From time to time we will feature a special operating skills essay, a short discussion of a topic related to building better operating habits on the air. There has always been a need to learn operating skills in amateur radio, but a great deal has changed over the history of radio, so the skills necessary must also follow this changing technology.
Some operating skills are very basic and one might think that they have changed little over the years. But remember, all of you old timers out there, newcomers to amateur radio now enter the hobby in a much different way than you did -- or I did, for that matter. When I got interested in radio as a teenager, the thing to do was listen to short-wave radio. Many hours were spent listening on the air and learning about how to operate by simply hearing stations use their call signs, make contacts with other stations local and distant, or using those new things called "repeaters" on the VHF band. A licensing exam for a "Novice" license included a five word per minute Morse code exam. You were expected to get on the air and operate, learning as you went, for a specified time, after which you had to take the General Class exam or else find yourself another hobby. The system promoted the learning of basic operating skills from the beginning.
That is not the case today.
Newcomers to amateur radio today generally don't even own short-wave receivers. Some may have listened to repeater traffic on VHF/UHF scanning radios, but their listening experience doesn't come close to being the same kind of experience many of us had on the short-wave bands decades ago. The Novice Class examination is long gone from the requirements, as is any kind of Morse code exam. Now, don't get me wrong; I am not complaining about these changes at all. Change is a normal part of life and we all realize that technology, including amateur radio, must change and evolve over the years. Unfortunately, even though our licensing process and structure has changed and technology has evolved radically, we have really not managed to figure out a way to teach basic operating skills before our newly-licensed hams press the push to talk button for the first time. Furthermore, the experience most Technician Class operators will have on repeater systems will not adequately train them in operating skills suitable for the HF bands. This has resulted in a situation where General and even Extra Class operators can be very weak in what we once considered basic operating techniques.
Fortunately, today we have more resources than ever to teach operating skills. The personal computer and the Internet offer vast resources and great potential. We can produce audio and video lectures to train people in basic operating. Radio clubs can have websites with "how-to" links. Amateur radio websites around the world offer help if only you can figure out how to find it. Helpers and teachers (Elmers) can connect with a person needing help using many different Internet tools, including e-mail reflectors, social networking sites, and Echolink-enabled repeater systems. VoIP systems like Skype can connect a newcomer needing some personal help in operating skills with an experienced operator on a one on one basis. The problem is that the application of this technology is scattered and inconsistent. Some radio clubs might be quite aggressive in helping their new members learn how to operate, while others do not. Some newcomers to amateur radio are able to figure things out for themselves, while others start out with bad habits and never seem to change.
What can you or I do about this?
Training excellent amateur radio operators begins at home. I have a mirror, and I look at myself in it every day. Sometimes I don't like what I see and I know that I have to make changes. The same is true with my own amateur radio operating skills. From time to time, I need to just think about how I am doing things and about how I might do them better. Listening on the air to operators who really know how to conduct a net or snag a DX contact can really show me how other operators with better skills in these areas than mine succeed where I might not be doing so well. Listen, listen, listen. Think to yourself about how you can change your operating technique to more closely match that of the best operator you hear on the air.
Clubs and organizations can help, too. Offer club programs or even small study groups that promote operating skills. Do tabletop exercises, simulating on the air operation. Recognize good operating with awards. Use the Internet to promote good operating by including operating articles and tips on the club website. Develop on the air opportunities like practice nets where club members can develop their skills. The key to helping other people learn is to be helpful but non-judgmental. Learning takes place best in a non-stressful situation, so beginning with tabletop exercises where the mistakes people might make will not go out over the repeater system is a good idea.
I would like to hear some ideas from our readers and listeners about what has worked for you and for your local radio club as you bring newcomers into the fold. From time to time, I will be writing one of these short essays about some kind of operating skill. We will do our best to make a good operator out of each and every Handiham member. Some of you may have an idea for a unique and creative way to run a small operating skills class. Please share those ideas with us so that we can help make amateur radio better.
Patrick Tice, WA0TDA