Where are the hams?

Ralph, AA8RK, and I drove down to Findlay, OH for the Findlay hamfest. Findlay is normally a pretty good hamfest, and it’s worth driving an hour and a half to get there. On the way down, Ralph mentioned how disappointed he was that the level of repeater activity in the Detroit area seems to just keep dropping and dropping.

That’s a puzzle to me, too. We now have more hams than ever before–over 700,000 licensed radio amateurs in the U.S.–yet no one seems to be talking to one another. This seems to be happening on both VHF/UHF and the HF bands. Aside from contest weekends, it seems that fewer and fewer hams are getting on the air. This begs the question, why don’t hams get on the air anymore?

When we got down to Findlay, I was kind of dismayed by how few people were there. I have to admit that I didn’t attend last year, but this year’s attendance was way below what it was two years ago. What has happened in the last two years that has dissuaded so many hams from not attending this hamfest?

Ham Key HK-1 PaddleFortunately, there were lots of good things to buy. There were lots of decent deals on transceivers, for example.There was also a lot of tube gear for sale and several tube dealers, oddly enough.

I managed to pick up a HamKey paddle (see right). I had seen this on my first time around the flea market, and when I asked the seller how much he wanted for it, he said $45. Since I didn’t really need another key, I figured I’d stop by the table on the way out, and if he still had it then, offer him less.

Well, when I got back there, the paddle was still there, but a different guy was manning the table. When I asked him, “Will you take $40 for the paddle?” he replied, “Well, it’s my buddy’s paddle. I’ll have to ask him.”

Then, he took a look at my name tag and did a double take. “Hey, I know you,” he said, “I read your blog all the time.”

“In that case,” I said, “will you take $35?” We both got a laugh out of that. At that point, his friend returned, and he did indeed accept my offer of $40.

So, despite the lack of attendance, I still managed to get a good deal on something. I think if more hams made the effort to show up at these things, they’d find some good deals, too. And, maybe that would spur them to get on the air more. Well, I can dream anyway, can’t I?



  1. I went last year, it was a decent attendance. I really wanted to go this year too, but its a 5 hour drive and I couldnt afford it this year. My plans are to make it next year, as it is one of the better swaps, and worth the drive. I know some other Hams from Twitter who went, I wish I could of met up with them and you today.

  2. Elwood Downey, WB0OEW says:

    I have about an hour of free time each evening for hobbies. It takes me about half that long to put up and take down my clandestine antenna (I can’t leave it up, my CC&A has very aggressive enforcers). It’s just not worth it except for the occasional sprint.

  3. Ken / WA3FKG says:

    I have found this to be true in Pittsburgh also. I think the current state of the economy has a lot to do with the low attendance at hamfests.

    As to lack of air time you might be able to credit a little of that to the economy also. I know I don’t have the time I would like to devote to hobbies these days because of a busy work schedule. Companies have cut back on personal and ramped up the work load on those that remain. I think the main reason though is that you don’t here as many interesting conversations on the air. When I run across a QSO involving antennas, equipment talk or digital modes I will stop to listen and join in if I have something to contribute. Hams also share a lot of other hobbies like astronomy, model railroading, computers and home brewing equipment. I have never been much into contesting but have always said to each his own. Now that fall is approaching again I intend to try to spend more time on the air both VHF/UHF and the HF bands. A good friend of mine is always telling me to get on and call CQ instead of tuning from one end of the band to the other looking for a call. You many find that there are a lot of other hams out there doing exactly the same thing. Hope to hear you on the air.

  4. I was there last year as well (in fact, I met Mark, above, IRL after talking via Twitter many times, as well as other twitter users). I thought it was a great hamfest and I even pushed people down here in the southwestern part of Ohio to make it up there this year if they could – it’s 3 hours away.

    Last year I came away from that hamfest with an oscilloscope. I’ve been able to use it well by watching videos on YouTube.

    As far as people not talking to each other on VHF and UHF, it is true here as well. By my guesstimate, there’s probably 300 hams in my area that are no longer with a club that were formerly with a large repeater club. My guess is that someone kept calling all the 2m ops “Lids” and started likening 2m with CB and that started to kill the band. It is a shame.

    My guess is some of those same people are the ones that think ham radio got worse when the code requirement was dropped and also the 75m ops that I hear people complain about (disclaimer: I rarely listen to 75m, and only once out of maybe 10 times have I heard anything that was borderline Lid).

  5. Dan,
    Evidently I can’t read the “Speak Your Mind” validation characters very well because I just lost all my content when I clicked “Post Comment” and I received “Characters do not match what is shown in the image. Please retry” [*frustration*]. I’ll do my best to reconstruct my previous post.

    I’ll add my $0.02 to the conversation…I earned my ticket in 1993 with the help of the NARS radio club in Houston, TX….a very active club that always had great rush-hour drive time conversations. Granted, Houston is the 4th largest city in the USA, so there were many people who used the 146.660 repeater, but other repeaters were very active too.

    Since then I have moved several time to many locations in and outside of Texas, and in each community I found that repeater activity is sparse at best; at my current QTH I rarely hear any activity. Why run mobile if there is no one who will respond to your call?

    Since 1993 technology has changed dramatically and the number of “distractions” in our lives has grown too. The World Wide Web has brought us various forms of entertaining distractions—email, YouTube, Facebook, etc.). In addition, cable/satellite TV and video games consume much of our home time as well. When my children were young, I found that I needed to spend more time with them rather than searching for QSOs (hard to believe, I know :-).

    Our vocations have changed too. My grandfather bought a house and raised a family working 8 hours a day as a machinist. Now few of us have the luxury of having an 8-5 job that can pay the bills; many of those that do work 8-5 don’t have the disposable income to support a ham radio hobby. Personally, I typically work 10 hour days, sometimes 12 hours, which leaves precious little time for me to pursue hobbies when I get home. The time is do have at home is spent with my spouse, helping my children with their homework, or addressing an item on my endless “honey-do list.” We are also involved with our church and assist with the high school booster club.

    The current economy isn’t helping much either. The price of fuel makes it difficult for us to travel for recreational purposes, our paychecks don’t seem to go as far as they once did, etc.

    So, how do we get more people involved with ham radio? That is a great question, and I don’t know that I have the answer. It seems to me that our biggest competitor is entertainment, so that begs the question, “How can ham radio be more entertaining?” How can we appeal to people who prefer passive entertainment (TV)? How can we appeal to people who prefer active entertainment (video games)? Perhaps having more lively conversations during the drive time hours? Perhaps responding to folks who are looking to rag chew on the repeater? Perhaps loading up the minivan with like-minded hams when attending a hamfest so we can all split the fuel cost? Perhaps more engaging club meetings? I’m not certain there is a “silver bullet” here, but I do know that if we are not “appealing” then other forms of entertainment will trump or valuable and rewarding hobby.

    • Ken / WA3FKG says:


      First let me agree with you completely on the way “capture” works with this site. I probably would not have posted my comments having the same experience you did with the “characters don’t match – retry” only to find that “retry” also meant type your entire comment over again. I was saved by the fact that I can’t beat a third grader when it comes to spelling so I type my responses in LibreOffice Writer and then cut and past it on to the web page. So still having my text on the clipboard I did retry and made my posting.

      I agree that a lot of non participation can be attributed to the economy. Like you I often put in 10 hour days and then will VPN into the network and do more before going to bed. I also agree that there is now an enormous amount of competition for your time. I currently have “content overload” from different directions. I try to stay up with the news from television and reading blogs. I listen to a number of pod casts each week including a few related to amateur radio. There are still a few television shows that I watch purely for entertainment value. On the weekends if I have the television on I’m watching C-Span or Book TV (C-Span 2) I haven’t spent any time playing games since the days of the Radio Shack Color Computer. I will however spend long hours trying to learn a new programming language and experimenting what I have learned. I really would love getting back into home brewing hardware with micro controllers, but again that is something that could become a full time hobby of its own. I also like to “rail fan” and get out and watch or take pictures of trains.

      My HF station has been off the air for a while now because I had an extended stay in the hospital during which time my VHF/UHF gear got moved to the first floor for access and the room dedicated to my “shack” became the family storage room. I’m hoping to rectify that situation before winter sets in so that I can get active on those bands. Time permitting of course. :-)

      Like you I don’t have a “silver bullet” answer for getting people both newcomers and inactive licensees more involved in the hobby. I think we are starting to draw more young people in with the aspect of being able to build wireless networks both for entertainment and public service purposes. I also think after while it will dawn on some of them that this wireless capability can extend into robotic projects. I know open source hardware and software projects appeal to this crowd.

      I live in Oakmont a suburb of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and I am always amazed at the comments I hear on the local repeaters from people visiting from outside our area. Most comment on the friendly atmosphere of two meters in Pittsburgh when compared to their home QTH. I drove to Las Vegas several years ago to my son’s wedding, grand mother refused to fly, and I have to say that I made more contacts on 2-meter simplex and 10 meters than I did through repeaters. Some of this I credit to the fact that flying down the interstate you could come into and go out of range of a repeater before anyone really had time to pick up the radio and start up a QSO. Other times though I held a strong signal for quite a while and never heard a peep. In the early 80’s as the steel industry imploded by brother packed his family up and moved to the Dallas Ft. Worth metroplex where he had a good job waiting. On my first visit as I set up my dual band rig on his kitchen counter he told me not to expect the “native” people of the area to talk with me that this was not like Pittsburgh and “Yankees” were not appreciated. Much to his great surprise I got on the local 22/82 machine and not only did people talk with me but I was welcomed to the city. My brother’s jaw about hit the floor when after several QSOs some lasting twenty minutes or so I was invited not only to an impromptu hamfest that meets down in Dallas every weekend but I was invited to a pool party and Bar B Q at the home of a local ham. Once again proving something that I have told him since I was a teenager that if you are a ham you are part of the family. While I know that two meters can have a “click mentality” in some places I have yet to travel to a city where and not find some friendly hams there. I hope that remains the case.

  6. I attended a Hamfest in Louisville, KY on Saturday an it was very well attended. Go figure!

  7. I haven’t been to a hamfest in a while, mostly due to lack of spare money.

    As for repeater QSOs, I find the repeater group hams in the area I live in now are kinda cliquish and only want to talk to each other, not to me. I mostly just leave my radio set to the simplex calling frequency, these days.

  8. David (above) touches on an unfortunate reality of VHF in many areas. It seems that while many have no problem answering a CQ call on HF from someone they don’t know, I have heard someone say on a repeater “I heard xx8xxx calling on the repeater, but I didn’t answer him ’cause I didn’t know him”. Not the best attitude.

    To make it worse, sometimes the best way to get into the clique is to throw your callsign out during a round-table on one of those machines. I can imagine that new hams can feel VERY anxious about doing that.

  9. I don’t think one can gauge the health of amateur radio by looking at repeaters or hamfests. Hamfests have largely been a victim of eBay and the Internet in general. Repeaters were interesting technology in the 80s and early 90s with autopatch, before cell phones became commonplace but are now somewhat ho hum, in my opinion (though EchoLink and IRLP can bring new interest). Repeaters have also suffered from several ills, like club politics, on air cliques, and the enigma that is repeater coordination.

  10. Dave, N8SBE says:

    Short story, my kind of work (embedded software development) kind of dried up in the SE Michigan area around the beginning of the century, and I got mixed up in the auto business. Now, I commute 115 miles round trip each day (gives me lots of time to jaw on the local repeaters), and routinely work 50-55 hour weeks (for ‘free’ – no overtime). That makes my door-to-door time normally greater than 12 hours, leaving me little time for pre-sleep and post-sleep periods to get anything else done during the week.

    Add three camera club meetings, one ham club meeting, and weekly 6 am breakfasts with some ham friends a month, and you can see that the only time I have to catch up with my personal life is on the weekends, which tend to be filled with family life/chores, and the occassional hamfest, which I really enjoy.

    I HAVE been more active on HF recently, since finally getting my quad up on the tower, after a two-year part-time effort, and enjoyed contesting and using LOTW to actually start working toward my WAS and DXCC. This is all weekend work, of necessity. So far, I’ve not had any time to design/print QSL cards, so I can respond to the few that have come to me, especially from stateside stations with SASE’s (I feel guilty about not getting back to those hams sooner, but they are still in an short pile on my desk, so I feel confident that it WILL happen someday).

    Having been a geek since day one, it seems, what keeps or renews my interest in a hobby is doing or learning something new or novel. Affordable digital cameras is what got me back into taking photos, so for a while I was consumed with catching up with the current state of the photographic art (which is a moving target). I’ve put together a satellite ground station for the various AMSAT satellites, then got bored with that and sold the antennas and radios to someone else in the local club. He is now deep into doing VHF/UHF contesting. Over the years I’ve run hot and cold on various hobbies, including aquariums and woodworking, but I keep coming back to ham radio. Having been licensed since I was in high school, it always seems to offer something new, whether it’s satellites, digital signal processing/software defined radios, or (my latest foray) the 900 MHz band and maybe some tinkering with spread spectrum.

    The repeater conversations in SE Michigan during drive time run all the way from the banal to the highly technical. The higher in frequency you go (from 2M to 70cm, to 900 MHz), the more cerebral the conversation tends to get. So, if you are bored with the ‘Geritol hour’ on 75M or 2M, try a different band!

    NB: I’ve made my peace with the nasty Captcha stuff on this site, by ALWAYS copying my entire text entry with a Ctl-C (on Windows machines) BEFORE attempting to read the squiggly characters. I find that case matters (upper- versus lowercase), among other things, but being a mind-reader helps. If all else fails, I can then past my entry back, when I find that the web browser hasn’t ‘re-posted’ my data like I expected it to.


    — Dave, N8SBE

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