Thursday, July 23, 2009

Young people and ham radio

Roger, G3XBM, writes about a talk he gave last night to a local radio club, and notes on how few young people were there. He comments that this is an issue we have to address, and concludes: "Even after 50 years, radio still is magical for me."

When I first got interested in radio, the idea of communicating with distant places by bouncing waves off the ionosphere was magical compared to the alternatives: expensive international phone calls or posting a letter. But I fear that to today's younger generation, brought up on reliable worldwide communication using the mobile phone and internet, the unpredictability of radio communication may look less like magic and more like a dull old trick. We have to try and put ourselves in their shoes and ask "what's in it for us?"

There have always been geeky types who are interested in how radio works for its own sake, but these days many of those people will find even more interest in doing clever stuff with computers. What's more, computers don't need getting permission from your parents to festoon the house with aerials, nor do they interfere with Mum's watching Coronation Street or brother's computer speakers.

To sell ham radio to young people you need to promote it as cool and fun. I'm probably completely mad, but perhaps the answer is right under our noses, something that has been written off as outdated by many amateurs: morse code. There have been several stories recently about young people who got interested in radio by hearing code transmissions and wanting to understand what was being said. They pick the code up quickly, too, at that age.

So perhaps you could get youngsters interested by allowing them to use QRP CW on, say, 20m or 30m, in a narrow frequency range? All you'd need is a VXO transmitter and direct conversion receiver, which could be manufactured for very low cost. A couple of watts and a simple wire antenna such as an end fed dipole, even indoors, would produce some surprising contacts. When I was a kid, reading about ham radio and thinking "gosh, you have to be rich to be able to do that" I'd have loved to be able to get on the air with something so simple.
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