Amateur Radio: Not a Hobby for Everybody

Amateur Radio: Not a Hobby for Everybody

By Don Keith N4KC

Copyright 2018 by Don Keith

See if you agree with this statement: it is a good thing to promote our wonderful hobby to as many people as possible and do everything we can to continue to grow our ranks.

Hard to disagree with that one, ain’t it? We love our hobby and want every man, woman and child to join in on the fun. At least most of us feel that way. Adding to our ranks brings new perspectives, new people for us to get to know, new interests to broaden the appeal of the hobby. It also helps justify all those valuable swatches of frequency spectrum that other services continue to eye greedily.

Come on in! The water’s fine!

But hold on a second. Maybe a lyric from a Jimmy Buffet song is more appropriate: “The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful.”

In addition to writing books and cluttering up the ham bands, I make money to support my hobby by working in marketing. And one of the first things marketers do is decide who our target is for whatever product it is that we will try to market to them. Successful marketers do product development and design to meet the needs of a particular group of potential customers. Does the product already exist in some form? Is there competition? Can we differentiate ourselves enough to create demand? Can we manufacture it and distribute it at a price point where we’ll make a profit? Do enough people want this product that we can sell sufficient units to make some money? Paint me a picture of our potential customer and convince me that he or she will want what we produce. Arrange to distribute that product in a way that it is readily available to that target group so they can buy it if they want to. Plan and purchase advertising so it efficiently reaches that target group with our message. And make sure the message in that advertising is directly aimed at the potential customers for that product. 

And finally, we marketers want to be sure we have a clear goal. Is it to make them buy the product? Maybe, at least in the long run. But often that is not the primary action we seek. We might just want them to recognize our product on the shelf among all the other boxes. That’s called brand awareness. Or we want to inspire them to go to a web site and learn more. Or submit a form for a brochure. If they buy based on our message, fine, but everything we say and do—and all that money we spend—may be aimed at simply creating awareness. Then the customer can decide for himself if he wants to take the next step.

Find out what people want. Give them what they want. Tell them you are giving them what they want. There it is. Marketing 101 in three short sentences!

Targeting. It sounds sort of sinister, calculating. But equate it to using a Yagi. A vertical is a perfectly good HF antenna, but it sends precious RF hurtling off in all directions equally. That multi-element Yagi concentrates the RF into one point on the compass, making it stronger and easier for the DX station to understand. Of course, you have to know in which direction that DX station is and what sort of reply he likely expects. Aim so the station is off the side of the beam and, well, good luck! Send him a burst of PSK31 when he is expecting SSB and see if he responds to you.

Believe me, I am totally in favor of showing amateur radio to lots of people. Doing a special event station, inviting the public to Field Day, doing presentations at schools, retirement homes, civic clubs—all great ways to acquaint people with our hobby. Those sorts of efforts should be designed to impress interested folks among the crowd, inspiring them to learn more. It might also buy us a bit of sympathy if our station is klutzing up their TV picture or our antennas are not in congruence with their sense of acceptable landscaping.

In marketing, we call this “shotgunning.” “Throw it against the wall and see what sticks.” Like the vertical, it has some advantages, but it is not nearly as efficient as the Yagi in targeting our message.

How many people walking their puppies past your Field Day setup might coincidentally be interested in learning enough about electronics to get a ham license? If you crowbar your way into a Chamber of Commerce meeting, how many in the crowd are buying what you are selling? What if you set up that same type operation inside the local science museum? Or gave a talk about solar activity and propagation to the astronomy club at a local college? Or invited a storm-spotter group to observe your club’s Simulated Emergency Test activities? Or allowed a high school Spanish class to talk with a station in Costa Rica?


 N9N N4KC USS Nautilus special event Groton Connecticut

Special event station N9N celebrating USS Nautilus and her historic voyage to the North Pole fifty years earlier.  This event at Historic Ship Nautilus and the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT, tied amateur radio to history, submarines, and more, all for maximum impact for those interested in any of those areas.

Does your club have Power Point presentations aimed specifically at different groups? One for elementary school-aged kids with lots of whiz-bang (including Morse code…let a youngster hear his name in Morse and watch his or her face light up), one for high school kids with emphasis on computers, SDRs, ISS, Echolink and the like (show them an Altoids-tin QRP radio and the more technical-minded will be fascinated), and one for retirement or senior citizen groups with emphasis on creating friendships around the world, even if they are physically challenged.

Who would you think the most likely target would be to accept amateur radio and want to learn more? Kids? I think so. Forget all that “they are only interested in cell phones and texting” noise. Make it cool and present it in a cool way and kids—some, not all—will get curious. Teens? Every generation maintains the upcoming flock of young people is taking our civilization to hell in a handbasket. We’ve all turned out pretty well, though. How many of you first got the radio bug in your teens? Even if you waited thirty years to do anything about it. I rest my case.

Messaging. I’m not talking about the National Traffic System and your section CW net. I’m talking about what you tell people that might cause them to do what you want them to do.

I maintain that none of us—you, me, your club, the ARRL—has the money, expertise, or time to sell ham radio as a hobby en masse to a wide, diverse audience. What we all can do is target an effective message to the proper audience in such a way that we can cause people to investigate us. Then they can decide if they want to join the club. 

Action. Our goal should be to entice some of them—the more the merrier—to get just enough of a whim that they will seek out information. It is much easier today. When I started, back when Lincoln was president, interest in amateur radio came mostly by word-of-mouth. If a local ham (W4OXU, now SK) had not started a class at the high school, I wonder if I would have ever pursued my interest in things radio. And turned it into a 22-year career in broadcasting.

Now, with the Internet, I can Google and Wiki and get the skinny with ease. Those who denigrate the ARRL for this or that should at least look at their offerings for would-be hams and make constructive comments. I’m no fan of the new needlessly-complicated and unintuitive website, but there are a bunch of materials there if someone is interested. I wish they were a tad easier to access and download, but I understand they are working on that.

I do think much of the League material hits the right notes: cutting-edge technology, emergency communications, radio-sport, worldwide friendships. Something in there should spark some interest in our most likely suspects.

I submit that you have little hope of selling somebody completely on becoming a ham at Field Day or during a program at a civic club. Not unless they have been pretty much sold already. Instead, give enough information that those who are interested will go to the web, to the ARRL site or your club pages. (You do have a “Getting started in ham radio” page on the club site, don’t you?) Or maybe they will take you up on your invitation to come to a meeting where you will make them welcome. You will, won’t you? Make them feel welcome, that is. Plant the seed. Target the message. Don’t make them drink from a fire hose or scare them away with jargon and inside stuff. This is not an initiation to test their commitment. It is a sales pitch, trying to convince them to learn more. Fan the spark!

Here’s an idea: when presenting to high school groups, talk about technical careers. You think juniors and seniors in high school are not already thinking about what they will do for a living? Despite what you may hear, many of them—male and female—have a technical bent, too. Amateur radio is a great way to follow a technical hobby and prepare for a career as an engineer or scientist. Mention the Nobel Prize winner who is a ham and developed many of our digital modes. Talk about all the early computer innovators who just happened to be hams. Mention the astronauts on the International Space Station who routinely chat from orbit with hams back on the home planet. Have a copy of the editorial from the October 2010 issue of CQ Magazine handy. It talks about previous recipients of the “Young Ham of the Year” award—an engineer who owns his own software consulting company, a physician at the Mayo Clinic, a Shakespearean actress. A recent winner is pursuing a degree at Georgia Tech in aerospace engineering and another is a software design engineer.

Competition? Anything that captures the imagination of people is competition for amateur radio as a hobby. That and inertia—turning off “Dancing with the Stars,” getting off the couch, and learning enough basic electricity to pass a test. What makes our hobby different? Worth the effort? What do we offer that people can’t find in other avocations? Why should I spend my hard-earned money on a transceiver and a tower instead of on a ski boat or tennis lessons? Show the wide range of interests that can be pursued in our hobby. Explore the possibilities of combining other hobbies and interests with ham radio. How about camping, RVing, radio-controlled models, history, stamp collecting, weather-watching? I bet you can think of plenty more.

What do we want that bright-eyed prospective ham to do? No article about spreading the gospel of amateur radio would be complete without mentioning Elmering. I know. I don’t especially like the term “Elmer” either, and I certainly would not use it when evangelizing about the hobby. But I am proud to be called an Elmer. I love the spirit of it. I’m delighted when I run into some of the people that I helped get started in the hobby and have them tell me how much they appreciate it.

If you see a twinkle in someone’s eye during a presentation, or if a young person sticks around a little longer than his buddies when you operate from a Boy Scout camp, take advantage of that opportunity. Set the hook. You don’t have to make him a ham that red-hot minute. But you can certainly say and do the right things to make him go home and Google “amateur radio.” Or email you later and come by and watch you operate your station.

At the same time, don’t make some of the mistakes I see being made all the time. Shave for a public event or a presentation. Wear deodorant. Dress comfortably but leave the antenna-erecting togs at home. If you are an introvert, have someone there who is comfortable talking with strangers. Let guys who are better at public speaking do the presentations. Rely on Power Point but don’t read the slides to the audience. Have some toys there. Raising somebody across town on a two-meter FM repeater may not be all that impressive but to some, it might. Don’t be too technical. Keep it upbeat, interesting. Have a stack of flyers, even if they are generic stuff downloaded from Add the club web site address even if you just write it in. 

You may not realize it, but many people’s perception of ham radio is that odd, funny-smelling uncle who hid out in the basement with all those noisy radios. Or the geek next door that comes in on the stereo. Don’t confirm the stereotype!

One final suggestion: if we want to attract people to our hobby, we need to be more welcoming. There. I said it.

Whether it is at club meetings, on the air, or in posts on forums or web sites, consider that would-be amateurs are judging our ranks by what they see, hear and read. I’ll give you a quick example.

In a recent discussion forum, someone with a 2-by-1 callsign commented on the CW capabilities of a new transceiver recently put on the market. Someone else—and I’ll resist calling him a jerk, though that was exactly what he was—chastised the poster mightily, and even included a copy/paste from the FCC database that indicated that the 2-by-1 fellow was a relatively new ham who passed the Extra exam without benefit of having passed a code test. Basically, he told the fellow he had no right to talk about CW since he was a no-code Extra, and, for that reason, he would never be “a real ham.”

I believe strongly in freedom of speech, and discussion forums are intended to allow people to express their opinions. However, had I been someone considering pursuing the hobby and I saw such tripe, I might reconsider whether I really wanted to attempt to join this particular curmudgeonly fraternity.

You get my point. We have a hobby that almost sells itself, but it is not for everyone. Besides, nowadays it has more competition than ever before. That means we need to target a strong message at the right prospective amateurs. Show them enough of what the hobby has to offer and that will convince those with a true interest to consider learning more. Then be there to show them more, not chase them off.

If we do these things, we will get the new, young blood into our hobby that will keep it vibrant and alive for all of us.

Don Keith N4KC has been a ham radio operator for more than fifty years. After a long career in broadcasting and advertising, he now writes full time and has published more than thirty books, fiction and non-fiction, on a wide range of subjects including amateur radio. See or for more info.