For most people, there's a reality that confronts any hobby: the demands of work and home, other hobbies, and the swarms of people who would like to get their hands on our money for everything from food and hobby supplies to good causes and scams. How do we work amateur radio into a crowded schedule?
For a starter, amateur radio can fit in with a lot of other hobbies. If you like to watch trains or airplanes, keep in mind that they use radio to communicate. Your license doesn't allow you to transmit on their frequencies, but you'll have a new understanding of how their systems work (and, in some states, a legal pass to carry your scanner). There are groups that get together on the air to talk about just any other hobby you can think of. And not only might they discuss knitting, the boxes that knitters and crafters use to organize their tools also works well for radio stuff. If you're looking for something interesting to take photographs of, radios can be fascinating in themselves. And since amateur operators tend to get together, there are pictures to take of meetings or groups. The storms that amateurs often chase also offer great variety, and some make a nice sideline selling those pictures. Photographers can also share by providing illustrations for training or instruction. This is true of storm spotting or other endeavors — some people need to see how to plug cables in.
Amateur radio offers DX (long-distance) contacts, using satellites, creating television, talking with voice, using Morse code, or modern digital transmission to send pictures, e-mail, and other information, the opportunity to build, repair or modify your own equipment, participate in contests, learning history and collecting, engaging in public service, and probably several more aspects. All of these are open to people with technical backgrounds as well as people without such backgrounds. We will probably develop new areas of interest, too. That's one of the great things about a diverse hobby. That's one of the reasons why a hobby that begins with exchanges with other people can be so lively — there is always someone new with a new set of ideas to talk to and learn from.
Radio is everywhere in the modern world: from FM and AM radio broadcasts and television for entertainment and information, to your fire or police department, who rely on it for voice and data communication. Your cell phone is a two-way radio. Airlines use radio to communicate with their flights, and airport towers use it to tell pilots where they may go and when. And for many railfans, there are the railroads that you listen to on your scanner.
In most countries, the Amateur Radio Service (ARS) is one to which some portions of the available radio space are assigned. ARS is somewhat like two other services which you may be familiar: Citizen's Band (CB) or Family Radio Service (FRS), both of which allow users to transmit to another user. Unlike CB or FRS, ARS has a wider range of frequencies and power options. Both CB and FRS are intended for short-range exchanges, a few miles at most. The range of frequencies and output power available in the ARS allows for choices: you can talk to someone around the world in some portions, and in others you can talk locally.
Another difference is that using ARS requires a license. Getting a license requires passing an examination (more about this below), but there is no minimum age requirement. ARS operators can use the radio system for almost any non-commercial exchange. That can include your other hobbies, like railfanning and modeling. You can use a mobile or handheld radio to talk to fellow railfans while traveling or fanning. There are many more frequencies available than on CB or FRS, and they're a lot less crowded. Because of the license requirement, amateurs are, by and large, more polite, so you won't have someone jumping in just to play around. You can connect to a repeater (a radio that relays signals from a wide area) and get directions, or listen to storm spotters. There are regular "nets," or on-the-air meetings to talk about trains and many other topics.
Most amateur radios are able to receive the railroad frequences, and offer far better reception than any scanner. (It should be noted that an ARS license does not authorize you to transmit in the railroad band.) Also, most states which have a law restricting scanner use exempt amateur licensees. And where that's not sufficient, the FCC has exempted any licensee who uses a radio that can transmit on the ARS bands as a scanner. (Most amateur radios have enough memory slots to accommodate all of the railroad frequencies along with the others that you'd use.)
As noted, Amateur Radio requires a license issued by the FCC (or the appropriate agency if you live in another country). To obtain the license, you must past an exam. In the US, the first category is "Technician," which is a 35-question multiple choice test. There are two higher levels, with different exams; but everyone must pass Technician first. There is no longer any requirement to pass a Morse code exam, although you can still use it if you wish. All of the questions are drawn from a publicly-available pool, and many books (or software programs) are available that explain the basics and the answers. Exams are given by volunteers who are Amateur Radio operators, thus the frequency can vary. When I took the first exam, there were places available within twenty miles on a weekly basis. In other areas, it may be monthly or quarterly, or even less, but it also depends on how far you can travel.
Elmers: in memory of KD5QXF In the amateur radio world, the term "Elmer" has become attached to the person who helps a new licensee get going (as well as sometimes helping that person get interested or get a license).
Bill, KD5QXF, was such a figure for us. We met him at the Richardson Citizen's Fire Academy, where he mentioned amateur radio. This re-awakened a long-time interest that Tim had, and Bill guided us both through getting our licenses. When Tim took the exam, Bill was first to call and tell him that the call sign had been issued. He could never do much with the suffix "URS" but Sherrie's "YBP" became Yellow Blooming Petunia. He guided us through purchasing radios, finding other good equipment, and always had a good story to tell.
Bill passed on to the radio station in the sky on September 22, 2009. We know he will be missed by many others, as well as by us.
Last revised 27 April 2015, original 19 January 2007