Monday, June 13, 2016

Smart Answers to Dumb Questions About Amateur Radio


The following is rather long but a good read none the less. It is important to remember we are Ambassadors for our hobby and could make a difference in how we continue as hams and our organizations either grow or shrivel up and die.

By Don Keith, N4KC
You may as well accept the fact that eventually people will figure out that you are a licensed Amateur Radio operator. No matter how hard you try to hide it, they will sooner or later catch you. It may be the HT you monitor in your cubicle at work, the Ham Radio license plate on your old beater, the ninety-foot skyhook in the backyard, or the “Know Code” tee shirt you wear everywhere you go…except maybe to church. Regardless how they come to the conclusion, they will break your cover and deduce that you are, in reality, a real, live Ham nut.

And when they do, they will ask you questions. They will likely do so for one of four reasons:
1 – They are just being polite and don’t really care at all what your answers might be.
2 – Now that they have found you out, they are convinced that your station is the reason the picture on their TV freezes when they try to watch “Dancing with the Stars.”
3 – They want to sell you something, like vitamin supplements, plastic-ware, makeup, or timeshares, and now they have an excuse to talk with you.
4 – They actually have an interest in the hobby and want to learn more about it.
One thing you can count on, though. Many of the questions will be—at least to you—very basic and, frankly, dumb. Never assume your new friend knows enough about our hobby to even ask a cogent question. Don’t roll your eyes and let out a big sigh! Instead take the stance that the person is asking that dumb question because he or she actually wants to know the answer. Seize the opportunity to give a smart response and you may just be able to evangelize a bit about our great hobby.
To assist you in this effort, I am going to list below some of the really goofy questions folks have asked me through the years. Then I will give some of my own suggested answers. You can likely come up with your own better responses. But remember, don’t get too technical. Make your answers short and to the point so they can ask more if they are truly interested. Don’t lie or exaggerate. And try not to get wild-eyed and foam at the mouth in your eagerness to share with a potential new Ham your immense enthusiasm for the hobby.

So, here are the questions and possible answers:

Question #1: “How far can you talk on that thing?”

Ah, the “how far” question! Careful. Regardless your answer, this often leads to question #2 below so be prepared for that follow-up. Don’t worry, either, about whether the questioner is referring to the 2-meter HT on your belt or the five-element beam watching over the neighborhood from your backyard. The question is hypothetical.

You can be flip and say, “As far as I want to.” You certainly don’t want to break into a detailed explanation of ionospheric refraction or sporadic-E VHF propagation. I usually go for the “impress ‘em” answers, though.

“To the other side of the planet,” I proclaim. Hey, with Echolink or similar technology you can even use that HT to talk far beyond just the local repeater. Maybe even the other side of the planet. Technically it is true.

If their eyes don’t go blank and they don’t erupt into a gigantic yawn, I trudge on with, “I’ve talked with other Hams who were operating from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, almost exactly on the other side of the world from where you and I are standing right now.”

Even if you haven’t quite accomplished that feat yet, you can confidently make the same point by proclaiming, “Some Hams talk with other guys operating from the other side of the planet…”

If the person has not begun inspecting his car keys or picking lint from his sweater while he thinks of a way to courteously get away from me, I go even farther.

“Many Amateurs bounce their signals off the moon, off the Northern Lights, or off the tails of comets. We have Amateur Radio satellites orbiting over our heads right now and you can even talk with the astronauts in the International Space Station.”


You got him! There is the first sign of a spark of interest. Hopefully you can set the hook and reel him in. But don’t be surprised if he asks the next dumb question:

Question #2: “But what can you do with that radio of yours that I can’t do with my smart phone?”

Or tablet or laptop or two tin cans and a string? Yep, it’s the dreaded “smart phone texting Facebook Pinterest social media flavor of the day” question. “I don’t need a license or a radio or a big antenna to talk to people. I got me an Avocado SPF-7 with GPS, a mega-pixel mini-movie-screen, 30 watts of hi-fi stereo audio and a built-in bottle opener and belt-hole puncher right here on my hip.”

“Well, you certainly can talk on that bad boy. But Amateur Radio is far more than just talking to people. It’s communicating with others of a like mind, using a station that you put together yourself, using a wide array of technology, and doing so in such a way that you will often be surprised and fulfilled.”

Blank look? Move on and talk about something else. Or tell him or her bye bye. Still seems to be paying attention, though? Move on to the next part of the answer.

“You can also buy fish at the market so why do so many people purchase a boat, fishing tackle and beer and head out onto the lake? Golf? Just walk over and drop the ball into the hole. No need to whack at it a bunch of times with a club. See, you do these things because there is a challenge and a fulfilling reward if you try and succeed.”

Maybe it is at this point that you get the squinty-face look and the person responds with something like, “Okay, but it still seems like a lot of trouble just to be able to talk to somebody.”

So you shake your head sagely, put your forefinger to your chin, and issue a dare.

“Maybe so, but I’d like for you to try something for me. Take that smart phone and dial an international area code and random number. First, let’s see if you can even get an answer. If, by some miracle you do, and if that person just happens to speak your language, engage him or her in a half-hour conversation. What is the likelihood that this random call will net you somebody that not only is willing to chat with you and knows your language but that he or she immediately has some very strong common ground with you? I mean besides also being an owner of a smart phone. These sorts of communications happen all day ever day on the Amateur Radio bands. With a contact on the radio, you automatically have something very big and exciting in common. You are both Amateur Radio operators, members of the same fraternity. And whether or not either of you can explain the magic of that, you know it and you feel it.”

If the questioner doesn’t get that point, you are probably wasting your time.

Question #3: “Is Ham sort of like…what?...that radio Burt Reynolds and Sally Field used in that trucker movie? CB? That was it, right?”

Citizens Band had its day and you may as well admit it. Millions who would never have picked up a microphone jumped aboard CB over the years. Many still do. Do not make the mistake of instantly condemning the “Chicken Band,” all who have ever yakked on it, or the whole notion of people being able to “work skip” without a license. You might be surprised how many of the folks you admire and talk with regularly on the Ham bands actually began with a “handle” and an 11-meter radio.

“CB is one way many people first realize that they have an interest in a radio hobby,” you might answer. “But they want to learn and do far more than what that particular service offers. Some of our most avid Hams started out with a CB radio but moved beyond the low power, limited coverage, crowded frequencies, and lack of choices.”

Question #4: “You guys still use that Morse code, too, don’t you? And I heard you have to know how to send it to get a license to be a Ham.”

Depending on how you feel about CW, you may feel inclined to preach the gospel of “you ain’t a real Ham unless you know Morse!” But trust me, now is not the time to launch into that sermon. Temper your answer. You can convert the person to the paths of righteousness later on if you see that as your mission. The fact that this question even came up confirms that this particular person sees the code as a roadblock. First help him get past that for right now.

“Well, no! It is no longer required at all. Hasn’t been for years. You don’t need to know the code to do most of the fun things in our hobby either.” Pause for a breath. Let that sink in. Then do a low-key sales pitch. “I should tell you, though, that since the requirement went away, more and more Hams have started to learn and use Morse code, by choice and not because they have to. They see it as a fun thing to do. But that is totally up to you. Our hobby has lots of facets and options and learning and using Morse code is just one of them.”

Mentioning “facets and options” may well key dumb question number five.

Question #5: “Still seems like a lot of trouble just to talk to other Ham types. Is there other stuff a Ham license would let me do?”

Okay, that isn’t a dumb question at all. If I’m going to get interested in any kind of pastime I want to know what it involves.

“Absolutely!” you can chime in without fear of contradiction. “Not only is Amateur Radio just about the perfect hobby because you can do it regardless of age, gender, or physical or technical ability, but it offers such a wide area of possibilities.”

You can talk about your own interests here or find out what the questioner likes to do and hone your pitch. Don’t forget activities like contesting, kit building, DXing, tying radios and computers together for SDR, digital modes and more, working satellites, weather spotting, DIY/”maker,” public service, RVing, amateur television, hiking and activating mountains and islands, drones and other radio-controlled devices, experimenting with antennas, propagation, battery/solar power and other alternative energy sources…well, the list is lengthy. -- Practically endless, in my opinion.

While many Hams simply enjoy talking with other like-minded folks, there is plenty more to do with the hobby. And regardless of what other interests a person might have, there is a pretty good chance it marries well with Amateur Radio, enhancing your enjoyment of all of them.

Question #6: “It’s expensive, right? All that radio stuff and antennas?”

“Not necessarily. Like most hobbies, you can spend as much as you want to, but you can also get great satisfaction with a modest station.”

Invite the person to price a bass boat, trailer, motor, tackle box full of lures, a place to keep the boat, and all the other necessities to get involved seriously in fishing. Or check the cost of a decent set of golf clubs, club membership, greens and cart fees, lessons, and all the other things you need to become a golfer.

If pressed, you can honestly say that you can get on the air with a pretty good station for less than a thousand dollars. A thousand dollars! That is a lot of money!

Yeah, about four trips to WalMart for my family. Far less than that boat or golf club membership. And you have a station that will stand you in good stead the rest of your life. Plus, if you have someone who can help you find and evaluate used gear, you can get in even cheaper.

Question #7: “Oh, speaking of antennas, I doubt my homeowners’ association would ever allow me to put up a tower. How would I ever be able to get on the air?”

Wow! These questions are not only getting less and less dumb but also more and more difficult to answer. But answer you must. You now have your questioner asking about the right things.

“That is an issue for many Amateurs these days. There is even legislation pending in Congress right now that will make it easier for Hams to get HOAs to allow a reasonable antenna system. But there are plenty of ways to get on the air without having to put up an elaborate antenna or tall tower that will cause your neighbors throw rocks at you. There are many books and articles on the subject, too. Rest assured, Hams are pretty good at finding ways to pursue their hobby regardless the restrictions or impediments.”

Now, if you have done your job of answering the dumb questions without getting frighteningly animated or veering off subject, you may get the least-dumb question of all.

Question #8: “How do I get started? How can I learn what I need to know to pass the test?”

Bingo! You should be a salesman! Or politician! I hope you have a good reply ready for this strong “buying signal.”

But first, here is the wrong answer: “Don’t just learn the answers to the questions on the test. Learn all there is to know about radio and electronics before you even think about taking the exam.” Wrong, wrong, wrong! A Ham license is a license to learn. Encourage those interested to go ahead and study for the test but assure them they do not need to qualify for a degree in electronic engineering before actually taking it. If their experience is typical, they will start learning while getting ready for the licensing test and they will not stop until the day they go SK.

Many people—including those with a technical background or a real interest in the technical side of our hobby—are still a bit leery of learning enough to pass the exam. They shouldn’t be. And neither should you give them any reason to doubt their ability to pass it. Encourage them to get the ticket. They’ll have the rest of their lives to learn all there is to know.

“Our Amateur Radio club meets every third Thursday at the library, starting at 7 PM. You’d be welcomed by a friendly bunch of folks and we have licensing classes starting next week. You can also visit the American Radio Relay League’s web site. That’s our hobby’s national organization and their site can answer about any question you can think of.”

If the questioner’s response is, “Hey, you have done a pretty good job answering my questions,” then take pride in knowing you may have recruited yourself a new Ham.

Remember, too, what one of my school teachers used to say. “Mr. Keith, you will never pass my class unless you stop reading that Ham Radio magazine while I am lecturing.” Whoops. He did say that, but he also said, “The only dumb question is the one that is never asked.” I suspect we all asked even dumber questions than those above before we started out in the hobby. I know I did.

Thank goodness several very helpful Hams took the time and showed the patience to answer them for me. The result is not only a hobby that has given me endless enjoyment and gratification over the years, prepared me for a 45-year career in media and communications, but also led to many people approaching me with some of those same questions.

In many cases, I was able to answer them and those folks went on to become part of the greatest hobby on earth.

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