Beyond Newsletters

One of the things that’s most alluring about amateur radio is the ever expanding variety of communication modes at our disposal. From the dots and dashes of morse code to the digital packets that can carry everything from voice to data, there is truly something for every interest. Hams prefer to create and consume their content in a variety of ways. The best strategies for public relations take these preferences into consideration.

Once upon a time, I was editor of the Oak Park Amateur Radio Club’s “RST” newsletter. I pulled together a variety of information that I thought club members might find interesting, cutting it into column inches. I pasted these onto sheets of paper that multiplied courtesy of the office supply store copy machine. A plethora of electronic publishing applications make this process easier than ever these days and many club newsletters approach the quality and feel of a micro version of QST.

But how many of us prefer the printed page these days?

In my work at the Michigan State University Alumni Association, about 80% of our graduates say that our Alumni Magazine is the primary way they keep connected with us. Likewise, a broad swath of hams eagerly await each issue of QST and CQ. Some who are attracted deeper into the technical arena subscribe to QEX.

On the electronic side, a growing fanbase looks forward to receiving the electronic ARRL Letter. It may be one of many digital resources we rely on to keep up to date on information and innovation.

How important is interacting in this new digital world?

Kelsey Weekman, who publishes “The Daily Tar Heel” at the University of North Carolina surveyed an audience of 18-35 year year olds, discovering that about 50% read electronic newsletters regularly. According to a 2016 report published  the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation, 0ver 40 percent of American adults get news on Facebook.

Once you’ve become an enthusiast of a social platform, you are even more likely to turn to it for information. The bulk of Reddit, Facebook and Twitter users get their news there.

What is the lesson for those of us who help spread the word for our local clubs?

Go where the audience is.

Back in the days when the Mad Men were enticing us to buy exciting, new and improved products, they appropriated the word “campaign” from the military as a way to describe the organized tactical application of messaging across multiple media. After researching how consumers responded to appeals, advertising agencies crafted a relentless diet of impressions designed to influence behavior. An elaborate campaign in the 1960s often included television and radio, direct mail, print and billboard advertising, telemarketing and sometimes door to door sales to move the needle of awareness.

We can take lessons learned from those days and apply them to today’s media toolbox to put the right words in front of the right eyes and ears.

Most vibrant amateur radio clubs reflect a broad demographic cross section of age and interest. Understanding how they consume content can help you target your own time and talent to foster deeper engagement with the organization.

The Anatomy of a Strategy

Every communication initiative begins with a compelling message. It works best if the product is good and can be connected with an inspiring narrative. Great clubs have a full menu of initiatives, designed to attract and retain both new and experienced amateurs. An effective communications strategy addresses both the broad club narrative and amplifies individual events that are connected to it.

Newsletters, websites and group platforms (like, Yahoo Groups, and others) can provide a broad brush to paint both the big picture and more detailed portraits of events and activities.

Social Media provides a tool set to engage in real time. Depending on the makeup of your audience, you should have identities on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat. Learn the unique languages and interactive cultures associated with each. The best way to do this is to follow popular amateur radio voices there (Here’s an incomplete and growing list of some interesting amateur radio twitter voices). How you say it is equally important to what you say in these ecosystems.

One of the benefits that come with social media is the ability to leverage Advertising there. Carefully designed Facebook ads can put your message in front of a targeted audience, encouraging them to visit your page. Major hamfests still promote their events in QST “the old fashioned way” with a display ad. Truly old school methods that can still be effective include posters on community bulletin boards. The MSU Amateur Radio Club uses this method to get the word out in our residence halls.

Do snail mail and phone trees still work? Again, it depends on your audience and your budget. Dropping a “save the date” postcard to remind the club about an annual banquet might make sense. A phone tree equivalent might be having a presence on one or more of the popular local VHF nets.

Use amateur radio to help spread the word. This may seem like something that goes without saying, but our own medium can be a powerful way to circulate information about your club. Talking about your hamfest in the middle of a rag chew roundtable not only gets the attention of those in the conversation, it may be heard by a broader audience who is listening “on the side”.

Podcasts have emerged as a popular platform for conversation. ARRL The Doctor is InHam Radio 360, QSO Today and the Dit Dit Podcast are three examples of how amateurs are leveraging a parallel universe to talk about our beloved hobby. Earning a guest spot on one of these programs to talk about something special your club is doing can be as important as an appearance on your local radio or TV station.

The bottom line is that your group will benefit from a mixture of media that gets your message to the audiences you desire. That mix will depend on the diversity of your membership, your comfort level with your skill sets in each communications domain and your budget – of both time and money.

By necessity, this discussion is oversimplified out of consideration for space and attention span. If you’re interested in learning more about how campaign strategy can be a powerful tool to electrify your communications plan, much more information is just a Google search away.

“Clubs fade,” notes former ARRL President, Kay Craigie‏ – N3KN,  “when outreach to members isn’t proactive…”

The key messages I hope I’ve inculcated into your brain are these:

  • Have a good product.
  • Know your audience.
  • Speak their language.
  • Be mindful of how and where they consume content.
  • And circulate in those worlds.

As a CW enthusiast, it took time to learn the language, especially in a high pressure contest environment. Ultimately, I found out where fellow travelers hung out, connected with them both on and off the air and made a point to regularly interact in dots and dashes. In time, I grew in skill and confidence. Ever the student of my passion, I soon evolved into a teacher, sharing my discoveries with new generations, realizing that the most rewarding dimension of our essential avocation is our ability to “pass it on”.

Keeping the Past alive.

My good friend, Dan Romanchik recently wrote about his disappointment to learn that WV7G, who posted a plan for a single tube transmitter had passed away and his web page describing the project had seemingly passed on with him. Enter W5RST, who referenced the Internet Archive, where web content seemingly lives forever. Lo and behold, WV7G’s post was still there. I grabbed a couple of photos of the layout and the schematic to help propagate the project into the future.

Two lessons here. #1 – Hams are always there to help us solve just about every problem. W5RST did the Internet Archive due diligence straight away. #2 – It’s up to us to perpetuate the magic. Think about how you might inspire someone to become a part of our “essential avocation”. There’s a lot to love in amateur radio. Share some.

The Communication Experts

The great thing about a hobby like ours is that there is so much diversity that you can pick whatever niche suits you. From a public perspective, though, there is one branding message that should unite us all: We are the Communication Experts.

During Hurricane Harvey, I saw amateur radio at it’s best. Our trained volunteers were “relevant, resilient and ready” to engage whenever and wherever there was a need. The old ARRL chestnut that our service is there when traditional infrastructure fails was on full display. We don’t showcase our contributions as effectively as we might, but the bottom line is that we are prepared to deploy a communications infrastructure quickly and man it professionally.

From a technical perspective, we have connected manpower. Whether it’s 2 meters or 20 meters, our ability to provide a reliable communication is well known. What’s less well known is that we can deploy TCP/IP networking, a plug and play system that looks and feels just like the Internet, where familiar devices can configure popular com apps to exchange robust content over a broadband pipe. Our APRS equipment can help emergency services keep track of the location of their units. And amateur radio can be the common communication link when out of town resources who may not have interoperable radios are brought into the picture.

But what about smart phone solutions like Zello? During Harvey, Zello came to the fore as an effective method for connecting those in need of help with rescuers. Essentially a walkie talkie app, Zello became the central pivot for  a crowd source command center that sprung up out of nowhere to become a crucial communications tool. (There are several amateur radio channels on Zello by the way.), a group founded by fans of the National Traffic System, created a helpful guide for people who own Family Radio Service (FRS) and General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) rigs on how to use them to summon help. Hams teaching lay people about how to use their technology in an emergency: Another positive amateur radio story we should be telling.

I still occasionally hear some hams deride network connected systems like Echolink, DMR and D-Star, saying, “that’s not ham radio.” What is important to remember is that our training to efficiently pass traffic in emergency situations is our unique selling proposition. In the end, the platform is irrelevant. Our ability to use any technology to professionally contribute to the health and welfare of our communities under the amateur radio banner is what really matters.

How does this mindset benefit our essential avocation? When we consider ourselves communication experts, we become the go-to people for a wide array of technological questions. Hams should be all over the maker movement. We were the first makers, before there were Raspberry Pis or smart devices. Hams should be thinking about how to build robust, wide area networks that are not grid dependant and can seamlessly pass broadband traffic when the commercial networks fail. And we should be experimenting with communications applications like Zello to extend our expertise and our service brand beyond the traditional.

One of the things I found most impressive about our Harvey engagement was the Echolink / IRLP interconnection of repeaters across South Texas with the WX_TALK conference server. Net controls from as far away as Laredo and Louisiana were able to provide coverage, adding fresh, well trained energy to the mix. Imagine a ham radio net control team providing support on the Zello network, injecting our call signs into the mix to remind those listening where the talent was coming from.

As my friend, Sid NH7C likes to say, we have to demonstrate our “capability” ahead of the need. That’s why training, practice and promotion are essential before emergency events.. on all platforms.

My daughter called me the other day. She is a business executive who lives in a part of Florida where hurricanes can do significant damage. “I’ve been thinking about this ham radio stuff,” she told me. “With all the news about losing power and cell networks failing, maybe I need to get licensed.” That was music to my ears. And not so much because she’ll have a ticket and a radio. What really excites me is that we, the amateur radio community, will have the opportunity to teach her how to use it.

After all, we are the Communications Experts.


The CW Culture – And how to join the fun

Being a podcast fan, I’ve loaded my podcatcher with a variety of fascinating ham radio podcasts. My three faves: ARRL’s The Doctor Is In, Cale Nelson’s Ham Radio 360 and Bruce, N9WKE’s DitDit podcast. Bruce, at this writing, is one of the relative newbies to the the podcast constellation. His program is dedicated to promoting enthusiasm for morse code, the keyed continuous wave communication that we hams call “CW”.

I recently listened to his conversation with Emily Saldana, KB3VVE. Emily became a star in the ham radio community during the League’s outstanding National Parks On The Air event in 2016, inspiring us with her determination and her developing fascination with CW. During her visit with Bruce, Emily described her love affair with the Code, how she overcame the initial fear we all have of touching the key, the creative ways she built her speed and her secrets for breaking through the radiosport pack in the midst of a contest pile-up.

I’ve been asking others who share the CW passion to share some of the tools that helped them grow from discovery to competency. Here is some of that wisdom. Read the rest of this entry »

How to make Field Day (or any remote operation) Great

In my days as a radio broadcaster, one of the most exciting things we did was a “remote”, where we took our gear and our talent out into the community to broadcast live. My good friend and legendary programming consultant, Gary Berkowitz, recently wrote a column about how to accomplish an effective remote. Realizing that Field Day, a Special Event Station, or any activity that takes ham radio into our community is an opportunity to promote our essential avocation, here’s my recipe for excellent execution, borrowing heavily on his advice.

1) Have a plan – Weeks prior to this year’s Field Day, I had the honor of attending the South Lyon Area Amateur Radio Club‘s monthly meeting. A good portion was dedicated to Field Day. They had a strong committee, headed by a strong and respected leader. They recruited a number of volunteers and had detailed plans for everything from set-up to food preparation. Sweat the details before hand and the execution is more than half done. Read the rest of this entry »

Amateur Radio During Word War II

What follows is a summary of the War Emergency Radio Service (WERS). Information was gathered primarily from “Fifty Years of ARRL,” an historical record of the League and amateur radio. It was originally posted on the AC6V website.

First a bit of background: In 1939 there were 51,000 US hams. In September of that year war came to Europe. Of the 250 DXCC countries, 121 of them immediately went off the air (including Canada and the UK). The US maintained the strictest sense of neutrality. This was re-enforced by the ARRL, which came up with a neutrality code for amateurs. Hams were asked by the ARRL to voluntarily abide by the code, which they did en masse; this earned additional support for the amateur radio service in governmental circles. Read the rest of this entry »

Earning ARRL’s Worked All States award in 12 months or less

Worked All States. It’s the first significant milestone for a radio amateur after passing the General Class exam. No matter what your gear, it’s an achievement that can be earned in a year or less if you play to win.

Here’s how.

Every state has its own QSO Party, a weekend where there’s an organized effort to make as many contacts with stations in that state as possible. MSUARC member, Joe Levine – W8JRK is one of the best at grabbing the rare ones and racking up contest points. He recommends participating in as many QSO Party’s as possible. Here’s a link to a complete calendar. Read the rest of this entry »

What we learned at the Collegiate Amateur Radio Forum in Orlando

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Revitalizing Your College Ham Club

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:

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 9.55.35 AMGo where the action is – Build a robust Facebook presence, Twitter identity and a dynamic club website. Make sure they are regularly updated with relevant content. Engage in social media conversations with other hams. Read the rest of this entry »

Early Television

From 1945, a documentary aimed at returning service men and women, describing the advances in “electronic television”. Thanks to N8FMQ for the link!