CQ cartoon, May 2023

CQ Amateur Radio Magazine, May 2023 issue

This week, I’ll be headed to Dayton, Ohio — actually, Xenia, a little bit to the southeast — for the annual Dayton Hamvention, billed as the world’s largest gathering of amateur radio operators, or “hams.”

(My show this Saturday will be produced and broadcast from Hamvention, and I’ll be talking to some people at the convention. However, this week’s show will only be on Tube City Online Radio, because WRCT will be off the air due to a scheduled power outage on the Carnegie Mellon University campus. Plan your Saturday afternoon accordingly, ha ha.)

A lot of people think that “amateur radio” is what I do on Saturdays, but “ham radio” is not broadcasting — it’s transmitting messages from point-to-point, or from one person (or group of people) to another.

In fact, there are special frequencies set aside for amateur radio, and a license is required to use them. People with an amateur radio license are specifically prohibited from using those frequencies for “broadcasting” to the general public. (There’s nothing to stop you from listening to those transmissions, of course, but the person sending messages on those frequencies is not supposed to be sending them primarily for amusement or entertainment.)

I’ve been a radio hobbyist since I was a kid and I’ve had a basic (or “technician class”) amateur radio license since my early 20s, when one of my editors at the McKeesport Daily News — who was herself a “ham” operator — goaded me into it. I remember taking my test on a Saturday morning at the University of Pittsburgh, and coming into the newsroom on Monday, proudly waving the results.

Marie looked at it, drily, and said, “Well, good for you. Now, when are you going to get an advanced license?” I haven’t yet, Marie. I’m sorry.

She also wanted to know “when are you going to Dayton?” — meaning “Hamvention.”

Marie passed away more than 20 years ago, but I still think of her every year when I get ready for the annual Hamvention pilgrimage.

To be honest, when I got my radio license, it seemed to be a dying hobby — the other people attending the conventions (“hamfests”) and swap meets seemed to be getting older, and not a lot of young people or women were around. As digital communications and the Internet grew, I really thought, “Well, that will be the final death knell for ham radio.”

To my pleasant surprise, digital technology seems to have sparked (pun intended) more interest, not less. When I attend a hamfest nowadays, I see more and more young people, more and more women, and more and more diverse crowds.

Lots of ham radio operators now are building devices with Raspberry Pi or Arduino, and plenty of them have gotten involved in radio communications so that they can build remote-controlled robotic devices and drones. I suspect many of them got their first taste of electronics while in high school, participating in STEM (science, technology, electronics and math) enrichment curricula.

Many of today’s ham radio operators are experimenting with a technology called D-Star, which integrates radio transmitters and the Internet into a seamless global communications network run by hobbyists and volunteers — partially over wires, partially wireless.

Besides classes, conferences and panel discussions, one of the attractions of Dayton Hamvention — and most hamfests — are the flea markets, where every manner of electronics and gadgets are sold. Looking for a 1920s homemade radio screwed together on a piece of scrap lumber? You’re liable to find that for sale at a hamfest, along with hard drives, antennas, discarded video cameras, shortwave radios, and just about every variety of computer chips, transistors, vacuum tubes and lots of things I can’t even identify.

Sometimes you can tell someone is liquidating their electronics collection for a reason — either their spouse has told them “get rid of that junk,” or else they ran a radio-TV shop that has gone out of business, or sometimes they’ve purchased military or corporate surplus, and they’re unloading it.

In my cartoon for the May issue of CQ Amateur Radio Magazine, I must admit I couldn’t resist poking one more bit of fun at two guys who recently found themselves on the unemployment line. In a way, I feel kind of bad for Dilbert, Wally, Alice and Asok — it wasn’t their fault their comic strip got canceled.

As always, a reminder that these cartoons are posted after they’ve appeared in CQ. If you want to see them when they’re new, and catch up on the amateur electronics hobby, why not subscribe today?

%d bloggers like this: