One Way to Get Started in Ham Radio, by Reltney McFee

Simply in case anyone was wondering, this is by no means “the” way to begin. Rather, this is a sort of discussion of how I got into Amateur (“Ham”) radio.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was attracted to CB radio, although, being a teen, my budget to act on that attraction was, well, scant. I had a CB walkie-talkie, and would chat with a friend similarly equipped, a couple of blocks away from me.

Once I moved out of my parents’ home, I started working, for Da City’s EMS, and from time to time would note that we would get calls as “sick person”, that the police would get as “shooting.”

It occurred to me that knowing that sort of difference might prove useful, to an unarmed medic in The Murder City.

In The Un-Named Fly over State (TUFS), there is a “scanner law” which specifies that it is verboten to have a scanner (although, of course, the legislature spent way, way more words getting to that point), unless one holds a letter from the TUFS State Police, or a license as a Ham (Amateur Radio Operator), of Technician class or higher.

On duty, I figured that I was hassle resistant, for there was a close symbiosis between the police, and the medics. (Off duty, well, that “professional courtesy” might, or might not, be applied) So, I bought a handheld scanner, crystaled it for Da City’s various police precincts, and our fire dispatch, and got educated.

At that time, obtaining an amateur radio license required learning Morse code. I found that too daunting, and deferred that project.

In 1991, the Morse Code requirement for initial licensure was dropped, leading to what was known as “Technician”, or, colloquially, “No-Code Technician”, and my interest returned. The 35-question test is drawn from a published pool of 257 questions, and concerns basic radio theory (how do radio signals get from point a to point b), Federal Communication Commission rules about how you operate a Ham radio, antennas, and electrical safety, among other topics.

I purchased a study guide (several different guides are available, from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), Ham radio’s national association, and other test administration organizations), studied it, and passed the exam on my first try.

My first radio was a HT (or “Handie Talkie”, or handheld radio). There are several choices to be made, ranging from very, very cheap (and, you get what you pay for, generally), to rather spendy (some top-of-the-line HTs from Kenwood, Icom, or Yaesu can run around $400. It you desire that sort of functionality, it can cost you).

The Darling Wife (TDW) got her license a couple of years ago, studying on line and (in fact) taking her test online as well. There are several options, search selections out online. Here is the first page that popped up on my Internet search for “online Amateur radio test” For her first radio she selected a Baofeng UV5R. This cost us around $35 at a Hamvention. It is a reasonable intro radio, but, at that price, comes with, let us say “baggage”. For one thing, the sensitivity to received signals is wanting. For another, the programming is kludge-ey. That is to say, in order to enter the frequencies that you wish to monitor, or transmit upon, there is a veritable ballroom dance of keypad manipulations, and it can become taxing.

To be honest, that “multiple keystrokes to program a transmit/receive frequency” business, is not uncommon. Most every contemporary radio is programmable by means of a computer/USB cable, and that makes the entry of transmit/receive parameters relatively simple. Generally the cable is an additional expense, as can be the software.

A mobile radio, for your vehicle (surprisingly…), was the next purchase for TDW. She got a Yaesu FT 1900, a 2-meter single band radio with extended receive. It can communicate on simplex frequencies, where the one party transmits on the same frequency as the other party, and folks take turns. It can also communicate on semi-duplex, wherein I transmit on one frequency, and the other party transmits on a frequency offset by a set amount from mine. We take turns, since when my radio is transmitting I cannot hear others on the frequency. This mode is used for repeaters, which is a third radio, generally under automatic control and commonly at an elevated location, which “hears” my signal on one frequency, and simultaneously re-transmits it on another, offset, frequency. The other party is listening on that offset frequency, and responds on the first frequency (“the input”), when I am done, and I can listen, and hear them, on the offset frequency (“the output), as the repeater re-transmits their communications.

The radio I am using switches from the transmit, to the receive frequency automatically, when configured to do so. (Refer back a paragraph to the parameters comment). When you are “telling” your radio this, you are “setting the offset”.

2-meter refers to the approximate wavelength of one particular Amateur Radio frequency allocation on which it is designed to operate. The frequencies are from 144 MegaMertz (abbreviated MHz) to 148 MHz. This is in the Very High Frequency (VHF) portion of the electromagnetic (radio) frequency range, and is very popular among hams for local communications. (see the discussion of “shortwave”, below) Repeaters allow your re-transmitted signal to reach considerably farther than your unaided radio can communicate. VHF, and higher frequencies tend to be line of sight, and the elevation allows the repeater antenna to “see” farther, which correlates to greater range.

Since TDW does NOT desire holes in her vehicle, for an antenna she employs a magnet mount antenna, running the coaxial cable through a door, relying on the rubber seal to prevent rain intrusion. That works pretty well. On my truck, I have mounted a “headache rack”, to which are permanently mounted (through drilled holes) my antennas, with the coax routed into the vehicle through manufacturer installed gaskets on the back of the cab.

A long time ago, living in another town, I thought that it might be, well, “disadvantageous” should I advertise that I had radio(s) in my vehicle. In addition, my employer at the time had a parking garage, with relatively low ceilings, particularly compared to the height of a deployed vehicle antenna for the 2 meter band on the cab of a pickup truck.

I elected an on glass antenna for my one radio, and a magnet mounted antenna for my second radio. The on glass antenna protruded, say, 18 inches above the roof of the truck. The mag mount I removed, inverted, and placed between the cab and topper of the truck, leaving only the magnet nearly flush with the roof of the cab and topper. The radios I concealed within the console of the truck.

A mobile radio can also be operated from your home (simply feed it 12 volts from a AC-to-DC power supply made for such a purpose, or a 12 volt battery, connect to an antenna outside of your house, and you are ready to go). One of the axioms of Ham radio is that antenna height provides a great deal of range per dollar spent. An antenna on top of your house provides increased range comparable to using 5 times increase power, comparing a 25 watt mobile with a vehicle rooftop antenna, to the same antenna on top of a 40 foot roof. Artsci has a way to estimate range. (Artsci is a publisher of amateur repeater mapbooks, among other books)

Amateur radio operators can only communicate with other licensed amateurs on Ham frequencies, but the extended receive commonly found in ham radios allows you to monitor other communications. For example, a 2-meter handy talkie can only transmit on Ham frequencies, but typically can monitor MURS (unlicensed 2 watt radios used by stores, for example) or local fire dispatch information, since this is commonly sent to volunteer firefighters’ pagers over frequencies near to Ham frequency allocations.

On a wintry day, knowing that the firefighters have been sent to a collision on the road you are traveling, might be handy to know!

Once you have your own Amateur Radio License, you can communicate with other hams. This can be useful, for example, when severe weather threatens. Skywarn is a long-time means of Hams to contribute to the safety of their communities. TDW and I are trained weather spotters, and found the class to be interesting. Since The Un-Named Flyover State (TUFS) has it’s share of dramatic weather, being able to listen to, and participate in, Skywarn radio nets (where several Hams report over a local repeater on significant weather happenings so this information can be forwarded to the National Weather Service) can be helpful.

So, one time TDW and I were driving home from a camping trip. The Weather Service had predicted the potential for strong winds, and perhaps severe thunderstorms which bring with them the risk of tornadoes. So, there we were, motoring home, and I had checked in to a Skywarn net in one of the counties that we were traversing. TDW mentioned that, as she gazed out of the window at the stormy sky, some of the clouds appeared to have rotation (an indication of a developing tornado). She picked up the microphone and identified herself. Once the net control operator recognized her, she reported the rotation, which led to a conversation, over the radio, regarding where exactly we were (she told him), the particulars of her observation, and requests for other Ham radio operators to report their observations relevant to our report.

Fortunately, we were heading upwind, and therefore out of (potential) harm’s way.

Another time, the family and I were camping in South Dakota. The skies began to look questionable, and I turned on my mobile Amateur radio, and consulted my repeater directory. This is a book which lists the Amateur radio repeaters, grouped by frequency and location. Having so consulted the directory, I could tell that, from our campground in Custer State Park, the nearest Skywarn repeater was in the town of Custer, and I found that I could reach it, once I entered the frequency.

I heard a weather spotter net in progress, and overheard one Amateur reporting funnel clouds, in a location north and east of our location. My wife and children were gathered around, and so my wife and I planned our emergency course of action. Since the State of South Dakota had provided us with sturdy-looking brick bath houses, we would select one, enter it and secure ourselves in the bathroom farthest from any wall that we could find, to wait out the storm, should it appear that we were downrange.

Other campers noticed our impromptu huddle, and one wandered over to ask what game we were listening to. When he received our explanation, and the advice, “If you see us hotfooting it to the bathroom, you and your family ought to do likewise!”, he hurried off to consult with his own family.

Fortunately, we had no close calls of any sort, but the advanced warning provided by the weather net provided plenty of peace of mind that evening.

A couple of days later, I was able to repay our Ham hosts “hospitality”, as we volunteered to serve as a communications point for a local bike race, held the following weekend. Community service is a good thing!

Once you begin to study for your 35 question Technician license, you will learn that speaking in to the microphone is called “phone” mode of communication. You have likely heard the “beeps” and “boops” of Morse code. That mode is called telegraphy, and is the radio equivalent of the wireline telegraphy of the 19th century. Other modes are digital, including television, generally “slow scan”, which transmits an image over several seconds. There are several other modes, including APRS (or Automatic Position Reporting System). This automatically transmits your position, on an FM frequency, based upon an attached GPS receiver. It can accommodate short text style messages.

I suppose that everybody is aware of shortwave (most commonly, frequencies between 1.8 MHz and 30 MHz. These frequencies have the capability of being reflected off of the ionosphere, leading to globe circling potential, when conditions are right. There are several modes commonly in use, with Morse code and phone being high profile. A cursory internet search led to multiple web pages explaining various modes, but this one, “” appears to present a simple overview of mode choices, in plain English.

So, in summary, most new Hams get started on FM (voice) on 2 meters (one band). One place to begin is with a hand held radio, although, once you get started, you have many, many choices to make, should you choose to broaden your radio horizons.

Of course, there is the choice to obtain your license, and simply listen to others’ conversations. On a (for instance) weather net, that might be entirely suitable. Here in The Un-Named Fly Over State, having an amateur radio license places you in compliance with our state’s “scanner law”, and allows you to monitor local fire dispatch, as The Darling Wife and I do, in order to enhance our situational awareness. You might elect to do likewise.

Or, volunteer to help make your community safer. Many Hams are CERT volunteers, Weather Spotters, or may volunteer their time performing communication tasks for a marathon, bicycle race, or other community event.

DISCLAIMER: I mention particular brands, or models of radio, simply because I have had personal experience with that brand, or model, of radio. Every radio I have used, either has been a gift from TDW, who purchased it at retail, or I purchased it myself, at retail.

About The Author
Reltney McFee holds a General class HAM license, and is a Mid Level provider in a clinic in Fly Over Country. He has been an Emergency Department RN for 30 + years, an EMT for a Large City Fire department, and has volunteered at different rural fire department rescue services.