Motto of Amateur Short Wave Radio Operators Everywhere
It was a typically languid Saturday morning in June in Austin, Texas—most of the under-forty crowd were crawling out of bed to drag themselves to a decadent brunch of mimosas and eggs Benedict with truffle oil and pork belly. But at the Red Cross Center, people young and old were bustling, tapping, tinkering and running around as if their lives depended on it. In fact, that was the point.
“When all else fails” is the motto of amateur short wave radio operators everywhere, a motto they take seriously and are proud of. After Hurricane Katrina, cell phone towers, wi-fi networks, and power grids were down, unavailable, or overloaded—a post-apocalyptic horror story for the iPhone-wielding Instagrammers of today’s world. But amateur radio operators could and did get through.
What they were doing at the Red Cross Center, however, was something like a trial run. Known as Field Day, it was amateur radio’s annual 24-hour emergency rehearsal, complete with a barbeque master and limitless pizza. The aim of the contest was to reach as many radio stations as they could by the end of those 24 hours.
But while the room was commanded by a team of older veterans of the amateur radio world, young people filled in at all hours, working alongside their older peers. In the age of Snapchat and Facebook, Skype and FaceTime, mobile apps and smart watches, the concept of amateur radio (also known as “ham radio”) seems archaic. While even the typewriter and the record player have been revived by hipsters in Brooklyn and elsewhere, youthful interest in ham radio is not just about preserving the traditional way of doing things—it’s about keeping alive a form of communication that is readily available when our high-tech solutions fail us. Even the military has become so digital that they’ve had to call on short wave radio operators to teach classes.
Jacob Yarnell was one of the younger “hams” associated with the Ham radio club in Austin. It wasn’t something he initially sought out—Jacob was put in an amateur radio class in high school, one of those mandatory electives that seems to be a rite of passage for many adolescents. He didn’t know what the class was about, nor did he express much interest until a contest much like Field Day came up. “I would skip class and go in at lunch to operate the radio that entire week, not even really understanding what I was doing,” said Yarnell. “But, after that, I was hooked. I began going in every lunch and learning as much as I could from my elmer [ham radio mentor], Joe Fisher III, and the rest is history. Now, I have my own Ham Radio ‘Shack’ in my garage, with my own antenna set up as high as I could get it in the backyard.”
For Jacob, it wasn’t just the contests that fueled his passion, but also the feeling that he understood electrical engineering. “With tube technology, everything you need to see is right there in front of you. No confusing computer parts, it's all analog, and all right there for study,” he said. And then there was the thrill of making contact with operators in a foreign country, like an explorer discovering new ground. “There's nothing quite like contests. When you hold a frequency, and multiple stations are calling you, you get this sense of excitement that I can only describe as pure anxious joy. You're so nervous to do everything right and not mess up that you're almost shaking, but once you get the hang of it, talking to hundreds of people in just a short amount of time and to have them be from all over the world is so fulfilling.”
But for this younger generation that grew up on laptops, tablets, and phones, is it all just a quirky game? For Jacob, ham radio is a world of its own, one that’s “very important when typical communications go down in times of crisis.” And yet he doesn’t foresee a return of ham radio to the mainstream until radio is able to more seamlessly integrate with computer technology.
Ham radio may not be the next iconic vintage technology like the typewriter or record player that today’s hipsters have embraced. A Brooklyn Field Day overrun with bespectacled, flannel-wearing 20-somethings seems unlikely—in part because short wave goes beyond an aesthetic need for difference. Whether it’s for learning electrical engineering or emergency communications, amateur radio has a purpose. And for that, it’s quick to convert newcomers into its tribe. “Once a Ham, always a Ham,” said Jacob.