Ham radio operators hang on to ignored hobby

OWATONNA, Minn. (AP) — Willis Yule put up a 52-foot-tall steel tower next to his house in Owatonna this spring.
Yule thinks it’s beautiful. At least 61 other people in Steele County agree with him. They are fellow members of the Owatonna-Steele County Amateur Radio club, known as OSCAR.
The group is dedicated to a hobby becoming forgotten in the age of the Internet: amateur radio.
The pastime has a rich tradition in the United States, said Jerry Boos, an OSCAR member and a former part-owner of a local radio station. The first radio stations in the country were built by amateurs, he said.
Soon, commercial radio stations sprang up, and left the so-called “garbage” frequencies to the amateurs. The only equipment needed to operate an amateur, or “ham,” radio is a microphone and a transceiver, which is a combination transmitter and receiver. The equipment sells for about $200 used or $1,000 new. Of course, there are always new gadgets to buy.
“We don’t talk about costs, in front of our wives especially,” Boos said.
The equipment is basically all a ham radio operator needs. In the wake of budget cutbacks, the Federal Communications Commission has essentially deregulated amateur radio in recent years. Boos and Yule believe that most operators obey FCC rules that forbid using amateur radio stations for commercial purposes.
Anyone interested in being licensed as an amateur radio operator, however, still must take one of five tests produced by the FCC. The exams cover technical knowledge of radio, FCC regulations and other areas. People who pass the more difficult tests are allowed to use more radio frequencies.
Once they earn a license, operators can begin transmitting. To broadcast a short distance, say within a county, operators use high frequencies traveling in a relatively straight line. To send over longer distances, broadcasters transmit a lower frequency wave. It travels away from the earth at an angle, bounces off the ionosphere (between 50 and 250 miles from earth) and back down to a radio transceiver.
Ham radio operators closely follow the presence of sunspots, temporarily cooler areas on the sun that tend to appear in 11-year cycles. Sunspots create a magnetic field that disrupts the ionosphere, allowing radio operators to bounce waves off it more easily.
Young people are perhaps too caught up in the World Wide Web to know such details. Which might also explain why OSCAR isn’t growing much.
But ham operators are still important to have around, Boos said. When an earthquake rocked Mexico City earlier this decade, knocking out the phone system, an Owatonna man used a ham radio to find out whether his daughter was O.K. Ham radios also helped relief workers in Grand Forks, N.D., stay in contact with Minneapolis during the 1997 floods.
Most of the time, ham radios are used for fun. Ten years ago, Boos contacted the Mir space station for about 30 seconds before the Soviet operator moved on to other people waiting to contact him.
Yule likes to chat with people in other countries. So far he has contacted people in 254 of the 330 countries recognized by ham operators. The Soviet Union’s emphasis on technology made ham radio contact easy with Soviets. But until the union’s collapse, most operators there were careful to limit their conversations to safe subjects, such as ham radio technology. If anyone asked the wrong question, the Soviets would quickly sign off, he said.