- Associated Press - Saturday, November 29, 2014

BURLINGTON, Iowa (AP) - In comfortable basement rooms, surrounded by dials, buttons and knobs, Sam Burrell and Mike Rosenblatt each has the world as his fingertips.

Literally.

Using radio waves bounced off the ionosphere, a conversation with a fellow ham in South America, California or some remote island in the Indian Ocean, is just a frequency adjustment away, The Hawk Eye (https://bit.ly/15zXfN5 ) reported.

“You never know who is listening on the radio,” Rosenblatt said, explaining that during a conversation with a friend earlier this year, a ham from Tokyo chimed in.

But in the age of the smartphone, the amateur radio network is a dwindling hobby whose aging practitioners are the keepers of a fading but potentially still vital means of communication.

If the power grid goes down, if a mass ejection from the sun wipes out electronic equipment all over North America, or if the New Madrid fault someday wreaks havoc across the middle of the country, it will be people like KA AFN and KA BMV - Burrell and Rosenblatt, as their call signs respectively identify them - who will be able to receive and disseminate information from the outside world.

Fun for now and then.

Whether that capability remains in some future of need hinges on attracting new blood. Short of such society-rending circumstances occurring, however, ham radio remains a pastime that offers a variety of approaches to enjoying time spent at it.

“It was all about finding somebody to talk to,” Rosenblatt said. Getting on the radio and finding someone calling CQ, indicating a willingness to talk to anyone, was a real boon. These days, Rosenblatt said, a ham can listen for hours and never hear someone calling CQ.

Anymore, people on the radio generally have a specific purpose in mind. Some people do contests, trying to collect as many station contacts as possible in a set amount of time. Others go on expeditions to remote locales to broadcast from. For Burrell, a retired electrical engineer, radio is a bit like a treasure hunt, and each new country or far-away island contacted amounts to finding the X marked on a map.

Rosenblatt, a 71-year-old retired family and emergency room doctor who grew up in Des Moines and moved to Burlington about 15 years ago, finds his primary interests in maintaining local and state ham radio networks.

“You stay busy doing that,” he said, “and it keeps the infrastructure there if it’s needed.”

He also has become fond of computer-assisted radio communication.

Digital radios have made for crisper signals that used less frequency bandwidth. Now, computers get in on the act and give hams another way to connect, sending anything from text messages to data that can be parsed to complete specific forms like contact sheets for Red Cross welfare checks and even photographs or emails.

Both men got hooked on amateur radio in their youth.

“Back then, it was more of a wonder,” Burrell said. “Communicating by wireless was really something pretty magical, I guess. It still is.”

Growing up on Summer Street in Burlington in the 1950s, Burrell’s friend next door and his father were hams. Now 73, he was 14 when he joined the neighbors with a license of his own.

Rosenblatt, 71, obtained his ham radio license at 12. His interest was piqued by listening in to shortwave broadcasts on an AM radio he modified so he could hear amateur frequencies.

“I got playing with it, and got all my licenses in very short order,” Rosenblatt said.

Back then, Morse code was required for even a basic license, and Rosenblatt had trouble getting to the 20 words-per-minute minimum required for the top-level license. But that didn’t stop him from sending dots and dashed out onto the airwaves.

“I used to sit there all night and use code to talk around the world,” Rosenblatt said.

Today, knowledge of Morse code isn’t even mandatory for an expert license, though it remains popular, Burrell said.

License tests focus now on understanding rules and regulations, and on technical competency. Users must advance beyond the technician license to get access to the full spectrum of amateur frequencies that open up the entire world.

Understanding Morse code got Burrell and a friend some local notoriety in 1957 when they used radio equipment at the local Civil Defense office to make recordings of the signal being broadcast by the Soviet satellite, Sputnik.

As a grown-up, Burrell - Rosenblatt, too - would go on to make radio contact with astronauts aboard several space shuttle flights and the internal space station - contacts that for any ham were made by a confluence of the right atmospheric conditions, good timing and enough luck to break through the crush of operators trying to make the same connection.

Exchanges between hams are often quick, with each side sharing handle and location. Chit-chat about the weather, or about the radios being used, add to the banter between operators who can be separated by a few miles, a couple of states or oceans and whole countries.

Radio is like a party-line telephone. Anybody with a receiver can listen in to what is being said. That goes for Morse code, voice and digital forms of communication.

In what amounts to over-the-air diplomacy, operators the world over generally are pretty friendly.

“Typically,” Burrell said with a chuckle, “we don’t talk about politics or religion.”

The public service aspect of amateur radio is not only important for the role it can fill in an emergency, but also is a thing that draws people to the hobby. Some amateurs enjoy taking portable gear into the field to aid with storm spotting.

In the 1960s, Burrell said, local hams kept an eye on the Green Bay levee and radioed for sandbaggers wherever a boil appeared.

“We saved that levee,” Burrell said.

More recently, while monitoring a maritime network, Rosenblatt’s training as a doctor came into play when he was able to give advice over the radio about treating an eye injury. After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast in 2005, he helped to relay welfare messages from areas where other forms of communication was unavailable.

“It isn’t real efficient, but it’s all they had,” Rosenblatt said.

Radio took a back seat to a busy career for many years, but when Rosenblatt returned to Iowa, settling first in a small northeast Iowa town, he became active in SkyWarn, local networks of weather spotters. Rosenblatt said he remains involved in Burlington but has enough capabilities in his radio room at home that driving to the Burlington Police Department is not necessary.

On a larger scale, modern communication tools make ham radio less necessary, especially in emergencies that happen in confined areas of the country.

Even seven feet of snow hasn’t kept the tweets from getting through in Buffalo, New York.

“We’re a last choice,” Rosenblatt said. “But we can still provide a service.”

There are 700,000 to 800,000 ham radio operators in the United States, with 100 or more of them broadcasting from the Burlington and Fort Madison area. Each city is home to a ham radio club.

“They’re people in all walks of life,” Burrell said.

Japan, with more than 1 million hams, has most of the rest of the world’s amateurs, leaving just a few hundred thousand at radio sets elsewhere in the world. Every country but Yemen and North Korea have ham radio, and both countries have hosted expeditions by outside operators who have set up temporary stations.

For Burrell, the world is shrinking fast. He has been in contact with fellow hams in 325 nations or islands, meaning the list of places on the map he hasn’t at least shared call signs has few blank spaces left.

“They’re kind of few and far between now,” he said.

Places remaining to check off include Palestine, Syria and Iran, Somalia and numerous tiny islands.

Contact cards on the wall of his radio room show proof of memorable exchanges with far-flung locales and interesting people, like the late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Peggy Sue of Buddy Holly fame and a great-granddaughter of HMS Bounty mutineer Fletcher Christian living on Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific.

Burrell’s own card features a photo of the American Queen riverboat southbound on the Mississippi River from below the Great River Bridge.

“To me, it’s still fun to talk to a new country,” Rosenblatt said, “or a new person.”

Both Rosenblatt and Burrell are deep enough into the hobby to have amassed rooms full of radios, amplifiers and other equipment. Each also has antenna towers in his backyard. Though the days of starting out with homemade equipment are in the past, getting involved as a beginner in amateur radio needn’t be expensive.

Exam fees and study material costs are minimal, and a decent handheld radio good for the kind of local communication available to technician-class-license-holders can be had for about $40.

“You can get in for very little,” Burrell said, “if you’re willing to start out small.”

Like many other hobbies, however, amateur radio has a practically endless range of options for ways to spend money, be it on QSL cards and postage, equipment or participation in expeditions.

Access to equipment and the technical know-how aren’t the biggest challenges for attracting new people to the world of amateur radio. Beyond price of entry, getting a kid with a smartphone to care presents an existential challenge to amateur radio.

So far, it is a question with no clear answer. In the meantime, hams like Burrell and Rosenblatt will remain at the ready, just in case they’re needed.

___

Information from: The Hawk Eye, https://www.thehawkeye.com


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide