No Ham Left Behind

Here’s the text of an article I recently sent in to the ARRL for publication in QST’s Op-Ed section…

No Ham Left Behind

Dan Romanchik, KB6NU
Michigan Section Affiliated Club Coordinator

A recent item on QRZ.Com reported that the number of licensed radio amateurs on April 3, 2005 was 667,318, a net loss of 20,542 from the peak in April 2003. There are 28,869 Novices; 318,221 Technicians; 137, 093 Generals; 76,706 Advanceds; and 106,238 Amateur Extras.

Some of those that replied to this post used the decline in the number of licensees to predict the imminent death of amateur radio. While I’m not quite so alarmist as these guys, I do think the numbers point to a problem. The problem is not, however, the number of amateur radio licensees, but the number of active amateur radio operators.

While there have not been any scientific surveys, some have estimated that the number of licensees who are inactive-however you define that term-at between 25% and 50%. For whatever reason, these folks lost interest and are amateur radio operators in name only.

This is a shame, if you ask me. I think it is more important to have active, engaged amateurs than to have a large number of licensees. Inactive hams don’t show up for public service events or work CW or experiment with circuits. I would even argue that having a large number of inactive hams does more harm than good.

The question then is how to encourage amateur radio operators to be more active. The rules changes over the last ten to fifteen years have enabled many to obtain licenses, and I think overall that’s a good thing. But getting that first license is only a start, not an end in itself.

Let’s face it. If all an amateur knows is what the Technician Class license manual covers, all that he or she is really prepared to do is to buy an HT and talk on a repeater. That’s fun for a while, but the novelty quickly wears off. I’d bet that a very large percentage of Technician class licensees have simply abandoned amateur radio. I’d also bet that the majority of Novices are no longer active as well.

Note that more than half of all licensed amateurs are either Novices or Technicians. This means that more than half are still on the first rung of the amateur radio license ladder. Unfortunately, we really don’t have any programs for getting these hams involved. In effect, we’re leaving these hams behind.

If we want these folks to become active amateur radio operators-and I am going to assume that a more active amateur radio community is a good thing-we’re going to have to give them more help. It’s no small task to set up an HF amateur radio station; many things can go wrong, and without experienced help, it’s easy for new hams to give up in frustration.

One thing that I think the amateur radio community can do to help new hams is to develop more classes. I’m not talking about classes to teach people what they need to know to pass a test, but what they need to know to be successful amateur radio operators.

I’m talking about basic topics, such as how to solder, how to make voltage and current measurements, and how to make a dipole antenna. I think another very popular course would be how to choose an HF radio. This course would describe the terms manufacturers use on their spec sheets and help new hams (and undoubtedly some old ones) evaluate what’s on the market.

Ham radio instructors also need more support. Better materials for instructors will enable instructors to more easily set up and conduct training courses. Some training on how to teach would also go a long way.

I also think that the amateur radio community must provide better support for clubs. Clubs are where the action is. Good clubs bring hams into the hobby and turn them into active amateur radio operators. Bad clubs turn people away from amateur radio and foster bad stereotypes about amateur radio and amateur radio operators.

One way that the ARRL could help support clubs is by providing club officers with leadership training. For example, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) makes available leadership training for its section officers. Here in the Michigan Section, we hope to offer a program like this very shortly, and I think it will help our amateur radio club officers and strengthen their clubs.

We should take a page from George W. Bush and vow to “leave no ham behind.” Increasing the number of licensees does no good if they lose interest and abandon the service, and helping those currently licensed will do more for ham radio than simply making more hams.


  1. Bruce Perrussel says:

    Just found your blog…and this is a very nice article. I spent 30 year as a novice…the licence sat in my drawer for years…and I just kept renewing it. Recently I got interested and am now an Extra.
    Clubs do a pretty good job for the no-code tech…but I had to do the General and Extra on my own.
    Ham Radio for most is still HF..VHF 2-meters and such is pretty much like the CB of old (usually without the “good buddy” talk) I would agree that folks will get tired of that pretty fast

  2. Dan,
    Thoughtfully said.

    Like many other hams I got into the hobby at a teen but I became discouraged because of RFI complaints. For decades family and work ruled my life. Then, 10 years ago, I discovered in my junk pile an old forgotten low power transmitter from novice days. Happily, it still worked and at 10 watts there was no TVI. Following up on my rekindled interest I visited a local club. The reception was cool and my recounts of radio minimalism brought sneers of elitism from the kilowatter hams. Furthermore, neither they, nor any of the other distance drivable clubs had “Extra class” license training. As one president advised, “We have no classes. No one does. Just learn it on your own.” So I gave up but am still active on what remains of the CW allocation.

    Three years ago I polled over 160 high school boys about their hobbies and pass times. I wanted to see where ham radio ranked among 25 other hobbies. The vast majority of them derived the greatest pleasure from just hanging out or sleeping. Ham radio, on average, ranked near the bottom of seemingly interesting hobbies. Actually taking ballet lessons was right next to ham radio, and this was after I had them look at QST and some license study material. Most interesting was that they thought the hobby was too technical. The majority indicated that the greatest obstacle to participation was technical complexity, not learning Morse. Quite a few liked the idea of resourcefully building simple CW rigs as opposed to buying feature filled expensive SSB ones. To me this says that youth might still be fostered into ham radio. HF band access is a start. But clubs, FCC regs, QST, and various magazines need to be more inclusive and have ongoing youth and newcomer features to promote interest and identity.

    Times have changed from the 1960’s when incentive licensing and exclusive frequency preserves made sense. Now I wonder if it would be better to replace the current license grade based band and emission allocation scheme with one that is based simply on license grade and power. That is, every class gets the same frequencies but not every class gets the same power. For example, Nov-Techs get 15 watts, Generals get 150 watts, Extras and Advanced get 1.5 KW. Would that encourage newcomers? I expect it would because of the relative ease kids and newcomers would have putting together inexpensive low power CW rigs compared to QRO SSB,FM, etc. ones. Ideas anyone?


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