When I arranged to have my Amateur Radio Exams I found too much self important nonsense – some guys won’t push themselves away from their dinner table unless they can be assured a good number of examinees will be showing up for their Volunteer Exams (VE)! So, when I passed my exams the first thing I did was apply for Volunteer Examiner Credentials and become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. To me, helping interested souls earn their Ham tickets is an honor and a privilege – not a tedious burden.
It was at the end of one such VE session that one of the successful new Technicians turned to me and with an odd mix of a smile and a frown said…
“So, now what?
How do you sum up all of the suggested steps for someone with a brand new Amateur Radio license, and a clean slate?
…and so, this series was born!
Let me be honest, that I doubt that this will be anything close to an exhaustive discussion of every possible nook and cranny of Amateur Radio that an interested person might journey through from beginning to end, when we all must join our Elmers as SK’s (silent keys), but, I hope, that it will act as a starting point, from which readers will be able to branch out and make their own discoveries.
Perhaps we should start out with a preliminary short list (which might grow as this series progresses). This won’t be a universal list that all Hams will agree about, and maybe that too will be educational for us all. Let’s assume that you own no equipment of any kind, you just woke up one day with the novel idea to get your Technician’s License and play with radios. Bing, bang, boom – there you are in an exam room and one hour later you are the proud owner of a Technician’s Class Amateur Radio License…
What do I do now?
1) GET ON THE AIR! – This seems rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how many license holders never seem to get around to this step. Perhaps they just like to take tests? I dunno, but it seems like a pointless exercise if all you’ve got for your trouble is a computer entry on the FCC’s database (the FCC used to automatically mail you an official looking license, suitable for hanging, and another one suitable for stuffing into your wallet, but budget cuts have limited them, so that now, only if you ask, will they mail you something on recycled plain white paper, probably purchased at a nearby Staples – on sale, no doubt).
2) But How Do I Get On The Air? – Well, if you have money to burn I could give you a laundry list of toys to buy that will make your Shack the envy of all of Ham-dom, but in this real world perhaps we should start more slowly and rationally. Somehow the Chinese have figured out a way to manufacture and ship decent dual band Handy-Talkies (HT) at a lower price than Japanese companies charge for little leather covers for their much, much more expensive HTs ($35 sometimes with free shipping!)! Are they the same as the Japanese models? Heck, no, but they make great first HTs – they are cheap and light and if you break it, you can always just buy another one with hardly an impact on your wallet. Spring for a $10-$20 antenna (it almost has to be a better one than the one thrown in free with the HT), and maybe a mag-mount antenna (great for the car, and you can stick it on the rear of your air conditioner at home for a little bit more range than most HT mounted antennas. Google “CHIRP” for the software to program all the Repeaters you might want to listen and talk on. Don’t rely on the $4 programming cable that is usually sold by the same places, it’s a crapshoot whether they will actually work with your computer. Invest in a program cable that is in the $10-$20 price range – at that range the chances that it will work with your computer is near 99% (nothing is a sure thing when it comes to computers). Google “New York Repeater Directory”, and you will find a LONG list of repeaters in the area. Not all are functional, and even most functional Repeaters are only active for parts of the day when their users have developed a habit of passing by for a chat. Listen for a while, get an idea of the rules of an orderly exchange of ideas and of opinions. It’s not rocket science (unless, of course, you’ve happened upon a “Rocket Science Net”). Introduce yourself to the group and take a seat and talk for a spell! Start with short comments and as you get more comfortable you can have lengthier comments, but try not to stand on a soap box and offer up a speech – you’re supposed to be talking with people, not at people!
3) But WHO Do I Talk To? – Gee, did anyone tell you who to pick to talk to in kindergarten? It’s the same here, just listen around and find people that you would like to talk to – people like you and people unlike you, but who sound interesting! This is all supposed to be an educational and a social experience. Go have FUN!
4) But WHO Do I Listen To? – What a great question, glad ya asked! FM Repeaters are like Internet Forums, you have all kinds of participants – geniuses, fools, smart alecks, funny guys, hypochondriacs, depressives, Manics, quiet guys, loudmouths, the highly opinionated, and people that change their opinions like most people change their underwear. Let your gut be your guide, and remember to properly tune your Bravo-Sierra Meter. There are more than a few nutty professors that have opinions and factoids that seem to have been whispered to them by the Amateur Radio Faerie, bereft of any actual correct information. Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on how long the old codger has been licensed – I’ve spoken to old timers that wouldn’t know what end of a vacuum tube gets plugged in! Ultimately seniority in Ham Radio just indicates that they had the good sense not to die earlier! Don’t get me wrong, there are guys on the air with a wealth of knowledge earned through a great amount of years’ experience of practice and research – they are like finding a $100 bill right in front of you on the ground. Cherish those members of the hobby, and learn from them!
5) So, The Only Way To Find Guys That Know Their Stuff Is On The Radio? – No! Look around for local and national Amateur Radio Organizations. Check out their websites, visit some local clubs at their monthly meetings – are they talking about Ham Radio, or complaining about their wives, their jobs, or their lives in general? Do they sound like they know what they are talking about? Are they interested in sharing their hard earned knowledge? Do they seem to have a personality that doesn’t rub you the wrong way? Again, try to steer clear from Nutty Professor types! Consider joining the ARRL (ARRL.org) and read their monthly publication, QST. For that matter, consider buying a bunch of books on the subject, the more you know about this exciting new hobby the more you can learn what to do with it!
6) So, Am I Done Yet? – Far from it, you’ve just begun! Squeeze every knowledgeable guy for information, opinions, suggestions. It should now be time for you to think about building your own radio shack! Ask around for suggestions for a base radio and some antennas. Some people buy only radios that take advantage of the frequencies they can use and plan to trade up when they gain new privileges, others buy for the future as a means to self motivate themselves. It depends on your wallet, your love of haggling and your degree of optimism. If your next radio requires a separate DC power supply, don’t buy the lowest amp one that you can find – you’re going to be plugging things into that power supply that you don’t even know that you want yet! Go for that 25-30 amp peak supply, better to have too much power than too little.
7) Antennas Gotta Be Simple, Right? – Simple, my ars*. Your antenna system will make or break your radio shack. Whether it constitutes 80% of your shack or 78.453% is a subject best left to Nutty Professors. Suffice to say, antennas are VERY important. A thorough discussion of antennas is beyond the scope of this particular series, but luckily for you, I just so happen to have a series on antenna theory on the truck! Check it out at AC2GS.com, or www.KingsCountyRadioClub.com/roys-place .
8) Okay, I Got It All, Right? – Do you want to be stuck with just the UHF and VHF bands, gabbing with locals or Echolink users day in and day out? Nah, get your General License and see what the beautiful World of High Frequency (HF) is like. No more marathon talks about upgrading your Radio Shack single band HT from the 90’s in for one of those shiny new $35 Baofeng HT’s or at what angle should you dangle its rubber ducky, original antenna, out of your bedroom window to get the best scratchiest transmissions. No, HF is where the big boys hang out. Mind you, there are still chuckleheads and Nutty Professors on the HF bands, but if you tune past them you will hear guys tweaking their systems to their dreams of perfection. Will you be able to afford all their toys? Likely not, but you can still find ways to amuse yourself, and learn a heck of a lot from some of those guys!
9) Am I Done Yet!!! – Nope, you have all the bands open to you and guys that will bend your ear and educate you about every one of them. Find a few dozen things that interest you and pursue them. The point of the exercise is TO HAVE FUN!
10) So, now am I DONE!!! – Not, yet. Get that Extra license, then get your Volunteer Examiner credentials and help other new hobbyists into this great journey.
11) Then you can write YOUR list of how to get started in this hobby!
And remember to Have Fun!
– The Editor- (The Editor can be reached at TheEditor@KC2RC.com)