Four high school students gathered around a table early last month, opening envelopes to reveal what looked like postcards from Florida, California, Delaware, Michigan and Russia, among other places.
“It's like Christmas two weeks early,” said freshman Spencer Brown.
The students weren't examining postcards, but instead cards stamped with call signs from amateur radio operators from around the United States and overseas. The students, members of the Basehor-Linwood High School Amateur Radio Club, had talked with each of the operators using radios set up in front of the high school about six weeks before.
The club was established this school year, sponsored by BLHS special education teacher Forrest Brandt and supported by members of the Pilot Knob Amateur Radio Club of Leavenworth. In a time when people can communicate instantly over long distances via the Internet or cell phones, the young amateur radio operators — or “hams,” as operators call themselves — at BLHS are embracing an older mode of communication that allows them to meet people around the world and learn valuable skills.
Getting Into Radio
Beginning Saturday, the Santa Fe Trail Amateur Radio Club will offer a beginning amateur radio class at the Johnson County District 1 Fire Station, 490 New Century Parkway, in New Century. The classes run from 8:30 a.m. to noon, for six consecutive Saturdays.
“Radio is a great hobby to have,” said course instructor Jim Cessna. “Just like any great hobby, it’s a lot of fun and you can invest a little money in it or a lot, sort of like those who like boating, you can own a canoe or a yacht and still have a great time.”
The course costs $15 for students 16 and younger and $30 for all others. Pre-registration is preferred; registration forms may be picked up at the De Soto library, but students will be accepted on the first day of class as well. For more information, contact Cessna at 913-782-4107 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The group's first event was the School Club Roundup, a weeklong event in October sponsored by the American Radio Relay League, a national amateur radio organization. The students spent the week contacting as many other operators around the world as they could, using radios and a 33-foot-tall antenna provided by Bob Kimbrell, a member of the Pilot Knob club.
About 20 students got into the action.
“It was pretty cool,” said freshman Jacob Hall. “I don't otherwise get to talk to people outside of Kansas.”
Freshman Jacob Zamora said he was used to chatting with people from other places online, but actually speaking with them through the microphone made him a bit nervous.
“I was scared to speak to people,” Zamora said. “I'm used to typing to them. So I stuttered.”
But Kimbrell butted in with words of encouragement: “You did great.”
Over the course of the week, the students made contact with more than 50 operators in 23 states, as well as Russia, the Czech Republic and Ontario, Canada. Some operators were with other clubs participating in the event, while others just happened to hear the BLHS club's calls.
One operator they reached was broadcasting from near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he works as a space shuttle technician. Another was broadcasting under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to celebrate the arch's 45th anniversary.
Afterward, the students sent cards to each operator, complete with a sketch of the BLHS building drawn by freshman Nathan Lucas, asking them to send cards back in return. About half of them replied.
Students in the club said they joined because it sounded fun, but the hobby has several practical applications, as well. Brown said the technology would provide a “failsafe” in case of a particular kind of emergency.
“If the zombie apocalypse happens, you designate your own frequency and then stick with it, and it never fails,” he said.
Brown was joking, of course, but Kimbrell said he had a point. Radio communication is quite stable, he said, because it is not tied down by wires, towers or satellites like other modes of communication. The infrastructure required is the earth's ionosphere.
In fact, according to the ARRL, the Federal Communications Commission first began granting amateur radio licenses to establish a network of communications experts who could spring to action in case of an emergency.
Even if they're never called upon in case of zombies, amateur radio operators also pick up skills in mathematics and science that are attractive to employers in engineering and other fields, Kimbrell said. Amateur radio enthusiasts often educate themselves about the technical workings of the equipment they use and the radio waves they send out, he said.
“It's really an elite group of scientific-minded people,” Kimbrell said. “That's what makes it such an interesting hobby.”
Kimbrell said he first jumped into amateur radio at age 13 when he strapped a radio to the handlebars of his Schwinn Continental bicycle as he ran a paper route, and his experience helped him land a job with a California utility company where he worked for 25 years.
“Radio to me has always been kind of a magic thing,” Kimbrell said. “You can take a tiny amount of power and send it halfway across the globe.”