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Ham radio hobby still popular in Internet age

POSTED: January 18, 2009 1:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Marcus Shockley, 9, checks out a portable radio at the ham radio licensing class Saturday.

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Nine-year-old Marcus Shockley is among the next generation of ham radio operators growing up in an age of Internet and wireless text messaging.

Marcus and his father, Marc, sat in on an amateur radio licensing class held Saturday in Gainesville that was filled mostly with men older than 40. The boy’s reasons for getting a license have much to do with what radio can offer that the World Wide Web can’t.

"Mostly the reason is so I can talk to the (International) Space Station," Shockley said.

Ham radio in the 21st century is competing with texting, video games and digital music for new enthusiasts, but the pastime is keeping up, hobbyists say.

"It’s alive and well, though a lot of people don’t think so," said Lanierland Amateur Radio Club treasurer John Brandon. The club has about 100 members, and most estimates put the number of ham radio operators worldwide at 2 million.

On Saturday, about a dozen people took a course for their entry-level "technician class" amateur radio licenses. The club offers the three-week courses at least three times a year.

For the uninitiated, the words "ham radio" can evoke images of homemade wooden boxes stuffed with wires and vacuum tubes. But digital communications like phase-shift keying and the Internet-based program Echolink have "brought a lot of the younger people" into the hobby, Brandon said.

Then there are the unique capabilities of radio communications. Cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the International Space Station routinely field transmissions from ham operators. Radio still is more dependable than its newer communication counterparts, as evidenced by its use in public safety and emergency events.

"If the cell phones are down, if the land lines are down, radio is the only thing you have," Brandon said. He noted the club’s membership ranks always swell in the wake of tornados and other natural disasters.

Ham radio operators are involved in disaster preparedness plans and weather-spotting groups. Many use their radios to make new friends across the world.

Allan Shedd of Oakwood is pursuing a license because he needs a dependable mode of long-range communication for his sailing trips.

Shedd was impressed with the fraternal spirit of the ham community.

"It’s obvious if you look at these guys, there’s a lot of dedicated volunteers who make this thing work," Shedd said.

Marc Shockley, 40, said as a child he was fascinated in the workings of radio, but "only recently was I able to get back into it."

After joining in June, Shockley already has attained the third and highest level of licensing, the "amateur extra" class.

Lanierland Amateur Radio Club board member Doyle Gantt said his club has a goal of growing membership by 25 percent. The key is educating younger folks that the multibillion-dollar hobby continues to thrive.

"It thrills me when kids (Marcus’) age come in," he said. "He is the future of the hobby."

Gantt doesn’t think ham radio’s epitaph will be written anytime soon.

"Amateur radio’s certainly not dead," Gantt said.



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