April 29, 1999
Hams Still Basking in the Glow of Radio
By SARA BURROWSStaff Writer
Not all hams are on stage or in cans. More than 167,000 of them regularly spend time in ham shacks—rooms of radio equipment—talking to folks around the world.
The mystique of wireless communication has attracted amateur enthusiasts for almost a century (Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first radio signal in 1901). "Even then, people were cobbling together transmitters and receivers out of whatever they could find," says Mike Dinelli, 43, of Skokie. Dinelli, vice president of the Metro Amateur Radio Club, is also known as "K9BOR," his ham call sign. "Hams relate to each other by their call signs," he says.
His 70-member club meets on the first Wednesday of each month at the Lincolnwood Village Hall, and offers a variety of programs of interest to amateur radio fans and operators. Members, who range in age from 10 to 90, also discuss the latest contacts they've made, or exchange advice on technical problems, or a new piece of equipment.
Marconi might be surprised at the numerous sub-hobbies in amateur radio that have developed since his experiment. Ham operators can specialize in the radio frequency they work with, the type of equipment, or the manner of communication they use during transmission, or any combination of such radio elements. Many hams enjoy contesting, which means they try to make as many contacts as possible during a certain time period. "There's some little niche for everybody in amateur radio," says Richard "K9FFY" Hersh, 63, secretary of the Chicago VHF Club, which meets monthly at the Edgebrook Field House.
With 300-plus members, the Chicago FM Club is an amateur radio "niche," but not exactly little. The group's special interest is very high-frequency radio, which communicates over a fairly limited local area. To further the members' abilities in the area, the club runs four repeaters, three of them in the Loop, the fourth on the far South Side. A repeater is a group of instruments that listens to signals on one frequency, then transmits them on another. But most of those hams also operate lower-frequency equipment with a wide range of transmission.
Most hams pursue their hobby for the fun of contacting a wide variety of people all over the world. "Like a lot of us, I got my start with citizens' band radio," says Hersh. Once hooked, he needed more power—CB-radio range is a few miles at most. "CB got too busy, and I wanted to talk farther," he says. "So I got involved in amateur radio and now I use Morse code to talk all over the world. I play chess (by radio, in Morse code) too."
Morse is no longer a necessity for basic amateur radio. "English is almost the universal language in amateur radio," says Hersh. But proficiency in Morse code is required for the higher level operator licenses, and many hams prefer it because it's efficient. "Even though it's almost the year 2000, telegraphy still plays an important part in ham radio," says Dinelli. "Voice takes a greater bandwidth, and takes more time to transmit."
Many hams also like using old equipment. "I just bought some new equipment that's 40 years old," says Dinelli, who enjoys the bulky, old-fashioned tube-power radios hams call "boat anchors," in deference to their size and weight. "There's a ham saying: 'Real radios glow in the dark.' I agree with that," he says.
Hersh also prefers old equipment. "It heats up the room nicely when you turn it on," he says.
However the do-it-yourself-radio-kit days are over, and enthusiasts rely on "hamfests," used equipment sales, to keep them in parts. It's hard for any but experts to use parts to build their own radios these days. Hersh, a ham for 35 years, recalls a time when he bought the works in a kit and built his own radio. "Amazingly, it worked. But people don't do that anymore," he says. "They just don't make kits. The equipment is too complicated."
Today's amateur radio hobby runs the gamut of technology, from small, low-power sets up through the intricate digital communication of computers. "Radio equipment has become very sophisticated, with every bell or whistle you can possibly imagine," says Dinelli.
Though hams have a lot of fun with their radios, their expertise is often put to more serious uses. Through formal and informal groups, hams, working with alternative power sources, often assist authorities during emergencies when electrical and phone lines are out of commission.
The American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the National Weather Service are some agencies that work regularly with ham networks. Hams have provided services during tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, at airplane and auto accidents.
"Ham radios can operate when other power is out," says Dinelli. During last year's Hurricane Georges, a Cuban ham needed medication for his wife, sent out a call for help that was picked up by a ham in Texas. "He had the medicine within three hours," says Dinelli. The Cuban's equipment was minimal -- a small, low-power, Russian-made transmitter with about 10 watts of power and a non-directional antenna. Score one for low tech.
Ham radio operators have also done some non-emergency good deeds. During the Vietnam War, the Arizona's late Senator Barry Goldwater, a ham much of his life, organized ham operations that allowed soldiers to phone home from the front.
School children have also benefited from ham power. "Most astronauts are hams," says Dinelli, "so they will organize conversations from space with elementary school kids."
But with today's super-fast, high-power and increasingly cost-efficient gadgets for communicating, why do hams remain so passionate about radios?
"It's the challenge," says Dinelli. "It's using different types of radio propagation, different kinds of equipment, and different modes of communication. Hams are basically technically oriented people. They like computers, and many have their own Web sites. I think it complements computer technology very well."
Hersh, also enjoys using computer technology, but sees a bleaker future for amateur radio. "The Internet is hurting us. Membership is dropping off," he says. Young people don't have the interest in learning the skills and electronics necessary to become ham operators. Logging onto a computer is quicker, and online voice transmission looms on the horizon.
But chances are there will always be hams, those who enjoy the challenge of a more hands-on form of communication that's often habit forming. "That's really the best thing about ham radio," says Dinelli. "You can start as a kid and carry it through your whole life."
Clark Weber, Chicago radio personality and ham, speaks at the Metro Amateur Radio Club, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, at Lincolnwood Village Hall, 6900 N. Lincoln Ave.
For information on the Chicago FM Club, call (773) 262-6773, or see http://www.fmclub.org . For more information on amateur radio, contact the American Radio Relay League, 255 Main St., Newington, CT, 06111, 1-(800)-32NEW-HAM, or see http://www.arrl.org .
Photo: Mike Dinelli demonstrates his radio equipment for son, Steven, 10. He sends Morse code using the telegraph key at bottom. (Photo by Waldemar Reichert)