Amateur Radio. You've heard of it. You probably know that Amateur Radio operators are also called "hams". (Nobody knows quite why!) Perhaps you have seen amateur call signs (station identifiers) like W3ABC, KB6ZV, WA2DHF or K1ZZ on auto license plates. But who are these people and what do they do?
Most hams are different from non-hams in just one way - their circle of friends is not limited by distance or social class. While the broadcast media brings our world into each home, that world is still distant - you can't converse with images on the TV news. Hams, however, can have a daily contact with friends anywhere in the world. As a ham, you might sit down to a conversation with one friend in Trenton - and another in Taiwan. Casual conversation with a ham in another country really shrinks the world. Amateur Radio enhances international relations as does no other hobby. As you read this, radio amateurs all over the world are communicating wit each other. On the airwaves, there is always a friendly ear - someone to talk with.
Who might you meet at the other end of the radio? On the glamorous side, it may be an astronaut (sometimes while in space), a homesteader in Alaska, a US legislator, a missionary, a monarch, a camper in a Canadian national park, a student at a Wyoming high school radio club, or a sailor on board a ship in the middle of the Pacific - all without leaving home! Or, you may choose to seek others with common interests in "nets" (regular on-the-air meetings). There are nets centered on vocations, interests in different languages or different hobbies - from the Armenian Amateur Radio and Traffic Net to the Zenith National Net.
Public Service is a large part of the Amateur Radio Service. Hams sponsor and provide radio support for various activities in their community. Field day is the largest ham activity related to public service. One weekend each June, amateurs take their equipment into the great outdoors to simulate operating during a disaster. The challenge is to establish temporary stations and contact as many other participants as possible. A typical two-transmitter Field Day station averages about 900 contacts in a 24-hour period. Although it is practise for serious situations, you can't help but have a lot of fun when 100,000 people go camping together.
If you have a competitive nature, there are many avenues to explore in Amateur Radio. Numerous contests and awards recognize achievements in distance, number or style of radio contacts. Contests generally reward the most contacts with the greatest variety of stations, while there are awards for contacting all US states (WAS), Canadian provinces (WAVE), 100 countries (DXCC) and many others. "QRP" enthusiasts strive to make radio contact using low-power transmitters. Many hams like QRP operation because they can easily build the simple, inexpensive equipment used. Self-reliance has always been a trademark of radio amateurs; many hams want to know how their equipment works and how to fix it. Repair shops aren't always open during hurricanes or floods, and you can't call the repair service from a forest fire, chemical spill or blizzard.
How to get started
What do you need to get started in Amateur Radio? You will need a license and a station-radio and antenna. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issues several classes, or levels, of Amateur Radio license. Each higher class gives the amateur more privileges in return for the skills learned to pass the examination. This license system encourages hams to improve their radio abilities. Assembling a station need not to be expensive. Many hams continually upgrade their stations, so there is a ready supply of used Amateur Radio equipment.