Get a Hobby! Ham Radio
Author: Kyla Sterling
This month, I contacted Megana Vallentin, Aes Sedai of the Gray Ajah, for an interview. Megana Sedai is an amateur shortwave radio (better known as “ham radio”) operator, and she agreed to answer a few questions for us!
So, Megana Sedai, please tell me a little bit about ham radio! What is it, in a nutshell?
I am a very new ham. I only passed my exam last July. One of my good friends got into it and obsessively encouraged me to join him, so I thought why not? It turns out amateur radio involves a lot more than I realized. Besides talking to other hams all over the world, you can also talk to the ISS (International Space Station), participate in emergency communications, earn certificates for reaching different amounts of countries in different ways, and compete in contests against other hams.
That sounds pretty cool! How do you get started? Do you have to take classes? And is there an initial cost?
There are three levels: Technician, General, and Extra. With each level you get a wider range of frequencies that you can use. You have to pass an exam for each, multiple choice questions with each level having a larger question pool. A lot of local ham clubs will offer classes for free or for a small fee, but there are also many websites that offer study materials and practice exams. I used the training videos that another ham made along with a study guide from the ARRL (American Radio Relay League), plus HamExam.org to practice. The exams only cost $15 per sitting, so if you take all 3 at once, you only pay once and the license doesn't expire for ten years.
That doesn’t sound too bad – and it’s nice that there are so many study options available if you want to get started. But I notice you only talked about the cost of getting certified, and not equipment. How bad is that investment?
The expensive part comes after that when you have to start buying equipment! I got a decent handheld radio (looks like a walky talky) for Christmas and it was super cheap at about $120. One of my other radio buddies is trying to help me get a nice used radio but it could still be $200-$600. If I bought something similar new, it could be easily over $1000. And that's just the transceiver! You also need at minimum an antenna and a power supply, possibly several hundred each. And then come the accessories...whew. I will be sticking with my handheld for quite a while!
Wow! That’s a pretty hefty price tag! The handheld sounds like a pretty good option there.
So once you’ve got your training, your certification, and your equipment, what next? What do you do once you’re an official operator? As for a typical session, here is a demonstration from the training videos I mentioned (jump to about 2 min in). Person A says the callsign of the person he's trying to reach several times, then Person B answers by stating Person A's callsign, then his own callsign. Then the conversation continues normally. There are usually popular frequencies in each geographic area that many people will listen on, so if you're going to have a longer conversation or hear someone else trying to break in, it's polite to wrap up your conversation or else move to a slightly different frequency so you're not monopolizing the airwaves.
Sounds…pretty straightforward, actually. A fun way to keep in touch with people far away without using cell phones, text, or email. That’s kind of a nice throwback!
So who does ham radio? Is it a pretty established community, or is it easy to make your way in? When my buddy was helping me prepare for the exam, he told me that everyone there would be old, white, and male, or Asian. That was pretty much true. There was one guy my age and one woman. I think a lot of younger people overlook radio due to the ease of texting, email and various social networks, but it's still a thriving, fascinating community, and very welcoming to newbies who want to learn.
Oh, that’s good to hear! So what’s next for you? Do you have any goals or ambitions?
I'm not sure how I will end up using it...so far I'm mostly listening to other conversations and trying to work up the nerve to say hello, much like I might in any social situation. One of my buddies told me a story about an earthquake in California that knocked out phone lines. He was living in Pennsylvania at the time and heard someone on the radio trying to reach anyone in Pennsylvania. He picked up the call and found out it was a young man who had survived the earthquake but had no way of reaching his fiancee to let her know he was alive. There was no phone service but someone had a radio. My friend graciously agreed to call the woman and and was able to let reassure her that her fiance was alive and well. I'm not sure where radio will take me in the future, but I can see that it's a useful and practical skill to have.
That sounds like it’s definitely a great skill! I guess sometimes it’s pretty great to have the throwback option when modern technology fails! Thank you so much, Megana Sedai, for answering my questions! I definitely learned a lot about ham radio, and I bet our readers did, too!
If YOU have a hobby you’d like to talk about, please send a PM to Kyla Sterling!