No Amateur Radio Isn’t Dying And It Doesn’t Need To Be “Fixed”

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 6.47.59 AMIf you’re looking for me babbling about farming, gardening, photography or one of the usual topics I go wandering off on, you might want to skip this one. I’m going to jump off the deep end into the “miracle of radio” for a moment here, specifically amateur radio.

One of the most curious things I’ve been seeing is the claim that amateur radio is dying. I hear this claim all the time; on the air from people chatting, at swap meets, and on the AR related blogs and forums on the internet. It is really very curious and at first I wasn’t sure why I kept hearing this when it seemed to be completely untrue.

But then I realized what was going on. Amateur radio isn’t dying, of course. What’s happening is that their idea of what amateur radio should be is dying. Amateur radio is changing, evolving, and they don’t like it. No sir, not at all. And they don’t want to accept that fact. So they take advantage of any little quirk, any little upsetting of the apple cart, any disruption, and through a convoluted thought process that makes the mind boggle, turn it into support for their idea that the entire hobby and everyone involved in it (except for them, of course) is going to hell in a hand basket.

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 6.39.55 AMPerhaps the biggest change was when the FCC dropped the need to know morse code in order to get a license. While most accepted this, and even were in favor of it, a significant number of AROs rose up in righteous anger over it.

Other things happened. The tests were changed, study guides began appearing on-line that were easy to use, even free. There were changes to the licensing structure. There were claims that the tests were “dumbed down”. I’ve heard people claim that modern licensees don’t actually “know” anything, all they did was memorize the answers to the questions in the question pool.

Uh, excuse me? Really? You didn’t memorize anything when you took your test, eh? You did, what, exactly? Spent years experimenting and doing the math to develop Ohm’s Law all by yourself? Besides, if someone has the ability to memorize all 700 or so of the questions in the pool for the Extra exam, they probably deserve to get the license.

Some of this nonsense has calmed down as none of the dire predictions that the Good Ole Boys made have come true, but they’re still out there, are still claiming that anyone who was licensed after the no-code license came into effects is an idiot, etc. etc. etc. There are some forums out there where if one of us no-coders dares to stick our head up, we will quickly be insulted, trolled and harassed.

The licensing system had to change, though. Morse code, or CW as we call it, is a lot of fun. Tens of thousands of AROs gleefully still use it, and it shows no sign of dying. But the fact of the matter is that being required to know CW to get your amateur radio license is about as useful as being required to know how to ride a horse in order to get a driver’s license for a car.  Yes, there are those who argue that when “all else fails” CW is the only way you’ll be able to communicate. But if you look at the forms of communications that are actually used during real emergencies, what is being used is SSB voice, FM voice, and, increasingly, digital voice and data. Not CW.

Then there are other “signs” that amateur radio is dying. Supposedly amateur radio isn’t growing, according to a lot of people I’ve talked to. I find that rather odd because we have more licensed amateur radio operators than ever before, and that number is increasing almost every year. Granted, it isn’t increasing by much, but amateur radio is a very technical hobby and it definitely is not for everyone. It requires a fairly extensive knowledge of electronics, mathematics, propagation, antenna design, FCC regulations, operating practices, etc. It requires a fairly hefty investment in equipment as well. So it appeals to a very limited number of people in the first place. If you are technically inclined, if you enjoy playing with electronics and gadgets and occasionally cranking up the old soldering iron and setting off the smoke detectors in your home with flaming resistors, exploding capacitors, etc. there are a hell of a lot easier and less expensive ways to do it than amateur radio, and which don’t require you to have to pass a test and pay a fee to do what you want to do.

Frankly, it’s amazing that we have the number of licensed operators that we have, not that the number is so small.

Here is an observation: I have amateur radio magazines going back to the early 1900s, and if you read the editorials and letters columns, you’ll quickly find that amateur radio has been “dying” since about, oh, 1920. And for pretty much the same reasons being given today: rogue operators, idiots, dumbing down the tests, changes in technology “destroying” the hobby (you should read some of the arguments about how SSB was going to destroy amateur radio when it first became popular)

There are a lot of people out there who simply do not like change. Oh, they won’t admit it, but it’s true. And this isn’t just in the amateur radio community of course. There are people who will not accept change even if those changes badly need to take place, even if those changes offer significant improvements. They will grasp at anything to try to rationalize their feelings.

Are there things about amateur radio I don’t like, things that I believe should be changed, or things that look like they will be changed but which I feel should remain the same? Of course there are. But I don’t have any influence over what will happen, and in the long run none of those things will have any real effect on my enjoyment of the hobby.

So no, amateur radio isn’t dying. All things considered, it is reasonably healthy and it seems it will remain so. It doesn’t need to be “fixed”. Yes, there are some things that could be tweaked, perhaps should be changed. But overall, amateur seems to be doing rather well.