Radio, culture and politics in 2019

I originally wrote this on a QRZ thread on ‘young ham recruitment’ and wanted to share here and spread the word that my LGBTQ/PoC radio-interested friends are not alone.

This took me a long time to write and edit, and I’m coming at it with an attitude of sharing and honesty, so I’d like to ask that you respect my effort and at least have a read.

I’m going to preface this by stating that I am absolutely not in the nominal demographic that one will encounter on the radio – long story short, I associate much more closely with left and minority politics than the statistically average ham. So, I have a different view than many of you on what ails this hobby. I have been a ham for 28 years, an extra for 10, and I am active on most bands between 40m and 70cm, both terrestrial and space, analog, digital voice and digital data. (SSTV is my favorite!)

The hobby is a pastime of, for the most part, well-off landowners, overwhelmingly white and conservative. This does not track with the population and demographic trends of under-40s. I mention this not to turn this into a political fight, but just to state how things really are. You’re entitled to live on whatever spot on the political spectrum you choose.

I will say that for those of you that love ‘experimentation’ – literally 80-90% of the best “hackers” and engineers that I know do not fit into the traditional demographic. They are overwhelmingly people of color, rarely straight men, and they are in LOVE with RF tech, but HATE what they hear on the air. So, here’s a list of some stuff that sticks out like sore thumbs to a lot of people that I hang with:

  • Absolutely first and most importantly, the economic world for younger hams is DRASTICALLY different from what all of you encountered in your youth. Kids are BROKE. Home ownership is a laughable pipe dream for most of them. The housing market is pricing out anybody under 40 unless they get lucky with a very well-paying job, have no medical emergencies that drain their savings, and they can manage to outbid real estate investment companies that just want to AirBNB that house for sale. This is important because there is so much focus on HF operation that it’s nearly impossible for a young ham to get on HF unless they’re living at their parents’ house. The real cost of getting on HF isn’t a $500 IC-718 – it’s the $300k+ house on two acres with trees or no HOAs that you need to put it on.
  • My suggestion for this is to reshift a lot of our spend towards AMSAT, specifically pushing them to get a western hemisphere geosync satellite up. QO-100 (the eastern hemisphere geosync satellite) is IMMENSELY popular and a strong performer, and North/South America has NO analogue to it. Getting a synchronous bird up over us would mean trouble-free communication for tens of thousands of hams across an entire hemisphere, unaffected by the solar cycles, using equipment that is fascinating to them, and most importantly, it doesn’t require a lot of yard space – just an equator-facing balcony with a clear shot of the sky. If you do the math, a competent 5/10 or 2.4/10 GHz ground station would actually have a much lower cost than setting up a decent HF station, with more capability, using tech that the millenials are VERY hot on (microwave gear, SDRs, etc.) I applaud AMSAT for getting us a whole pile of LEO sats up, but they are largely tech demos, hard to build long term friendships on. Many of you remember AO-40 ragchews. Let’s get that back.
  • The second big point is, well, the culture. I’ll be frank – if you aren’t ok with talking about “locking her up”, if you aren’t interested by hours and hours of firearms chat, and if you don’t wear a MAGA hat or are retired, the local repeaters probably are an uninviting place. HF is definitely off the table for anything but contesting, which again, is dominated by having acres and high antennas. The big schism is going to be: is ham radio ready to become a hobby of tolerance and kindness in order to get the next generation of brilliant hacker/experimenter kids in to the hobby, or would it rather remain culturally homogenous and possibly stagnate or die? That’s a decision that each of us has to make. EVERYTHING is political and cultural now. It’s not just a technical hobby; more than just about any other hobby, we rely on interpersonal communication to justify and promote it. One ham by themself is worthless; it’s only when you make the QSO with another ham that it becomes a real endeavor.
  • The most common retort, “spin the dial if you don’t like what you hear!” is absolutely true. And as I’ve gone 28 years in this hobby, my elmering long term ‘success rate’ has dropped like a rock, even though I am passing out more free radios, complete stations, antenna coax and all. Because that’s exactly what the kids are doing. They’re spinning the dial, and spinning the dial again, and finally turning the radio off and throwing it in a drawer. If the environment on the air is hostile all over, they’re not going to bother. Critical mass is important to keeping communities alive, and having more welcoming ragchews and nets will do a lot to keep younger folks interested and convince them to wave the flag of ham radio, to be proud of their hobby, to share it with others and keep it alive.

my summary point is: if you are fine with the hobby being dominated by white religious conservatives at the expense of its longevity, do nothing. That’s exactly where it’s headed. If you want to see the hobby live, reach out and be empathetic and welcoming. THINK about what you are ragchewing about. Is some potential Tech listening to you on a webSDR and hearing you complain about immigrants? Did you maybe cut that QSO short because you heard a bit of a lisp and prefer to talk to people ‘like you’? Our diversity is our strength, and that will carry us forward. Otherwise, we’re going to be considered by most people under 40 as ‘that apocalypse prepper CB thing that nobody really uses any more.’

whew. end rant. thank you for your time.