Welcome to Handiham World!
...And welcome to a new era of challenges for radio clubs.
What do I mean by that?
Well, if you have to ask, you might not be that tuned in to your local club's activities. Radio clubs provide a means for you and I to get together with like-minded folks who appreciate amateur radio and who enjoy learning new things through club programs, keeping up their operating skills through club nets and activities, socializing with other radio amateurs, or being part of public service activities - to name just a few of the more obvious ones. I know that I have learned a lot about useful things that have helped me out in ham radio, thanks to the presentations at my local radio club.
Pictured: Greg Widin, K0GW, ARRL Dakota Division Director, gives a club program presentation on lightning and grounding.
"A club is an association of two or more people united by a common interest or goal." Thanks, Wikipedia! Of course we seldom think of clubs in terms of only two people. Usually a radio club is larger - sometimes much larger - and there may be several distinct interest groups within the club. The club may own some equipment, such as special tools for antenna work, a repeater system, a club station, training materials and equipment, and more.
Meeting space. If you have a club of only a few members, this isn't a big deal. Clubs of a dozen or fewer members have lots of choices, up to and including private homes. Typically, a radio club will have a membership that is too large to be accommodated anywhere but a more formal meeting space, and that means casting about for a venue. With a demographic that includes aging baby boomers, a club definitely wants to have a meeting space that is accessible to those who might use wheelchairs or who are unable to climb stairs. You also want electricity, good lighting, and quiet space. Internet is a bonus, but if it is not available, it isn't exactly a deal-killer. The challenge is finding the space at an affordable price! Back in the day, meeting spaces were plentiful and free for the asking, especially to small public service or special interest clubs like ham radio groups. Venues might include the local school, church halls, service organization halls, and municipal or county buildings. It is not so easy today. The economy is down. Every venue is looking to raise extra cash, so the days of free meeting space might just be in the rear view mirror! And permanent space with room for a club station - wow, that is REALLY hard to find these days. I know that several clubs have either lost or given up their space for club meetings and stations due to the press for more revenue or other activities related to the needs of the landlord or host organization.
Apathy. This one drives club officials nuts. And it's nothing new, of course. There have always been club members who would rather jump out a window than put together a club program or write an article for the newsletter. But it's worse now than ever before, and it's related to number three on my list, which I'll tell you about shortly. Suffice it to say that there are all too many hams out there who think it is a major hassle to even join a club, much less actively participate.
Overworked club members. Yes, this one has always been around because some club members take on way more than their share of club duties. But the reason it is worse than ever before goes back to the world economic downturn that started in 2007. As the economic woes gathered, companies and organizations began trimming their workforces. Everyone seemed to be affected, no matter what the industry, and those who were still working felt lucky to have jobs. Those who lost their jobs, ham radio operators among them, tightened their belts and didn't spend anything extra on their radio hobby. Back at the workplace, those who still had jobs were doing the work of their old job plus that of a co-worker or two, since there were now not enough people on staff to get everything done. That meant longer, harder hours at work, and less time for amateur radio club activities. I have been a ham since 1967, and this is the first time I have been hearing about this phenomenon from other hams who feel too pressed to participate in club activities as they once did.
Recruiting. A club will fade away if it does not attract new members to replace those who die, lose interest, or move out of the area. Yet this aspect of club life is often left on the sidelines, going unnoticed until all of a sudden it seems as if there is no longer a reason to have regular club meetings. Recruiting is challenging in a world of worldwide internet connectivity with VoIP and other activities that mimic worldwide radio communication.
What can be done?
Remember that whatever needs doing, you do not have to do it all yourself. Leverage the manpower you do have by using the resources available at ARRL, which has lots of advice and ideas about clubs, club organization, and recruiting. Let's take a closer look at each challenge:
A strategy to make meeting space more available is to make your club stand out above and beyond the others who might be competing for the same space. For example, if you are meeting in the county law enforcement center, you can make a better case for meeting space because your club supports emergency communications, Skywarn training and weather spotting, and public service communications. You are making sure that your club's mission is aligned with that of the meeting space owner! No matter who hosts your meeting space, remember that it is wise to give back to your host in some way. If you are using a church hall for your meetings, perhaps the church needs volunteers for a clean up day or help at the church picnic. If you are lucky enough to get a special meeting room at a restaurant, everyone should buy a meal or at least spend a reasonable few bucks to make sure the restaurant owner turns a profit. The key? Be the best meeting space user you can be, and you will have more choices!
Apathy is hard to cure. In fact, I don't even care anymore.
Ha, ha, I am just kidding about that not caring part, of course! I look at the programs and activities as the "good stuff" associated with a radio club. The other more pedestrian activities like the business meeting don't really interest many of us. It's the program on the DXpedition or the special event station that draws club members to the meetings. If your club has apathy oozing out of every nook and cranny, I'm willing to bet that your club doesn't host good programs. Finding good presenters isn't a given; the really good ones make the rounds but have limited time and resources. Most of your club's programs and activities will ultimately come from within the club itself, and that means finding the right club member - one who is a really enthusiastic and positive go-getter - to do the going and getting. By that I mean they need to observe the membership, noting what areas of interest and expertise there are within the club. Then they have to recruit the guy who knows about antennas to give a talk. Apathy is something you chip away at by slowly building your circle of presenters. The more varied the topics, the better. Like the offerings on a menu at an excellent restaurant, there will soon be something for everyone at the club meetings.
The problem of club members who are stressed out by their work schedules will not be solved at the radio club, but I think it is reasonable for those members who are retired or who have a bit more time to step up to the plate and take on some of those extra club duties. We need to appreciate that those in their working years are trying to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5 pound bag these days, and are often also raising families with all of the obligations and demands on their time that those things require. Yes, those people are sometimes willing to take on club duties, but they are subject to "burn out" if they don't get a little help. Next time you are at your radio club meeting and something needs doing, raise your hand. Lead by example.
Recruiting is vital, but how does a club go about it? I have seen several once active and vital radio clubs fade into obscurity and finally disband. Others have been successful in maintaining and growing their membership numbers. What is the secret?
Well, there are several, really. You have to understand the world around you - no small feat, that. What it means is knowing that amateur radio has a lot of competition for hobbyists who want to experiment with electronics. It means understanding that on line video gaming, so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), include elements of world-wide communication, cooperation, competition, scoring points, and community-building that are found in traditional amateur radio. There is, in other words, a lot of competition out there. Knowing what you are up against makes it easier to figure out how to package amateur radio and your radio club to better draw people in. If you want to make ham radio attractive to anyone under 100, you'd better start thinking of some interesting activities, outreach to school science teachers, high-profile cooperative ventures with other groups... I think you get the idea. My own local club drew some university students in by participating in tracking high-altitude balloon flights via APRS.
Another recruiting strategy is to offer Technician courses to the general public. We schedule ours right after a Skywarn course in the Spring, just before severe weather season kicks in. The classes are free, but the participants buy their own books. Graduates are invited to join our club. Education is one of the most important indicators of a club's health. Show me a club without an education program, and I'll show you a meeting room that will soon be available for a group of rock hounds or stamp collectors. Seriously, you have to offer classes or your club is toast. Again, check out the excellent resources on the ARRL website for tips on teaching and for resources like math help. Most importantly, say "YES!" when asked if you will be part of your club's education and training team.
Your job? Make getting on the air with amateur radio sound like it's at least as much fun as World of Warcraft®.
Go get 'em, tiger!