On a rainy October night during the pandemic, my husband, David, searches for a faint voice in the distance. He doesn’t know who’s calling, but he knows he wants to speak to them. David adjusts the tuning knob on the decades-old transceiver ever so slightly, as if cracking a safe. Outside, a homemade antenna bobs in the wind. On his computer, pulsating lines tell him the voice is one of hundreds calling out on this busy night. The voice gets clearer: “CQ,” the magic letters he’s been awaiting — the amateur radio operators’ invitation for a response — followed by a call sign. David jumps on his mic, repeating the stranger’s call sign and adds: “This is KB1TOY, Kilo-Bravo-1-Tango-Oscar-Yankee. You’re light but I can hear you!”
After months of troubleshooting, David has made a new contact: Emilio, a truck driver and self-described cowboy in his early 40s, located in a commune in rural southern Italy. They quickly exchange personal information, knowing that any minute they might lose each other. For David, it’s a distance record — a new high. A new human connection, rare in these pandemic days, made an ocean away without leaving our Somerville apartment. Our family celebrates.
We are not alone.
The global pandemic has brought a renewed interest in amateur, or “ham,” radio, a nostalgic pastime long overshadowed by the Internet, social media, and cell phones. Longtime enthusiasts and newbies like David flocked to their radios for community, distraction, and vital pandemic information.
“We’ve noticed general and event-related activity are both up,” says Bob Inderbitzen, spokesperson for the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio in the United States. Its membership of licensed ham radio operators numbers 779,531 — a total that grows by upwards of 30,000 annually. “People have turned to amateur radio more and more as a way of varying communication with the world,” says Inderbitzen, whose call sign is NQ1R. March 2021 saw the largest monthly cohort of new licensees in the last decade — 4,397 — and licenses are up by 35 percent this year over 2019.
Amateur radio offers something uniquely appealing in the age of COVID-19 isolation: the chance to connect in real time with strangers around the world while honing a technical skill that’s handy during global health crises and natural disasters.
In many ways, crises are what ham was built for. The Federal Communications Commission grants ham radio operators in the United States special access to airwaves that can also be used for emergency response efforts. Radio can be lifesaving in areas prone to natural disasters, such as Florida, Puerto Rico, and Indonesia. During pandemic lockdowns, England’s National Health Service partnered with the Radio Society of Great Britain to spread public safety messages and promote wellness checks on hams, many of whom are older.
ARRL’s Inderbitzen says ham radio has historically attracted two kinds of people: those with an affinity for electronics and gadgets, and those looking for public service and community-building opportunities. David falls somewhere between the two.
Prior to the pandemic, he counted on hobbies that involved risk— riding motorcycles through deserts, sailing boats across the Atlantic, racing cars at tracks — to challenge himself and make new friends. The storm more than the port has always been where he found refuge in times of crisis — flirting with danger helps him de-stress. During the pandemic, however, David struggled in the privileged monotony of isolation at home as a new dad and computer programmer. Without travel or a creative outlet, and as the hours online and time caring for our baby blurred together, he retreated from our tight, loud quarters to our dark, unfinished basement and worked longer days than ever. He was burned out and increasingly disconnected from our little family.
David discovered ham by chance on YouTube early in the pandemic. Its many new digital applications, such as one called “moonbounce,” which permits earth to moon and back to earth radio transmissions, appealed inherently to the adventurer in him. He couldn’t tear across a desert on a motorcycle, but he could travel in a whole new way.
It wasn’t long before an imposing copy of “Practical Antenna Handbook” replaced the travel books on David’s nightstand. There were frequent late-night trips to Home Depot. Spools of copper wire glinted around the house. He began using the NATO alphabet to spell things for our toddler — Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. . . . David had embarked on what Inderbitzen calls “the journey of discovery.”
“It’s all about learning about radio communications, improving your station and technical skills, and pushing those boundaries so you’re heard farther away,” says Inderbitzen, who first discovered ham as a middle schooler before making a career out of it.
In a twist for a traditionally analog medium, the pandemic brought testing for licensing online. After weeks of studying, David passed his general class operator exam — there are three license levels, offering successively greater access to the airwaves. He did it on Zoom from our bathroom, the only room small enough to show he was alone at all times and thus could not be cheating.
Increased availability of inexpensive equipment has also made ham more accessible — a modest portable station can be created with a laptop and under $50 worth of additional equipment.
David dedicated weekends to devising new antennas for our “home station” — his new name for the once-dreary basement — and modeled them for our delighted daughter, a fan of all things remotely “robot.” In order to attach the antenna that would improve the station’s signal in a dense city rife with interference, we took turns launching coaxial cable into the trees above our house with a slingshot. The antennas also strengthened another connection: the one to our family life. David relished having a challenging hobby he could share with us at home.
Ham even scratches David’s competitive itch: He discovered “contesting,” when amateur radio stations try to contact and exchange information with as many stations as possible in a given period of time.
In an age of machine-to-machine connectivity, David found the thrill of new discovery, technical challenge, and global escape he craved. He’s connected with hams in nearly every state and in dozens of countries, including Ghana, Ukraine, Kuwait, and Panama. And now, without leaving Boston, we’ve collected QSL cards — written or digitized confirmations of two-way communication, often designed around the operator’s unique call number — from fellow hams around the world.
In the end, it wasn’t the next great technology or ham’s increasingly popular digital modes but old-school analog radio — the unfiltered voices of real humans crackling somewhere in the distance — that helped David find his way back to us in the storm. Talking to strangers improved our communication with each other, too.
And now, as the prospect of actual travel looms, we have new friends to meet all over the world.