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Ham radio hangs on

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"You could compare getting on the radio to going fishing – you cast your line out into the airwaves, and you never know what you're going to get," says Richard Moseson, the editor of the amateur radio magazine CQ. "One of the great things about ham radio, as compared, say, to Twitter, is the challenge – that amazing feeling of accomplishment when you're successful. We bounce signals off the moon. We bounce signals off our own fleet of satellites. We bounce signals through ionized air. What other hobby has all of that?"

Before e-mail, a ham in Alabama could sit in his darkened living room and chat with a like-minded operator in France. Before Google Earth – the interactive 3-D atlas – hams were communicating with space stations, satellites, and a group of explorers in Antarctica. Ham radio makes the world small.

"I'm an old-timer by today's standards, and when I first came on, in the '70s, there were a lot of old-timers," says David Drummond, a veteran operator, reclining across the bench at the Chick-fil-A. "It's through older hams" – "Elmers," in ham patois – "that we learned how to talk, to get a radio on air, how to behave once you were on there. You learned the fascination of being able to talk to strangers and new friends with a little of nothing. That was the magic of radio. That's what we pass on."

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