It’s no secret that recruiting a new generation into our essential avocation is a challenge these days. Technological innovations can diminish the wow factor of amateur radio and the time constraints college students face make it tough for them to get actively involved in ham clubs. But it turns out that the same things that enticed many of us more seasoned souls to engage are still important, and still work.
A group about 20 of us gathered at the 2017 Orlando Hamcation as part of the ARRL’s Collegiate Amateur Radio Initiative. Tom Gallagher, NY2RF, opened the conversation, expressing the league’s total support for our efforts. He’s doing a terrific job at the helm of an evolving organization that must walk a tightrope to serve an eclectic and often opinionated constituency.
Then it was time for the conversation.
We covered a number of topics which I’ll try to collate into some common buckets.
Getting the word out: Andy Milluzzi, KK4LWR is the President of the University of Florida’s Gator Amateur Radio Club. He pointed out that the fast-growing maker community is where potential radio amateurs are most likely to be found. Maker spaces exist in just about every college town and partnering with them is an easy way to get at the low hanging fruit.
Ed Oxer, W8EO, talked about MSUARC’s activities at Sparticipation, our annual fall gathering of student run organizations. Having a highly visible and attractive presence there yielded productive leads and prospective members.
Some clubs hold their own mini-hamfests, where the swap and shop dimension often yields gifts to the club as the shadows lengthen and alumni don’t want to haul their gear back home.
And, as always, showing off the magic often is the most effective way to grab attention.
Demonstrating the Art: Taking station operations public was suggested by a number of participants. Setting up radios, or remote connections in high traffic areas, where the curious might collect, had the festive feel of the broadcast remotes that many of us who pursued our hobby into a profession used to do. Holding an alumni tailgate with a special events station turned out to be a great way for former students to reconnect and selling club t-shirts there raised some symbolic funds.
Keep your antennas connected to software defined radios that display a visual bandspread in colorful waterfall eye candy for all to see. A corollary might be to set up an automatic downlink and display of NOAA satellite pictures. Install a flat screen monitor outside your shack, or negotiate a campus wide cable channel and create a rotating presentation of real time DX spots, weather radar and live screen grabs from active rigs. Hook up a webcam that automatically streams live video and rig audio from your shack. Install an APRS I-Gate and connect trackers to your school’s mascot on game day (Like we do with Sparty). Make your shack accessible over the Internet for students who might want to log some contacts from their dorm rooms.
Creating and promoting browser based SDRs can help the curious get a taste of the bands before committing time and energy towards a more active role.
Sponsoring build nights, in concert with maker space partners, with a particular focus on the newest generation of small footprint processors, like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi, demonstrating the latest in digital RF technology and participating in every radiosport event possible gives participants a taste of the depth and breadth of amateur radio in the new millennium. Alumni play a huge role here and can offer both expertise and equipment.
Strategic Partnerships: Find a person or organization who regularly offers ham-in-a-day classes and strategically funnel prospects to them. Reach out to faculty and staff to determine internal interest and solicit mutually beneficial relationships. This might lead to professors offering and automatic 4.0 to those who got licensed. And identifying the right staff member to be the club’s steward is crucial. It needs to be someone who has bought into the vision and has the clout to help execute it.
Work side by side with students and teachers to help create trackers for balloon launches, telemetry for robotic projects and expertise with the 3D printing applications that many hams use to build cases for our own projects. All of these activities position the ham club as a go-t0 resource.
Scouting and amateur radio have a long and storied relationship. Eagle scouts are ideal prospects for any higher education institution and many have likely been exposed to our art during Jamboree On The Air. Working with local schools, perhaps facilitating an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) contact or advising a high school ham club can fill the pipeline with hot leads for future membership.
The Gear: In a world where students are always upgrading to the latest smart phones, it’s important to keep your shack state of the art. Alumni can assist, perhaps with a “rig on loan” program, crowdfunding for new equipment purchases or outright donations of radios, antennae and associated accoutrements. As mentioned above, access should be easy, perhaps available on line even to alumni who have contributed to the club’s endowment.
One of your club committees should be a shack update group, who focuses solely on the care, maintenance and cool-factor of the gear and the space that displays it.
An ideal club set-up might include one or more repeaters, the second an ever evolving platform for testing new modes; at least two HF operating positions with remote access, a fully automated satellite station, and a plethora of handheld rigs that students can check out.
Mentorship: And herein lies the ultimate key to success. Once a prospect has raised a hand, seek out a cadre of experienced hams who are willing to shepherd the willing into our world, inviting the to attend events and meetings, accompanying them to hamfests, assisting them with programming their radios and encouraging the to take steps outside of their comfort zone. At some point in each of our careers, someone did exactly that for us. There was that one person who fired our imagination, enabled our enthusiasm and cheered our participation.
Quality time is the most valuable thing we can give. It also has the potential to create the biggest return on investment, cementing lifelong friendships and inspiring the mentees to ultimately become mentors in their own right.
If we are to preserve the true magic of amateur radio, the most important thing we can do is “pass it on”.
Listen to audio of the entire ARRL Collegiate Amater Radio Forum here:
Matthew Beiz recently asked the members of the Collegiate Ham Radio Operators Facebook page for ideas on how to build interest in our essential avocation among a young audience dealing with lots of technological distractions. Here are a few thoughts from our work to rebuild the Michigan State University Amateur Radio Club:
Update your shack – Dave Sumner, K1ZZ, the venerable ARRL CEO emeritus, came to MSU because we had a Collins S-Line setup. Your shack should reflect the state of the art. Buy the best gear you can afford, including contesting headphones and logging computers. Install a flat screen TV outside and create a continually updated slide show depicting waterfalls, satellite passes, real time propagation forecasts and other eye candy. Keep your shack spotless. Adorn your walls with awards, QSL cards and pictures of club activities. ARRL’s Ward Silver adds, “When the computer is not being used, leave a web browser on dxmaps.com or run Viewprop to show contacts being continually made around the world. The busier the map, the better. Add a ‘viewer’s guide’ next to the screen. People understand maps and lines on the maps.”
Build cool club projects – Consider building an HF ALE node. Enable your repeater with Allstar / Echolink. Deploy a D-Star hotspot in your shack. Install a satellite station. Overlay the campus WiFi with a solar powered HSMM network. Our club station is in the midst of installing an APRS gateway with a 24/7 display showing APRS activity in our area.
Be aggressive in seeking out potential members – Paper the dorms with fliers announcing club events and inviting people to visit your shack. Work with an advertising class to create a membership marketing campaign. It should have tactics for fall move-in, radio sport, one to one recruiting, email and social media activities. Have current members bring one or two new people to a meeting. Devise radio activities for non-licensed people. Try geocache/foxhunts (“geofoxing”). Partner a non-licensed person with a ham to share an event. Make it easy for them to participate and see ham radio in action.
Hold weekly open shack nights – Invite alumni to man the shack on a specific night every week and publicize that you’re there. Have demos of digital modes displayed on your shack computers and snag passers by to take a spin on a GOTA (get on the air station).
Brand, brand, brand – Create an approved club logo and put it on t-shirts, banners and club promotions. Design a club name badge (make it big and easy to read) for your members. If your school allows “chalking”, writing club info on sidewalks with chalk, create a stencil of the club logo and website address and liberally chalk it around campus.
Get people licensed – Meet with the professors who teach robotics and RF courses that might use ham frequencies for command and control. Get them make a ham license part of the class requirements. Sponsor a ham-in-a-day class to get students on the air.
Make Connections – N1YR holds a weekly, All-Star / Echolink connected collegiate ham radio net. Encourage those without rigs to download the Echolink app and participate on their smart device. When you get a critical mass of participants from your institution, consider holding your own weekly net. Check in to the nets that other schools run to support their activities. Listen and learn. Keep your HT on the club repeater and respond when you hear someone throw out their call.
Create an endowment to provide ARRL memberships to student hams – If an endowment is beyond your club’s current capacity, reach out to a group of alumni and invite them to sponsor a student ham’s membership. Sponsorship might also include taking that student to lunch or dinner and inviting them with you to local swaps or radiosport activities.
Have a visible presence at campus events – Create a ham radio service corps with custom shirts and or reflective vests with your club website address on it. Offer your services to student government, athletics and student life. Be in evidence at important events as an information resource. Deploy someone at the central communications point to be the disseminator and to answer questions.
Put an APRS beacon on your mascot – Keep an eye out on APRS.fi for Sparty on game days. We hitch our famous mascot to the W8MSU-2 APRS beacon and you can follow him as he makes his way through the tailgate maze, visits pep rallies and does his thing on the field during games. Beaconing a float in the homecoming parade or any other activity where the center of attention moves around can add value and be fun.
Great clubs have great programming – Before the year starts, line up at least 6 really great programs for club meetings. Our engineering dean does an annual antenna lecture that always draws a crowd. Talk about cutting edge technologies like DMR and the digital modes. Partner with the Astronomy department for a combination satellite pass demonstration and star gazing evening. Hold a meeting in your maker space and build satellite antennas. Arrange a balloon launch with an APRS package on board. Demo cool things you can do with a Raspberry Pi. Put an APRS tracker on your school mascot on game day. Ask every club what their most popular programs are and clone them.
Repurpose recent ham magazines as give aways – This chestnut has been used for years. Create labels to cover the address area on the magazine cover that has your club contact information on it with, “Learn more about amateur radio here:” at the top. We paste a full page info sheet inside the front cover and disseminate the magazines in areas where other publications are. Be sure to include a QR code that can be scanned into mobile devices to take the user to the club website. Speaking of QR codes, put yours code on a sandwich sign on campus where people are present so they can scan it on the spot and jump right to your FB or web page.
Setup a Remote Rig that students can check out – We have a Kenwood TS-480 with RemoteRig gear connected to a radio in the MSUARC shack. Students can sign out control heads and operate from anywhere on campus via WiFi. The unit also makes it super easy to deploy a demo station during university events, football tailgates, etc.
Create Special Events Stations – MSUARC had great success with our 2015 virtual tailgate special events stations. We had alumni in the shack two hours prior to each MSU home football game and awarded limited edition QSL cards to those who made contacts. At the end of the season we provided a poster, on which contesters could affix their cards.
Stream your meetings – With Facebook Live, Periscope and Livestream, broadcasting your meetings is becoming easier. It’s a great way to get alumni and friends connected from afar.
Create a digital resource library – Scan your key documents into PDFs, share important hotlinks, archive audio and video. If you have the resources, consider putting these things behind a firewall for “members only”.
Reach out to the ARRL – The League has a ton of great resources for clubs and can connect you with other members who can share their wisdom.
Experiment! You never know what might or might not work until you try it out. Don’t be afraid to fail along the way. That’s how you learn. And reach out to other clubs to see how they are approaching the challenge. You can always learn from others who have walked the path.
How many of us remember Jim McKay’s introduction to ABC’s Wide World of Sports? “The thrill of victory… And the agony of defeat!” Such are the joys and frustrations for enthusiasts of Radiosport.
Radiosport, the term coined for the dogged pursuit of the many certificates and awards available to those who love injecting watts into a wire. Many still call it contesting. My XYL would call it an addiction in our house. Any way you slice it, it can be great fun!
Right now we’re in the midst of the League’s National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) contest, a year long celebration of some of America’s most famous places. I’ve talked to fellow hams in every corner of the country, from Yellowstone to the White House, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and everywhere in between. At last check, the leaderboard shows the top contesters approaching the 300 mark. That’s doubly impressive when you think about the fact that the QSOs require amateurs to take their gear to every location, many far from the conveniences on our end of the conversation.
For those dedicated to Radiosport, we have notifications turned on for the ARRL’s NPOTA Facebook page and have tuned our DX cluster filters to grab a spot, the instant it comes up. I get texts from my buddies when a rare one pops above the noise level. And it’s not uncommon for some of us to run home from work to log a set of call letters we need to move one step closer to our goal.
On the downside of one of the most disappointing sunspot cycles in a lifetime, it can also be an exercise in frustration. NPOTA activators run “barefoot”, with no linear amplification. Their antenna systems are usually a compromise to facilitate transportation and set-up. And when the ionosphere doesn’t cooperate, you can scream your lungs out and few can hear you.
How can you pull a signal out of the mud and compete effectively in kilowatt pileups? Here are some tips for building your Radiosport skillset.
Listen – Every operator approaches contesting in his or her own way. Don’t simply dive into a pile up. Listen for a few minutes to learn how people are getting heard. Good operators navigate pile-ups like air traffic controllers, taking incoming QSOs via call areas or making note of two or three stations at a time and asking for specific call letters after concluding a contact. Even with a number of 1,000 watters out there, an op will keep their ears open for lighter signals and give them a shot. The more you can decipher the style, the more likely you are to make a connecti0n.
Have a propagation plan – K9Jy suggests using one of the many propagation programs available to know when you’re most likely to get a good circuit between your location and the target area. Certain bands work better at certain times of day. And activity on the sun can throw conventional wisdom into the garbage can. Understanding band conditions can give you a sense for when to call and when to turn off the rig and do something else.
Spend time with a winner – The best contesters have systems they use for everything from spotting to logging. And most will gladly share their secrets. They plan ahead. They recruit partners to help with the logs. And they do post-action analyses to see what worked and what didn’t, constantly refining their system and improving their chances for victory.
Know your rig – Today’s radios have a complex feature set that lets you customize just about everything. Experiment with filters, watch your AGC settings and make sure the signal you’re putting out is as clear and as high quality as possible. And don’t forget your antenna system. That’s the single most crucial link in the chain. A good one can turn a few watts into a powerful signal. A bad one diminishes even the most powerful transmitter and hides weak signals in the mud.
Try CW – Morse Code contesting can be one of the most rewarding ways to earn awards. It’s a language that is best learned through immersion and with regular practice. And it’s a mode that can work well when voice signals lie below the noise floor. Since it requires extra effort, there may be fewer competitors in the space. And many contests give extra credit for those who can speak with their fist.
These thoughts scratch the surface of the rewarding experience that we hams call Radiosport. The most important tip is to dive in and join the fun. Find your own rhythm and experiment. Like any skill, you’ll definitely improve with time.
The best way to build your network is before you need it. That’s why we practice emergency communications skills at events like Field Day and participate in Radiosport. That was the motivator for the famed Rocky Mountain Hams to build a state of the art broadband microwave network to facilitate high speed multimedia modes. Smart people who are thinking of a career change, get to know people who can help them before they come above the radar.
And so it is in the public relations realm. We live in a world where relationships rule. It’s crucial to get to know the key media contacts in your area before you need them. Here’s how to do it.
Do your homework – Find out who the key voices are at your local newspaper, radio and TV stations. Follow social media personalities who have significant traction in your market. And get to know who they are as people. What’s their backstory? What do you know about their family, education and home town? What made them decide to enter the business? What’s their beat? What kind of stories interest them most?
Be authentically interested in them – We’re drawn to people who are genuinely interested in us, individuals who can help us achieve our objectives. To build productive relationships with others, you must show authentic interest in them and help them achieve their goals.
Add value to their lives – Often times this may not even involve amateur radio. One of my favorite questions is, “What’s keeping you up at night?” With my vast network of ham friends, there’s almost always somebody who can help solve a problem, smooth out a bump or make an introduction. Think about these things as you plan your first encounter.
Making contact – Here’s my drill: When a new reporter comes to town, I send them a welcome email. “Just wanted to send you a personal note of welcome to East Lansing! I love watching 6 News and from what I can tell, you’re going to be a great asset to the team and a welcome addition to the community. Once you get your feet under you, I’d love to buy you a sandwich and learn more about your adventures.” Sign it with you name and title, followed by, “Avid 6 News Fan!”
This will almost always elicit a brief, grateful response that may include a phone number. Call it and set up that lunch.
You can modify the language if you’re the new person in the role, something like, “I’m Scott Westerman, the new public information guy at the MSU Amateur Radio Club. I’m sure our paths have crossed at some point, but I wanted to send you a quick fan letter to thank you for the excellent job 6 News does covering our community. I’m fascinated by what you do and hope we can grab a sandwich at some point so I can learn more about your backstory and how MSUARC can best add value to what you do.”
What to do when you are face to face – When the inevitable face to face meeting takes place, start out by focusing totally on them. “Tell me your life story,” is one of my favorite opening lines. People are fascinating and everybody has a unique tale to tell. Practice active listening skills and drill down for opportunities to add value to their personal lives. Always try to add value before asking for anything.
And when you do, frame it as asking for advice. How do you decide what stories get on the air? What are some of the most important issues you’re covering in the community right now? And finally…
What’s the best process for pitching a story about amateur radio?
That’s “the money question”, as they say in the biz. Each media organization has a process for how they like to gather information. Learn it and follow the rules. You’re more likely to get coverage when you do.
In the social media realm, you can talk about the personality’s content strategy. Based on your homework, you’ll already know more than a little bit about what they do. Social media fundamentals like providing link shorteners and great images will make it easier for someone to retweet your stuff. Ask them what kind of things they like to amplify and why. You’ll be in a stronger position to gain traction when you need it.
Be grateful – Follow the tried and true Japanese tradition of bringing a gift, something that’s likely to stay on their desk at the office. And end the meeting with a selfie which you can post with their social media handle saying something like, “Great lunch today talking #HamRadio w @6NewsJane. Love how they keep our community covered!” That’s almost guaranteed to get an instant retweet. Continue the relationship by retweeting their stuff as you see fit.
And always send a handwritten thank you note with a business card and one of your QSL cards enclosed. Personal notes are rare commodities today and will get attention.
Keep working on the relationship – Building productive media partnerships takes time. But it pays huge dividends. Beyond creating a welcoming environment for your stories, you will likely earn some good friends along the way. By entering the conversation with a goal of serving them, you are also reinforcing the foundation of why hams do what we do. We’re here to serve the community.
Build your media networks carefully, slowly and proactively. Like a well designed, carefully linked repeater system, they will serve you well when you need them most.
Have questions? How can I add value? Write to W9WSW(at)ARRL.net.
Memories of the 2015 football season. MSUARC offered commemorative QSL cards for contacts made during our virtual tailgate parties prior to each home game, complete with a suitable-for-framing poster to display them. Thanks to Gregg WB8LZG for organizing the event and to Francie at the Michigan State University College of Engineering for her artistry.
MACS - MI Amateur Communications System 3.952 1000 Daily
UPN – Upper Peninsula Net 3.921 1700 Daily; Noon Sunday
MIARPSC – MI Amateur Radio Public Service Corps 3.932 1700 Sunday
QMN – The Michigan Net 3.563 1830 and 2200 Daily
MITN – MI Traffic Net 3.952 1900 Daily
MIDTN – MI Digital Traffic Net 3.583 (Olivia 8/500) in waterfall 2000
Tues, Thurs, Sat
MIADS – MI ARES D-Star Net Reflector 24A Mon 2000
D8EN - District 8 Emergency Net 3.909 Wed 2100
GLETN – Great Lakes Emergency and Traffic Net 3.932 2000 Daily
MVTN – MI VHF Traffic Net IRA Link System 2100 Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun
NLEUP - Northern Lower Eastern UP Net 146.64- 18:30 Daily
SEMTN – SE MI Traffic Net 146.76- 2215 Daily
TMMTN – Thumb Mid-Michigan Traffic Net 147.30+ 2130 Mon - Sat
In The Shack
Connect Systems CS700
W9WSW/R - Kenwood TKR-820
DVAP / DV Dongle