Amateur Radio is quite possibly the most diverse past-time in the world. Often called “Ham Radio”, it’s literally hundreds of fascinating pursuits all bundled together under one giant roof. 

There is a staggering number of directions a person could take their interests with Ham Radio. So many that I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it a hobby. It’s like the Walmart of past-times— there’s something there for everyone..

Yet calling Amateur Radio a mere hobby is a bit like calling the Space Shuttle a mere vehicle— after all, how can the most complex space-faring machine ever built by mankind be mashed into the same category as a rusty old 1970 Ford F-150 pick-up truck?

Granted, I have a special place in my heart for old Fords. Dad made me learn to drive in one of those old powder blue tanks. As a teenager in the mid-80’s, I made my share of tire-squealing maneuvers in the high-school parking lot that indeed may have resembled a Cape Canaveral launch. But hey, Dad wasn’t watching. The girls were.

Ham Radio Competitive Mooing

Okay, I don’t actually know if high school girls think smoking truck tires are cool. I’ll probably never know. But something I sure do want to know— can we really put Ham Radio next to stamp collecting and competitive mooing? Yeah. It’s a thing. Google it. There are pictures…

And for the record, I have nothing against stamps. I still use them to mail stuff to the IRS. 

Folks, I have to tell you. In my almost 30 years of working daily with other Ham Radio operators, I can affirm that most Hams approach their various radio activities with professional zeal— and an almost patriotic sense of duty.

The Price of “Amateur” Professionalism

Many Hams acquire their skills through thousands of hours of self-inflicted study and late-night electronic antics. This dedication tends to elevate a typical Ham’s skill set way beyond anything that could be called ‘amateur’. 

Is there such a thing as an amateur professional? Is that an oxymoron? If not, that label might work for Hams.

So if Ham Radio isn’t just a hobby, what is it?

Hometown Heroes

When I was a young boy, my city’s fire department was mostly made up of volunteer firemen. Once or twice a month, the haunting wail of the air-raid style community siren would slowly rise above the serene sounds of our quiet small town. At first, it floated like an imperceptible whisper on the wind. No louder than distant birds singing.

As the sound grew in intensity, one by one, every soul in the community eventually paused and took note. Mail carriers stopped walking. Farmer’s tractors pulled up short of the end of the row, enveloped by trailing dust clouds. Kids racing on bikes skidded to a stop.

Even the dogs and the birds seemed to fall silent as all heads swiveled toward Main Street and every ear strained to confirm the source of the rising sound. Everything was frozen for a moment. The only sound was the powerful siren punching through the air and echoing off the mountainside.

Then all over town— Action! 

Volunteer firemen started scrambling. Like Clark Kent diving into a phone booth, common folk from all walks of life magically transformed into absolute heroes racing towards their self-imposed civic duty. 

Amazing memories. Hats off to those guys. They were sure as heck not ‘amateur’ in my book. Heroes all.

Devoted in Public Service

For me, the image of those seriously dedicated volunteer firemen from my youth provides a decent comparison for describing today’s Amateur Radio Operators. Those firemen approached their efforts as a duty, not a hobby. Their cars, trucks, jackets, and baseball caps proudly bore the emblems of their volunteer duty.

True, Hams don’t generally end up placing their lives at risk once a month, but many certainly throw their entire souls into serving the public. And there truly is a long list of ‘silent keys’— the respectful title Hams give to their fallen friends— of Hams who have died in the line of diverse radio duties.

Diverse. There’s that word again.

What Can’t You Do with Amateur Radio?

You want diverse? Here’s a quick peek at some of the things today’s Amateur Radio Operators do as part of their radio art:

  • Launch radio-equipped weather balloons and amateur satellites.
  • Bounce communication signals off the moon with super sensitive equipment.
  • Fly remote control aircraft using ham radio frequencies.
  • Journey to the tops of mountains to install wide-area communications gear.
  • Build wireless networks to back-up local first responder communications.
  • Sending Morse Code greetings to other hams worldwide on New Year’s Eve.

And that’s just a shortlist. Hams also: 

  • Provide grateful July 4th parade officials with essential communication assets.
  • Drive into on-coming tornados to generate life-saving “storm watch” warnings.
  • Provide communications after disasters when everything else has failed.
  • Talk to astronauts in space (many are Hams) and people in distant lands.
  • Race friends through the woods with direction-finding radios seeking a hidden transmitter.
  • Teach a classroom full of young, eager minds about the latest wireless tech.
  • Pass “radiograms” overseas between members of our Armed Forces and their families.

The list goes on and on. And did you know that many indispensable technologies we all use every day were initially conceived, built, and tested by radio amateurs? But that’s an article for another day.

A Global Communication Network

With all of the alluring facets of Amateur Radio, it sure isn’t just a North American phenomenon. Nations across the world license their citizens to communicate worldwide on any number of globally reserved frequencies set aside just for Ham Radio.

Now there is another word we should take note of— License. 

This so-called “hobby” requires a license from the Government. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to be precise. An Amateur Radio license gives the Ham their own unique radio callsign and grants authority to use specific, protected frequencies. 

For most hams, those licenses did not come easy. Some hams study for months only to barely pass the exam required for the entry-level license. But pass they do. And they pay good money to have their coveted personal callsign embroidered, embossed, and painted onto things they hold most dear. Think leather jackets and tattoos.

Licensed Hobbyists

Not many things in this world that are labeled “hobbies” require a license. But old reliable Amateur Radio Operators stand in good company with the likes of Private Pilots who also must pass officially administered exams to secure their operators’ licenses. 

Piloting airplanes. Now there’s another so-called hobby where the participants exude a professional demeanor and maintain a stellar, pro-level skill set. And, like Ham Radio Operators, many Private Pilots provide crucial public services. Pilots do so as members of the Civil Air Patrol.

As both a Private Pilot and an Amateur Radio Operator, I can tell you that neither license came easy. But the resulting privileges sure create a lot of fun!

So is Amateur Radio a Hobby?

Seems the definition of “hobby” probably has to include that word ‘fun’. Ahh, our hobbies. Those pleasant weekend and evening pastimes that just make life worth living for many people. 

If  fun were the cornerstone concept in the definition of a hobby, I’d have to break down and say,  “Roger that. Ham Radio is a hobby.” A hobby that’s useful, diverse, and darn fun.

Regardless of gender, race, age or background— just about anyone will find something fun and interesting in Ham Radio. And in my experience, many people start asking questions when they discover that you’ve earned an Amateur Radio license. Ham Radio is a conversation-starter extraordinaire. 

So okay. Call it a hobby if you must— it’s a hobby made up of countless interests and varied faces.

One thing I know for sure. Most of those dedicated faces are still out there, smiling and having a blast!