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Listening In

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a talk at Northwestern for serious speech majors, which was part of a program my aunt and uncle funded to promote scholarship. I went, somewhat reticent about what I was getting into, because some of these talks can be quite deadly.

I was most pleasantly surprised to learn that the speaker, Susan Douglas, was an avid ham radio fan. She has written a book on the history of radio in this country and devoted considerable space to the influence that ham radio operators had in the early development of commercial and non-commercial radio. This was not the topic of her talk, but I did pick up her book, “Listening In,” and I have been trying to gobble it down between jobs.

Basically, she tells how in the wild days before the Internet, this country developed an almost irrational passion for radio. Young men and boys were glued to their shortwave radio sets trying to discover what they could do. As she tells the story, you can feel the fever in the air. In the early days, there were few rules, and although radio was largely seen for the good it could provide, there were some bad eggs (were there ever not bad eggs?) who took advantage of circumstances to have some fun.

For instance, it was common for some folks to pretend they were speaking for the Navy and send ships out to sea just because they could! Apparently things reached a peak when the Titanic sank. As news spread of its demise, some amateur radio folks passing the news around included rumors (sounds like Facebook today) – e.g., “Yes the ship sank, but all of the people were safe.” Well, nothing was even close to the truth, and as a result of the cacophony and chaos then on the bands, the government stepped in and developed protocols and band plans (even that sounds familiar today).

There is one entire chapter devoted to “Why Ham Radio Matters” and it isn’t just about the public service work we do. For her, the true excitement of ham radio is that we have built a small sub culture that uses radio to reach out to distant lands, and to have our imaginations excited by voices from the great out-there. Reading her book brought back many of the reasons why I got into radio in the 50’s and why I continue to find it so fascinating. For me, it is a retreat from the visual world that is my work, and also the fascination that with a simple wire and a small radio, you can hear the world. I highly commend the book to your attention.

This comes just as we begin our annual Field Day Pilgrimage. For many of us, it means dusting off our field gear and preparing for 24 hours of pure operating. I know this does not turn some of you on…but there is a real joy in trying to reach folks around the US and Canada and to overcome adverse conditions.

However, if you are not inclined to burn the midnight oil, please come out Saturday June 25 to socialize and enjoy the day and the food!