Saturday, February 12, 2011

No more magic: "Why should I get a ham license just so that I can talk to a bunch of old geezers about their latest heart bypass operations?"

I recently read this in a thread in the QRZ forums. Has radio lost it's "magic" for the younger generation? Is amateur radio a dying hobby? I'm not certain, but here is an argument that makes some interesting points about it:

Thread: Why Ham Radio Endures in a World of Tweets
[...] I'm not arguing the point that our numbers are "up" a bit from a few years ago. And I certainly hope that positive trend continues.

But, as I've also said, nowhere in any of those figures is the AGE of those licensees noted.

And what's also disturbing is the fact that there are now some 700,000 licenses (696,302 to be exact) that are due to expire in the United States between now and June of 2018. That number is roughly equivalent to the ENTIRE database of currently licensed US hams. Remember, our licenses are all on a ten year renewal cycle. So, if we were "holding our own" it should follow that the number of license renewals should be spread out over ten years, not seven.

Or, to put it another way, for some reason, the number of expiring licenses now appears to be "front end loaded" with a significant number of those license expirations occurring in the next four or five years. Could this be yet another indication that a growing number of US hams are either not renewing (or upgrading) their licenses, or that more and more of them are now dying and their survivors haven't (yet) notified the FCC of that fact? Remember...the ARRL has already reported that the rate of new license grants (for all classes of licenses in the United States) is also slowing...down some 13% from 2008.

However, I suggest you don't take my word for it. Rather, you may want to visit Joe Speroni's (AHOA) FCC Amateur Radio Statistics Web site and do your own analysis of these data:

And while the "jury is still out" as to whether (or not) these numbers indicate that our hobby is expanding or shrinking, I think the anecdotal evidence that we are slowly aging and dying is now all around us. For example, I invite you to go to any hamfest, club meeting or other amateur radio gathering these days and take note of the preponderance of graying (or balding!) heads (and rapidly expanding waistlines) of the participants. Then, I dare you to tell me we are attracting significant numbers of youthful newcomers.

That is, while we may now be attracting significant numbers of "codeless" retirement age newcomers, it is an inescapable fact that those people, too, will eventually age and die. And, by the laws of nature, these retirement-age newcomers will be dying off far sooner than their more youthful counterparts.

What's more, all the evidence I've seen (anecdotal and otherwise) shows that the vast majority of the youngsters of today who will eventually "grow old" aren't showing the slightest interest whatsoever in becoming hams when they do.

Maybe that's because, for most of us in our hobby today, radio is "magic". It's the idea that something we do in our shacks (or with our own voice or fingers) can be heard (or felt) at a distance without wires. But, how many other ways (besides Ham Radio) can youngsters of today do that? Indeed, how many youngsters of today have even HEARD of amateur radio?

Here's another example: Back last fall, I was honored to be part of a ham radio demonstration station at a local Boy Scout camporee. However, once we got everything set up and working, we very quickly discovered that our biggest problem in explaining what we were doing was in finding a common reference point with which to describe our hobby. For starters, we were absolutely flabbergasted that our attempts to contrast what we do with CB drew mostly blank stares! Indeed, most of these (largely urban-based) Scouts had never heard of CB!

It was only after we hit on a comparison of what we do to the Internet, MSN and Facebook (except that we do it all without wires!) were we able to get even the faintest glimmer of understanding.

But even then, we mostly got yawns and "can we go now"? from the bulk of these elementary and junior high school youngsters. One of my compatriots later (and quite rightly) noted that if we had been offering military face painting (like the Army exhibit next door) we might have gotten more interest.

So, as I see it, one of our other recruitment and retention problems (that is, besides maintaining an absolutely arcane, 1950s-era licensing and regulatory system that included such things as psycho-motor tests for Morse well into the 21st Century) is that "radio" is no longer magical for these youngsters. And I contend that its the "magic" of radio that brought a lot of us into the hobby back in the 1940s, 50s, 60s and even into the 70s...despite our systemically discriminatory, "incentive licensing" system in the United States. What's more, it's that "magic" that is probably also what has since kept many of us active in the hobby today.

But the truth is that those days are now LONG GONE! And they aren't coming back. Indeed, "radio" (in a dizzying array of forms and formats) has now moved into the mainstream of our society. As a result, most youngsters today take the "radio" that's implied in their cell phones, PDAs, satellite televisions, and MP3 players for granted.

Indeed, I've continually asked my 18-year-old daughter if she would be at all interested in getting her ham license...if for no other reason that it might look good on a resume someday. Her consistent reply to me over the years (while she was usually busy texting her friends on her cell phone) has been, "Why should I get a ham license just so that I can talk to a bunch of old geezers about their latest heart bypass operations?"

Yes, Emily, why indeed?

Clearly (and unlike our older generation) for the younger set, the medium is no longer the message. Increasingly, its the message that has now become the message and most youngsters of today could absolutely care less how that message gets into (or out of) the wired or wireless devices they now routinely hold in their hands.

In many ways, I think we've now become victims of our own success. Others in these forums have (rightly) noted that amateur radio was, in many ways, the first "Internet" and, indeed, many of the early handshaking protocols of that medium were first used by hams.

But the truth is that the rest of the communications world around us (both sociologically and technologically) has LONG SINCE moved on. As I've also said, increasingly we in ham radio are viewed by the younger set as the "Radio Amish", a quaint, ancient holdover from the early days of radio. And for today's youngsters, the "early days" increasingly means before there were such things as high speed wireless Internet, MSN, Facebook, satellite and cable television, PDAs and Internet-capable cell phones.

THIS is why I'm not holding out much hope that attracting retirement-age "oldsters" is going to sustain our ranks (let alone grow them!) over the long term.

To the contrary, everything I've experienced, seen and read indicates that the best and brightest youth of today have little interest in someday pursuing a hobby that, for them, is not (and never has been) "magical". So my hunch is that they probably won't be interested in doing so when they reach retirement age unless WE somehow figure out a way to make it so.

And sadly, (and as I noted earlier) some of us are now simply too busy "having fun enjoying this wonderful hobby" to care much about the future of same.

The bottom line here is that, while I sincerely hope that I'm absolutely wrong in all of this, I still cannot help but conclude that interest in our hobby WILL continue to fade as those of us who still view radio as "magic" continue to age and die in ever increasing numbers.

And despite a lot of verbal arm waving and emotional "say it isn't so" appeals (not to mention boorish personal attacks) from some people in these forums, I still find it interesting that nobody has (yet) offered a single shred of credible evidence to dispute any of my predictions.

Clearly, as time goes on (and unless the current perception of our hobby rapidly changes among the youth of today), there are going to be fewer and fewer youthful newcomers down the road to take our places as we, too, eventually go the way of the dinosaur. [...]

Today's youth are not impressed by "old" technology. Yet I think there is some renewed interest in amateur radio for EmComm (Emergency Communications: "When all else fails"), and the newer technologies like digital radio modes, and "air" mail, etc. The technology that ham radio uses and interacts with is constantly evolving.

I think the demographics of licensees are changing as well. Many of the members of my local radio club are women, almost half the membership. They have their own "YL" net where they meet once a week and chat about things that interest them.

For all the talk about kids not being interested in radio, there are exceptions. The ARISS program (Amateur Radio from the International Space Station) has been very popular with children in schools that participate in making space contacts. Other space related things like Moonbounce (a.k.a. "EME", Earth-Moon-Earth) communications are much easier to do now thanks to cheaper hardware, the internet and software. There are also a growing number of DX contest competitions that some would enjoy.

Some kids at one of our local schools expressed an interest in learning Morse Code, because it's faster than text messaging. Some schools now incorporate ham radio into their science curriculum, and encourage their students to get licensed as part of their learning.

As the people who are using amateur radio, and the reasons they are using it continue to change, interest in amateur radio may also change accordingly. But whether any of that will be enough to attract ham licensees in significant numbers in the future remains to be seen. I wouldn't give up hope just yet though; it's an evolving situation.

For me, it remains an interesting world of possibilities.

Also see:

Radio Communications in a Changing World

Learning Ham Radio; start with a Police Scanner?

The ARRL, my missed opportunity, and my fun new hobby

Oregon Emergency Amateur Radio in Action

How I passed the Ham Radio Technician's Test

Shortwave Radio Nostalgia for a Sunday

Nostalgia for "tube" radios, a.k.a. "boat anchors"

The convergence of Ham Radio with the Internet

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