Celebrating 100 Years Of Ham Radio

May 26, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2014 10:34 am

This month marks the centennial of the American Radio Relay League, the largest ham radio association in the United States. That means it will be a special year for the hundreds who converge annually on W1AW, a small station known as "the mecca of ham radio" in Newington, Conn., to broadcast radio signals across the globe.

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This month marks the centennial of the American Radio Relay League. That's the largest association of ham radio hobbyists in the United States. The group's headquarters are in Newington, Connecticut. Patrick Skahill of member station WNPR takes us now to the Mecca of ham radio, where each year hundreds of people converge and broadcast signals across the globe.

PATRICK SKAHILL, BYLINE: Sean Kutzko remembers his first time.

SEAN KUTZKO: I said my name is Sean and I'm a guest operator here and I'm really nervous. (Laughing). And the guy said, oh, don't worry you're doing fine, you'll get the hang of it.

SKAHILL: Kutzko is a ham radio operator with the American Radio Relay League. For decades, he's contacted others all across the globe - coral atolls in the South Pacific, even a research station in Antarctica. And even though he carries an iPhone in his pocket, for these calls, he doesn't need a two-year service plan.

KUTZKO: No Internet. No cell phone needed. None of that.

SKAHILL: That's because ham radios don't us transmission wires. They use nature's built in phone line - the ionosphere - reflecting speed of light signals from radios off the atmosphere, which can carry them thousands of miles.

KUTZKO: To be able to go out to a park somewhere and literally throw a length of wire into a tree and sit down and talk with somebody in, say, Italy, is endlessly thrilling to me.

SKAHILL: Today, Kutzko is sitting behind a microphone at W1AW. That's the station of the American Radio Relay League, a working memorial to the place where the nation's biggest ham radio group started in 1914. Hundreds visit each year to use the equipment and thousands call up the station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. Good morning, Sean. My name is Broad-Oscar-Bravo. I worked on the Whiskey-100-Alpha station there in early March. I hope you're having as much fun as I did. You're 5-9 here into Western Pennsylvania.

SKAHILL: 5-9 is a fancy way of saying hearing you loud and clear. It's how hams log call quality. But these calls aren't always social.


SKAHILL: Mike Corey is sitting in a studio next door. He works as the league's emergency preparedness and response manager and he's sending out Morse Code signals. In an emergency, it's a skill of my come in handy.

MIKE COREY: It's almost textbook now with a hurricane that you can expect for the first 72 hours communications will be disrupted.

SKAHILL: Corey says during Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy and the Boston Marathon Bombing, phone lines and cell towers were unreliable. But ham radio and America's network of more than 700,000 licensees still worked.

COREY: You of some amateur radio operators that may be in an emergency operations center, National Weather Service forecast office, at a Red Cross shelter. Others are at home. And those are really a tremendous asset because they provide the eyes on the ground in the neighborhood that is affected.

SKAHILL: Corey continues punching out transmissions. It's the middle of the day and the sun is bright, which means limited signal strength. He logs contacts all over the U.S. - Washington, Arizona, California - and for a brief second, one signal even comes in from Japan. It's kind of like being in an online chat room or messaging a stranger on Twitter. That's one reason Sean Kutzko hopes the league will last well past its 100th birthday.

KUTZKO: You know, it's 100 years of being the original social network, you know.

SKAHILL: A network of first responders and hobbyist who hope ham radios' fun and proven record during emergencies will carry it forward another hundred years. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Skahill in Hartford.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.