Then and now: Ham operator Steve Johnson displays a photo of a younger himself.
Then and now: Ham operator Steve Johnson displays a photo of a younger himself.

In the past 100 years, human communications have changed rapidly, arguably more than any other technology available. As a society we’ve transitioned, within a matter of decades, from handwritten letters to telegraphs to phone calls to instant messaging to tiny mobile devices that enable us to access almost anyone anywhere. Much of this is positive, especially for emergency responders who are alerted the instant an incident occurs.

But what happens when the power lines are down? When the internet can’t be accessed? Our current infrastructure just can’t support the lack of communication during a disaster. In this case, ham radios—devices that connect people globally using the radio frequency spectrum—have been and continue to be one of the most reliable forms of communication available. The technology has become cheaper and more accessible, and thanks largely to the communities of makers, hackers and urban survivalists, ham radio is more popular than ever.

Signal frequency

Ham radio gained prominence in the early 1900s, and the technology is attributed to several scientists, including Nikola Tesla and Alexander Popov, who all share some credit for developing the modern radio. The first amateur radio club, known as the Wireless Telegraph Club, was founded in 1908 at Columbia University.

The word “ham” began as an insult, referring to those who interfered with stations, before being picked up later by those who originally misunderstood, and later embraced, the term. The label “amateur” is more about independence than about inexperience. It distinguishes between citizen operators and other broadcasting like emergency response stations, two-way radio and commercial radio.

Each ham is assigned a call sign that designates a station. Like license plates, hams can get “vanity” call signs. There’s also an array of radios to use that offer varying frequencies, from vintage radios to hand-held transceivers. Signals are tied to repeaters, stretching frequency across locations, which is how hams can connect with others around the world. Northern Nevada has 15 repeaters throughout the area, with 10 specific to Reno and Sparks.

According to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), more than 2 million people in the United States are licensed operators, many of whom identify as hobbyists, technicians or emergency responders. Testing for an amateur radio license is rigorous and highly technical, but there’s a ton of books, tutorials and websites created to help. It’s mandatory to be licensed, regulated nationally by the Federal Communications Commission. The United Nations agency International Telecommunication Union tracks international ham radio use.

“Ham radio is a license from the government that allows U.S citizens to play with electromagnetic frequency,” says Steve Johnson (call sign: KS6A), a long-time amateur radio expert in Reno. “It ensures that hams don’t do things with international implications. It’s a license that allows people to experiment with the electromagnetic spectrum. There’s a tremendous amount of uses for electromagnetic energy.”

Johnson has been an operator for more than 50 years. His wife, Joan, is also an operator—a room in their house is dedicated to their hobby, fully stocked with radios, many of which are vintage. He’s taught ham classes through Bridgewire Makerspace in Sparks, and heads up the University of Nevada, Reno Radio Pack.

Johnson got his ham radio license when he was in eighth grade and has been passionate about it ever since, throughout his career in the military and later as a sheriff. In his radio room—to which he refers as the “ham shack”—he keeps track of the countries he’s contacted by putting small star-shaped stickers on a globe. The globe is covered with stickers.

He also keeps binders full of QSL cards—postcards that hams exchange when they’ve connected. The name “QSL” refers to a Q code, a three-letter code used in radiotelegraph communication. QSL cards are designed by hams and contain personal information as well as their call sign.

Amateur radio is both an independent and social activity. Much of it takes place alone, especially for technicians who enjoy building radios. But there are also plenty of events and competitions for ham communities, such as a marathon where hams have to contact as many ARRL stations as they can within 30 hours. Ham groups also hold campouts, where a group of people will take their radios to a campsite off the grid to see who they can contact. Amateur operators who are also emergency responders are often on-call constantly in the event of a community disaster.

Johnson loves using his radio skills to socialize. “One of the things that hams do best is talk.”

Breaking code

Johnson says he’s an “old school ham,” partly because he learned about radio the traditional way. Originally, hams had to learn Morse code before getting licensed. Now it’s not mandatory, but many hams think it’s a good skill to have. There are two prominent schools of thought on learning Morse code: the Farnsworth Method, which gradually increases timing between each word, and the Koch method, which allows operators to learn two letters at a time, building up to an entire word. There are also dozens of apps that can help amateurs learn Morse code on the go.

Kevin Jacobsen, a UNR undergraduate student, thinks that amateur radio will continue to become more popular with people his age. Jacobsen is studying for his ham license with the intent to be a volunteer emergency response operator.

“I’m just fascinated by how timeless this technology is,” he says. “I think it’s a great skill to have.”

Jacobsen has spent months learning about amateur radio after reading an article in Make magazine, a publication that covers all aspects of do-it-yourself culture.

“The maker movement is bringing back all of these cool skills that really have been around for a long time,” he says. “People my age are realizing how cool it is to be able to do things like communicate through ham radio and have an understanding and appreciation for that.”

Johnson says that ham radio enthusiasts have long been proponents of tinkering and inventing. It’s an endeavor, he says, that attracts curious people.

“Hams are the original makers,” says Johnson. “One thing about ham radio is that it was, is now, and will always be an experimental venue, where people who want to play, learn and experiment have a place to do it.”

Hammy performance

Interested in becoming an operator? There are several local organizations that offer resources to get started.

• Sierra Nevada Amateur Radio Society, a prominent ham organization that hosts classes, meetups and more for Northern Nevada:

• Reno Amateur Radio is a supply store for ham builders and operators:

• Reno Ham Radio Club, a non-profit ham group:

• Reno Amateur Radio Information, a Facebook page that tracks ham-related activity in the area:

• UNR Radio Pack, hosted by the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno, meets at 7 a.m. every Monday at Carrows on E. Plumb Ln.:

• Bridgewire Makerspace in Sparks, offers occasional workshops on studying for ham license, building your own radio and learning Morse code:

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