Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Handiham World for 23 July 2008

Welcome to Handiham World!

Photo: Will, KC0LJL, holds up a sign that says "Courage Center Handiham System" at Dayton. This is the place to find out about any and every interest in amateur radio, but not every ham radio club can do it all. Should your club be a "special interest" amateur radio club? Or should it be a general-purpose club with no special concentration on a given type of operating or purpose?

Will, KC0LJL, holds up Handiham signIf you have been an amateur radio operator for quite a long time, you know that there is an ebb and flow to ham radio activities and interests. There is a clear seasonal difference between summertime amateur radio and wintertime amateur radio. As a teenager, I was extremely busy during the summertime, because I enjoyed experimenting with antennas. Conditions might not have been the best for long-distance communications on the lower HF frequency bands, but that didn't matter to me. Other amateur radio operators simply hung up their headphones until the cool, crisp days of autumn brought them back into their ham shacks. During the hottest weeks of summer, even antenna work was problematic for me. The local ham radio club suspended meetings during the summer anyway, so it was truly the "dog days of summer". Even today, decades later, many radio clubs still follow the same pattern of taking the summer off. People want to get outdoors and enjoy summer activities, band conditions are generally poor, aside from sporadic E-skip, and (even worse) we are stuck at the very bottom of the sunspot cycle with new cycle 24 taking its sweet time getting started.

As usual, my main amateur radio activity during the summer has been operating VHF mobile, checking into some regional HF nets, and doing a bit of antenna maintenance in the backyard -- hardly a frenzy of amateur radio operation! I didn't expect the e-mail I got from our local club president seeking the opinion of each and every club member about what kind of activities we would like to see in the upcoming "ham radio season".

The e-mail asked, "what kind of a club would you like us to be?"

Now, that sort of took me by surprise. What kind of club did I want to be in? Would it be an amateur radio club that is primarily a social organization, where I meet friends face-to-face on a monthly basis and participate in on the air social nets? Would it be a club that is more focused on competition and contesting, perhaps sponsoring its own contests and offering awards? Maybe a club that is dedicated to technical and engineering excellence, including building and experimentation, would be more fun and might be more attractive to newcomers interested in learning about electronics and engineering. We wouldn't want to forget about public service, either. The club would probably be interested in supporting SKYWARN training, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service, participating in public service communications for non-emergency events like parades and bicycle races, and working with government organizations and public utilities in shared training programs. Maybe the club would want to direct its efforts toward specific parts of the spectrum and modes of operation, such as VHF and UHF. Or perhaps DX should be a main focus.

There is no doubt that a successful amateur radio club is able to define its scope and purpose to meet the needs of its membership. This e-mail just appeared in my inbox, so I am still thinking about it. While I enjoy all of the aspects of a social club, I realize that simply visiting and enjoying a cup of coffee with other club members is not going to be enough for those who are interested in serious amateur radio competition on the air or members who are interested in building equipment or designing antennas. The question then becomes, "What is the right mix of amateur radio activities for MY club?"

Here is the thing you have to understand about specialization versus generalization: In an environment like a large urban area with high tech industries and a robust economy, there are likely to be more specialized activities, and I don't just mean in amateur radio. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, you will find your choice of specialized food stores and coffee shops, just as you will amateur radio clubs with specialized goals and interests. If you live in Podunk, you are probably going to have to buy your cup of coffee at the gas station on the corner of Elm Street and the main highway, and the nearest radio club will be 10 miles away in a somewhat larger city, and the population of amateur radio operators in the area will be too small to make up a group that is anything but a general-interest amateur radio club. The forces of demographics will not be denied! Furthermore, even in an urban area where there is a choice of perhaps six to eight amateur radio clubs, over half of them may be general-interest, rather than having any sort of specialized purpose. If there is a club in your urban area that is specialized, chances are that its geographic reach is much larger than the city limits, and it may be statewide or regional, or even national in its reach for membership.

These are the thoughts that are swirling around in my head as I wonder about how to answer our club president's e-mail. I enjoy more than one amateur radio activity and would hate to see the club get too specialized. On the other hand, my QTH is in the greater Twin Cities area, which has a variety of clubs from which to choose. I wouldn't want to stubbornly stand in the way of a club changing its focus, when clearly there are other members who might be energized by such a change. I guess I'll continue to think about this before weighing in on the subject. In the meantime, I wonder if your local ham radio club ever does this sort of polling of its members to see if interests are being served, if the club is on the right track, or if there might be something that needs to be changed. Summertime, the ham radio doldrums, may not be the best time to get on the air, but I'm pretty sure that you can still sit on the patio with a glass of lemonade and contemplate what should happen in your radio club after summer vacation.

Patrick Tice
Handiham Manager