Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Do Ham Radio and Twitter Have in Common?

I was among the last generation of kids to be excited about ham radio just before CB killed it off. Back then I looked forward to getting my QST magazine and the most desirable and unattainable thing in my world was a Collins SSB transceiver.

Looking at it now still gives me a shivver.

As I recall, no one I actually knew shared the slightest interest in ham radio. I never met anyone who had a radio or a license or any experience whatsoever. As far as I can tell, my interest was sparked by an article in Boy’s Life which I read avidly in bound volumes at the Donnell Library in midtown Manhattan – about as far from a campfire and a low wattage radio shack as was possible. Interestingly, I managed to find and join an affinity group with no physical presence. Ham radio operators didn’t meet each other. The whole point seemed to be to keep everyone at a safe distance.

Occasionally the radio subculture would surface briefly in the mainstream and validate my interest in some small but memorable way. Like when a wheelchair bound ham operator alerted the police in The Anderson Tapes, or when Jean Shepherd (K2ORS) talked about it in late evening monologues on WOR. Ham radio was solitary and social at the same time.

I built a Heathkit receiver in my room. Heathkit was the cheapest point of entry to the amateur radio world. There were thrills to be had on a good night when the skip was right and you could tune in a wavy voice from Ceylon. Collecting QSL cards was an enthusiasm no one I actually knew in the real world could possibly understand much less share.

But eventually I began to realize that amateur radio was essentially a time consuming and expensive global feedback loop. You would buy equipment so you could talk to others like you about equipment upgrades that would allow you to talk with other people about additional equipment upgrades and so on.

Of course, when CB radio became popular at the depth of the 70s, things changed dreadfully. There were songs about it on the AM. Movies too. This was something my parents and friends could sort of understand. But disappointingly, they looked at my singular, defining passion next to a cheap, stupid, and massively mainstream fad and couldn’t tell the difference. It was embarrassing. Not just for me but for thousands of amateur operators.

For me, the embarrassment of being mistaken for a dilettante CBer sputtering “breaker, breaker 1-9” and “10-4 good buddy” never entirely healed.

And at the height of its popularity CB radio expanded from 19 channels to 40 and people decided to buy 8-tracks or electric carving knives rather than upgrade their equipment and the fad evaporated. Ham radio was morphing into television which also required a considerable equipment upgrade and that too lost adherents . . . mostly to home computers I suspect.

I can see some of this same trajectory in the blogosphere. But the greatest similarity between bloggery and ham radio is community and the importance of distance. Meeting bloggers in the wet world is almost always as disappointing as meeting an actual amateur radio geek in the flesh. Yet the desire to communicate with strangers who share your passion is overwhelming. Humans will work with any technology available to make those connections - papyrus, printing presses, pamphlets, newsletters, radio, twitter – it’s all the same expression.

Apparently, there’s nothing more comforting to a human than being alone and knowing you’re not alone at all.

1 comment:

Chandler Pritchett said...

I'm not sure quite how I stumbled upon this beautifully written article, but I love it. Thanks for your post.