The Amateur Amateur: Frequency -- the Movie

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
Novemberctober 15, 2001

The movie Frequency employed ham radio as a plot device. The film now is available in video, just in time for the holidays.

Dennis Quaid

Dennis Quaid stars as Frank Sullivan in the New Line Cinema thriller, Frequency

It's not too early to start thinking about Christmas, so I started looking through catalogs for gift ideas. While perusing the video release sections I noticed that the movie Frequency was now available. That brought back some good memories. Here is what I wrote about the movie when I first saw it.

Amateur Radio, as any other endeavor, likes good press. I had heard that the recent movie Frequency was supposed to be about ham radio but had not heard whether it portrayed the hobby in good or less-than-favorable terms. Nancy and I decided to check it out for ourselves.

Let me tell you right away that the movie was engrossing. I can say that without fear of contradiction. We saw the movie on a Friday night in a small rural Missouri town. The theater was packed with teenagers engaged in every activity except watching the movie, and I still enjoyed it. That's about the highest accolade I can give a film.

The question, though, is how did the movie portray Amateur Radio. The initial answer would be "not so good," since the main character said of ham radio, "Nobody does that any more." Once the movie got past that first negative statement, however, things picked up. In fact, it described a number of things that I never knew about Amateur Radio.

FACT #1: An old, long unused ham radio can be turned on, and it will work fine without an antenna or even electrical power.

Well, perhaps it had something to do with the aurora borealis (northern lights) being visible in New York City. They did say that there were unusual solar conditions. High solar activity was used to explain a number of strange phenomena. For example . . .

FACT #2:

It is possible to talk to someone in the future using a ham radio.

This is not an everyday occurrence, of course. Aside from the mandatory presence of the aurora borealis, the operator must use the 15-meter band, and the Mets must win the World Series. Naturally, only Extra class operators are allowed to contact the future.

I was suspicious of the inclusion of the Mets in the movie. Everyone knows that baseball movies are about magic (see Field of Dreams and The Natural), and we hams like to keep our radio phenomena strictly in the realm of science (or at least science fiction).

The movie was not just a treatise in weird radio, though. It was a bona fide murder mystery and thriller. The plot was good, and the characters were well-developed. Non-radiophiles would definitely enjoy it.

Despite being enthralled by the plot, I was a little disturbed that so much of the movie had to do with unlicensed use of the ham bands. But then I realized the movie makers had found a loophole in Part 97:

FACT #3: Unlicensed operations are allowed in emergencies or when communicating with the dead. I was not the only one who learned some amazing facts. Even one of the central characters learned that:

FACT #4:

When communicating with the future, your microphone switch won't work.

Well, of course not! The guy in the future was already using it! I suspect that cross-time ham operations are strictly QRP (low power). The person in the future and the person in the past were literally using the same radio and the same antenna. That would explain why there was no pileup of hams trying get a QSL card from the future. The effective range of the transmissions were 0 miles, 0 feet, 0 inches, and 30 years (plus or minus).

The same character also learned . . .

FACT #5:

Smoking cigarettes will slowly kill you. Smoking a warehouse will kill you even faster.

James Caviezel

James Caviezel stars as John Sullivan, Frank Sullivan's son, in Frequency.

I know that has nothing to do with ham radio, but the moviemakers were apparently trying to appeal to fire buffs as well.

Getting back to radio matters, we saw something that is never seen these days . . .

FACT #6:

Ham operators of the past could actually repair radios.

One of the main characters was so good, in fact, that he managed to repair a radio that was 30 years in the future. Well, it's true that it was an old Heathkit model. You could actually see the internal components, unlike the newer high-tech radio components, which can only be seen with a scanning electron microscope.

I said that the movie was a thriller, and it certainly was. The end involved a lot of action, mayhem, morphing household furniture, and the past and present getting mixed up. In case you haven't seen the movie yet, I won't say anything more, other than . . .

FACT #7:

Psychopathic killers shouldn't mess with ham radio operators, not even dead ones.

For more information on Frequency, visit the Frequency Web site.

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name-- "The Amateur Amateur"--suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers may contact the author via email.

© 2001 American Radio Relay League

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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