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Amateur radio — in times of trouble or just for fun

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Sean Kutzko is media and public relations manager for the American Radio Relay League, the national association for amateur radio operations. He spoke to the Trib about the resurgence of ham radio operators in America.

Q: In 1991, there were fewer than 500,000 licensed ham radio operators in the United States. Now there are more than 720,000. What sparked this rise in popularity?

A: I would say two things are major contributors. One is disasters, natural and otherwise. Sept. 11, 2001, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — both of those events highlighted the need for communication that functioned independent of the Internet and cellphone network infrastructure.

As a result of that increased emphasis on personal responsibility and preparing for emergency scenarios, more and more people have taken a look at amateur radio as being able to provide communications during those situations.

The other contributing factor is that we're seeing a huge resurgence in (do it yourself) activities. People are just interested in how things work.

We're seeing a lot of people — mainly in the 25-40 demographic — who are very intrigued by learning electronics as a skill set and they're turning to ham radio to learn basic fundamental electronics.

Q: Is the common perception accurate that ham radio is solely about talking to people in other parts of the world?

A: No, it's not. You know, there's this image that a ham radio operator is a grumpy, older guy in his basement with a big tower and antenna in his backyard. That's a stereotype we've been saddled with for a while and the demographics just show that is not the case.

We have hams who have gotten an entry-level license as young as 5 years old. We have people who have gotten into the hobby when they were well into their 90s. The point I'm trying to make is that it's available to everybody.

There is no Morse code requirement. You can earn an entry-level license and get a handheld radio that will allow you to communicate with people in your general, local area for under $100.

It's a way for you to serve your community in times of need — not just during disasters, but during public events like races, parades, things like that.

Q: Would the uninitiated be intimidated by the technology involved in ham radio?

A: No. I can take a little battery-powered transmitter and a length of wire, go out to my neighborhood park and throw that wire in a tree.

Using my little battery-powered transmitter, I can talk to people in Europe using less power than it takes to light the light bulb in your refrigerator.

Q: Do you think a need will always exist for ham radio operators?

A: (Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator) Craig Fugate is a licensed ham radio operator. He gave the keynote address at our centennial convention in Hartford in July. He said it was his job to build communications infrastructure so that we can communicate in times of disaster.

And he said, “All of this stuff is really sophisticated. It's really great and it works well — until the power goes off. Then what do you do?”

The FEMA administrator values amateur radio. He correctly sees a role for it in the 21st century.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or [email protected].

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