worldwide; in 2000, the number had grown to 2,789,720, according to the International Radio Amateur Union.

Globally, according to more recent statistics, about six million people regularly tinker with amateur radio. In the U.S., some 20,000 people join the hobby every year, said Richard Moseson, editor of CQ, a ham radio magazine that has been published since 1945. As of April 2008, 655,138 American hams held licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission.

What’s interesting is that 30,000 of those licenses are held by hams under age 18, said Bill Morine, who is also a spokesperson for the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio. That’s a lot of young interest for a hobby that’s nearly 100 years old.

“Amateur radio still fascinates young people who are curious about how things work,” said David Sumner, the CEO of ARRL, which was founded in 1914. They’re also attracted to competitive activities sponsored by the league, said Sumner, including on-the-air contests, hidden transmitter hunts and Morse code competitions.

Grant concurs. Last summer, he won the 2007 Young Ham of the Year award. He had designed and supervised the construction of 30 indoor ham radio antennas to serve as back-up emergency communications for hospitals and Red Cross chapters.

But altruism isn’t the only attraction. Grant and other hams are drawn to the possibilities of global wireless communication.

“You just bounce your waves off the ionosphere, and the signal will go off and catch somebody around the world,” Grant said. “I don’t know that many people outside of the country, and I can’t Facebook everyone in China. But to just be able to talk to them, people my own age, or older and even younger, and just hear what they’re doing over in China at that moment in time--it’s just really a cool experience.”

For others, it’s the local communication that matters. “There are 450 people in this county who share the same interest,” said Jim McDonald, 52, of Delaware County, Ind. “Some people enjoy bowling, that’s where they make their friends. I make my friends on the radio.”

Hams initiate a conversation by transmitting “CQ” (which sounds like “seek you”) either verbally, by Morse code or digitally. When and if someone responds, the rules of conversation are no different from those in online chat rooms.

But ham radio offers more than an opportunity for idle chatter. “If you talk to a dozen different hams, you’re going to get a dozen different motivations,” Moseson said. “There are some who enjoy the technical challenges. There are some who enjoy the opportunity to help other people.”

Indeed, hams never fail to point out that while amateur radio might sound antiquated, it has actually been a springboard for innovation in the field of communications: Forty years ago, ham radios provided the kind of mobile communications cell phone users today take for granted. And they’re still ahead of the curve. While your dashboard GPS might give you your location, hams can use their radios to find where friends are located and send them e-mail, photos and other files--in real-time and for free.

Hams also continue to help save lives whenever catastrophes disrupt the proper functioning of telephone networks. During the 2003 blackout in the Northeast, “the only viable means of communications became amateur ham radio,” said Bill Morine, who is also an assistant emergency coordinator for his county.

Similarly, after Hurricane Katrina a ham in Utah organized a rescue effort in Louisiana after hearing a plea for assistance from a ham in New Orleans, said Moseson. “The guy in Utah was able to hear the guy in New Orleans and to relay the information back to other people in Louisiana to coordinate a rescue.”

And amateur radio proved helpful in an emergency just a few weeks ago when a car driving through Logan Canyon in Utah lost control and fell more than 100 feet over a cliff. According to local media, witnesses tried to call for help on their cell phones, but the nearest coverage was more than a half-hour’s drive away. Luckily, a ham was there with a radio in his car. He was able to reach another ham who called 911.

Chatting with friends. Helping people in distress. Hams get involved. “Hams like to do things, not just to use things,” said Alan Pitts, media relations manager at ARRL. “Take your cell phone, for example. You can’t take it apart. You can’t modify it. You can’t change the antenna. You can’t increase its reach or power. It is a closed unit. Amateur radio is open.”

The challenge that comes with handling these devices may deter some people, but for hams it does just the opposite. Compared with their radios, everything else seems dull: “There’s no magic in the Internet,” Moseson said. “There is no magic in cell phones. There is no magic in Skype. Ham radio is magic.”

E-mail: sra2119@columbia.edu