Making Waves: An Ode to Ham Radio

Attending once again the annual NAB Ham Radio Reception reminded me of the great impact ham radio has had on broadcasting. Many familiar faces, both famous in the industry and not, were in attendance.

According to my old log book, I made my first ham radio QSO (conversation) 40 years ago on May 1, 1971.

I had first seen a ham radio station when my seventh grade math teacher, John Kellmer, offered to see his son Marvin’s set-up because he had overheard me tell a friend about my new Philips electronics experimenters kit. Marv, WA7ECV, had a huge boat anchor of a transmitter, a Heathkit TX-1 “Apache,” and its accompanying single sideband adaptor. He had a new Drake R4B receiver that glowed greenish blue with a frequency dial accurate to a kilohertz. I wanted one immediately. An approaching thunderstorm allowed Marv to demonstrate static buildup on his inverted-V dipole by putting a neon light across the terminals and watching it light up when the voltage exceeded about 90 volts DC. I grinned for about an hour solid there.

About two years later, when a couple guys from my Spanish class, Steve Coffman and Lee Romine, said they were interested in ham radio, we plowed ahead and studied for the Novice class FCC license. I had prepared with by ordering from Lafayette Electronics an Ameco Morse code key, a code study phonograph record, and an ARRL book, “How to Become a Radio Amateur.”

I rode with Lee 45 minutes to nearby Bend, Oregon to take the license exam. Steve and his mailman, ham K7HOG, met us at the home of a friend where the exam was given. Steve, Lee, and I all passed, then waited for our licenses to arrive from the FCC.

My ticket, WN7RGQ, arrived the next month, and I was on the air May 1. Unfortunately, I had purchased a cheap new Ten-Tec PM-2 transceiver that, while cute, could only output a bit over a watt continuous wave (CW). And like all Novices of the day, I was restricted to whatever frequencies I happened to own crystals for. Nonetheless, I made dozens of contacts, and developed a couple of friends. I would chat with kids my age in Washington state or over an hour at a time using Morse code.

We grew restless to advance to a class of license that would less restrict our output power and frequency movement, so we began studying for our General Class licenses. Mr. Kellmer wanted his license as well, so he took us weekly to the community college for an adult education class in license prep. We learned basic electronics, including tube amplifier theory, using an Ameco book, and practiced faster code on an Instructograph paper tape player in an adjacent temporary building.

When we were ready for the exam, we took a 4-hour bus ride to Portland, where the nearest FCC field office was located. I remember that the office staff seemed like they were doing everyone a favor offering the exams. We all flunked the first go-round, Steve (WN7RGR) and I on the code receiving, and Lee  (WN7RGS) on the technical exam. But when we retook the test a month later, we all passed and our “N” callsigns became “A” callsigns.

Ham radio equipment used in the US had been nearly 100% US made, but the Japanese were just introducing their equipment here, and I bought the new Kenwood T-599 transmitter and matching R-599 receiver. They had a beautiful brushed metal front panel but cheap looking meters. With 200 watts, I began talking across the Pacific to Japan, the Soviet Union, Australia, and New Zealand.

Marv had a friend who worked at the local radio station, KRCO (AM), and encouraged me to give him a call to get a tour. During their Sunday afternoon playback of a performance from the Ashland Shakespearean Festival, Mike Toney showed me a gorgeously crafted Collins 20-T transmitter, and a new Gates Yard console and heavy Gates turntables. I was hooked. A year later when he went away to college, I took Mike’s place at the station.

The funny thing is, that largely replaced ham radio for me. I sold my radios to buy my first car, then went away to college, got married, and so on. Like many, now that my kids are independent teens now and I no longer hang out with big transmitters, I’ve come back to ham radio to some degree, and have a nice new bunch of ham friends.

Until recently, broadcasting seemed a lot like amateur radio. Broadcasting used larger transmitters and more substantial antennas, but otherwise they had a lot in common. Broadcast engineers and DJs were often hams who just wanted to get paid for what we loved to do. And we often made our own equipment, especially when it wasn’t commercially available or considered too expensive to buy. You often saw staff-built control panels and audio interface boxes, but I’ve seen homebrew FM automation systems, audio mixers, TV master control switchers, and all forms of interface control systems. The 1950s through 1990s were times when labor was relatively cheaper, there was less competition, and leveraged buyouts hadn’t yet gotten underway.

Today’s broadcast engineer is more likely to have been a computer tinkerer than a ham radio tinkerer. Just as most hams are appliance operators who more configure software and hardware systems than make radios from scratch, so are stations now made with modular computers that require skills to assemble them into working systems, but not at component level.

Ham radio may seem to be increasingly irrelevant in light of the ease of worldwide internet communication, but the number of licensees keep gaining. With the new digital modes, there are numerous interesting specialties to explore. I dabble in summer VHF “e-skip,” PSK modes, and sideband ragchews.But more importantly, I have fantastic new ham friends with whom I share not only Field Day, but life in general.

I have two teenagers who certainly think that ham radio is irrelevant in the internet age, but seem to spend a lot of time sending and receiving short messages on their miniature 800MHz transceivers.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate the hams among us. Some are not active, but many are, and some do remarkable things with their ham hobby. Here are a few in the San Diego broadcasting market you might know:

K6AM John Barcroft, ex-KGB/KPQP Chief Engineer, San Diego
KG6QAN, Mike Curran, San Diego County Board of Education Engineer, San Diego
N6QEK, Steve Frick, Clear Channel Communications Engineer, El Cajon
W6VR, Bob Gonsett, owner of Communications General Corporation, RF consultant, Fallbrook
AB6CQ, Albert Gordon, Del Mar
KG6VFU, Dave Hassell, XETV Engineer, Encinitas
W7GAS, Walter Johnson, Telcom Design Corp. Owner, Jamul
KC6CLN, Tim Lange, Cox Cable Technician, El Cajon
N6OEI, Matt Lunati, Combined Wireless Owner, La Mesa
KD6GMW, Leon Messenie, KPBS Director of Engineering, La Mesa
WA9UGS, Steve Moreen, RF Specialities of California President, San Diego
KG6HSQ, Ronald Patten, broadcast engineer, Fallbrook
KF6YB, Oscar Quintanilla, Cox Cable Engineer, La Mesa
KI6ASX, Paul Redfield, XETV Director of Engineering, La Mesa
KF6ATM, James Schechter, RF engineer, Valley Center
W6GLS, Gary Stigall, TV Magic CTO, San Diego
KF6OGF, Kenneth Tondreau, Grass Valley Sales Representative, Calabasas
K6OBS, Richard Warren, wsRadio Manager, San Diego
AF6AV, Phil Wells, past CE KYXY/KJQY, San Diego
NE6I, Dennis Younker, Cox Cable Video Engineering Supervisor, Spring Valley