The Amateur Amateur: Is It Really Too Easy Now?

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
November 2018

older model transceiver
No "siren mode" on this veteran

"Ham radio isn't what it used to be. Back then you needed knowledge and skills. Now, you don't need any knowledge at all. And skills? Ha! Push to talk!"

I'm sure you've heard that complaint at least once. You may have even made it yourself. And, at one time, I would have agreed with you.

But not any more.

I was at a radio meeting that featured a speaker explaining DMR. The first part of the talk was quite informative, but as the evening wore on, I found it harder and harder to follow the presentation. Somewhere along the way I decided that DMR wasn't for me. It seemed much too complicated to set up for what I wanted to get out of it.

And then it hit me. I'd been down this road before with NBEMS. And WinDRM. And Winlink, APRS, SSTV, PSK31 and a host of other modes and techniques. Sure, they worked, and some of them were kind of fun. But most of them took a whole lot of fiddling, finagling, and adjusting, and things often stopped functioning for no apparent reason. The amount of time I spent debugging those modes was much greater than the time I spent actually using them.

I was beginning to believe that Amateur Radio today was not easier than it was in days gone by.

You're probably shaking your head in disagreement right now.

Okay then, let's take a look at then and now.

We'll start with the equipment. I can sense you grinning right now. Obviously, today's equipment is much simpler and easier to use. But, think about it. Yesterday's equipment was big. You could read the dials. You could tell what each knob and switch did. Everything was labeled and usually performed just one function.

Today, every button, and even every knob has multiple functions. They are small, sometimes tiny. They are labeled with cryptic abbreviations, and the labels can only be read if the light is reflecting off of the panel at just the right angle. You have a 50-50 chance of hitting the wrong button or brushing against one by accident. And if you do, you will have no idea what you just did, let alone how to correct it.

Moreover, old rigs had big easy-to-read dials, versus today's tiny gray-on-gray LCD readouts.

Chinese hand-held radios
Sirens, flashlights, and squeaky voices

I will grant you that working the HF bands is not as difficult now. You do not need to set up a Frankensteinian electrical laboratory to operate (although some hams still do). And truthfully, today's ham doesn't need to know a whole lot about electricity, electronics, or the inner workings of the equipment. Today's operator can usually skip most of that.

Case closed, you are thinking.

But you haven't considered the new burdens that face the Amateur Radio operator of today. The biggest and often most irritating of these can be summed up with one word:


I'll bet that you cringed just now. Hey, I'm a career computer programmer, going all the way back to the days of card punches and paper tape, and even I cringed.

Today's radios have countless features, such as tones, offsets, groups, scanning and so forth. They have memories, and can store many frequencies. Even the simplest, cheapest transceiver has "feature overkill".

You can, of course, try to enter all of the necessary information manually. But that will probably result in a squeaky computerized voice alerting you that you've just ordered take-out meals for 146,520 people instead of entering the calling frequency. Either that, or you will put the radio into siren mode.

If you want to avoid the siren and Ms Squeaky, you will have to use a computer. And that means finding and connecting the right cable. There are no universal ones. Even cables that have the right connectors on them won't necessarily be wired correctly for your radio and computer.

RT Systems disc and cable
Commercially made cable and software

Once you have your computer, cable and radio configured correctly, you now have to figure out which software to use. There are a few free programs available, but a quick scan of Google or Facebook will reveal that "free" doesn't necessarily mean "bug-free".

Having spent little money and a lot of time, or a lot of money and a little time getting the correct cable and a reliable program, you will now need to enter all of the information you're going to need into your computer.

But wait, you say. I have a friend who already has the information on his computer. I just need to transfer it to my computer.

Well, okay. But unless the two of you have exactly the same make and model transceiver, you can anticipate spending a whole afternoon "adjusting" the data.

Right! Now you've made it this far, you're ready to upload the frequencies, settings, modes, tones and everything else into your radio. Generally speaking, this final step goes smoothly, but glitches have been known to happen.

Now, if you want to start working with one of the recently introduced digital modes, that's a whole new ball game.

So, what do you think now? Would an Amateur Radio operator from the past say we have it too easy? Or would he beat a hasty retreat back to his glowing tubes and rotary dials?

The answer may not be as obvious as you once thought.

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