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Changing times, changing Radio CampRadio Camp has been a core part of the Handiham program, but it has not always been the same over the years. How can it change with the times? How is ham radio changing?
For the two decades plus that I have worked for Courage Center, the Handiham Radio Camps have been changing, but they have always included licensing classes and have been around a week long. I think the shortest was five full days; most were seven or even eight if you counted the two halves of the travel days. We offered a California camp and a Minnesota camp each year. The last California session was in 2008, just as the Great Recession was peeking above the horizon. Little did we know at that time how devastating that recession would be and how it would cause us to pull back some of our services. California camp was an early casualty, but we have managed to keep the Minnesota camp intact. Now, with the June 2012 camp session behind us, we must consider what we can do to make Radio Camp successful in 2013.
Before I tell you my ideas, I'd like to take a look at some trends in ham radio and life in general, so bear with me. Remember that what constitutes a "trend" isn't always easy to define. Sometimes things change gradually over a long period of time - many years or decades, even centuries or millennia - while others change over a matter of months or a few years. It can be hard to tell when something is a short term trend or whether it is "permanent" for all practical purposes. Here are some trends that I have noticed:
- It is harder than ever to get people to commit to club meetings and organized group activities.
- The city parks and playgrounds are often nearly empty on a nice summer day.
- There are many two meter amateur radio repeaters with almost no activity.
- It seems as if every driver I see is talking on a cell phone.
- Two things that are getting hard to find are cassette tapes and photographic film.
- "LOL" has entered the vernacular.
- There is a lot of gray hair at ham club meetings.
- There is a lot of gray hair at lots of non-ham meetings.
- Most of us throw stuff out rather than getting it fixed.
- Social networks like Facebook are growing.
Consider this: Ham Radio is a social network, and it predates Facebook by nearly a hundred years. It has many of the elements that web-based social networks do, including making friends and communicating with them on a regular basis, sharing news and information about other interests, and building technology. The "Amateur's Code" was originally written by Paul M. Segal, W9EEA. in 1928. One of its main tenets is that the amateur is "BALANCED... Radio is a hobby never interfering with duties owed to his family, job, school or community." Even in the early days of Amateur radio, it was observed that one could go overboard and miss out on real life by becoming too engaged in radio. Perhaps this wisdom should be applied to the digital distractions that empty out the city parks and playgrounds, and drain away participation from civic engagement. People are really, really connected these days. They cannot even drive around the block without making a phone call. Children have cell phones, and they communicate through interactive features in video games.
Digital technology has married portability with computing. And NOTHING has escaped the long reach of the computer. It has gobbled up technologies like cassette tapes and photographic film and replaced them with digital audio and digital photography. It has transformed most areas of human endeavor. It has even changed our language to accommodate the compactness of texting. And with digital cellular service, all of this is available to nearly everyone near urban areas (which is most of us), at any hour of the day or night.
Yes, we are digitized and connected. We can stay in touch with our circle of friends without ever being in the same place.
Is that good?
Well, yes, to a point. But the problem is that we are so connected that we get overloaded. No wonder we don't look forward to a club meeting or a night out to dinner with friends. No wonder the playground is empty when the kiddos are thumbing away at their video game controllers in the family room. And no wonder the age of amateur radio operators is on the rise - there is lots of competition for engagement by other social networks and our ever-connected culture. Other clubs - not just radio clubs - have also seen their average age go up and up as young people just don't engage as much as they once did in a pre-digital era.
How has ham radio changed?
Ham radio is still a social network, but it is augmented by web-based social networks. Every ham radio operator on Facebook or Google Plus eventually uses these networks to discuss ham radio. Computing has transformed ham radio, with rig control, VoIP communications linking repeaters and computer users with smartphone users, and much more - too much to mention here. Digital technology has also made things cheap enough to replace rather than repair - and sometimes even to replace just because the new gear is magnitudes better, even though nothing is wrong with the old rig! All in all, while digital technology has been good to ham radio, it has sometimes been bad for ham radio in that it has buried everyone in constant connectivity that saps our will to participate in yet more communications. This gives us dead repeaters and sometimes poorly-attended meetings and events.
What about Radio Camp?
Radio Camp is quite a commitment for the campers, who have to take a week of their time at sometimes considerable expense if a lot of travel is involved, to attend. The camp session is also expensive to host, considering the preparation and camp rental along with a laundry list of other costs. Volunteers also incur similar expenses. Clearly this is a high-stakes event, so we need to make sure we are understanding the trends here. Is increased ever-connectedness growing and here to stay? It seems so. Is digital technology here to stay, along with increasing miniaturization and consolidation of functions? That seems a solid long-term trend as well. Is the marriage between ham radio and computing going to last? I'd say yes to that one, too. As I type this, I'm listening to 2O12L special event station calling CQ. The signal is being received by the Handiham TS-590S radio, remotely controlled via the internet.
Trending at Radio Camp...
So what seems to be trending at Radio Camp? For at least 10 years we have seen interest in the Operating Skills courses grow while in recent years it has become obvious that licensing courses are struggling. 2012 became a year without anyone attending camp to earn the Extra Class license. Operating Skills campers far outnumbered those who attended to study for a first license or upgrade. Let's summarize and speculate on two camp trends:
- It is harder to attract campers who are interested in the licensing courses. We have to be careful here because we can't assume that our Handiham members are no longer interested in licensing and upgrades to higher licenses, but they are less interested in doing so at a camp session and more likely to do it by using the on line audio lectures we offer at Handiham.org.
- There is growing interest in Operating Skills. This is at least a 10 to 15 year trend, and it may be driven by the new technologies and the desire to learn more about them as well as the need to simply meet other Handiham members in person and to have a week of fun. Camp has always been a place to meet old friends and make new ones, and our electronic connectivity can keep us connected after the camp session ends. Campers understand the balance between the real and the virtual and know that virtual cannot be a substitute for the real-life experience of attending camp in person. People are wanting to build real communities again!
So what do we learn from these trends?
Let's put it this way: "The customer is always right", as the old saying goes. Smart businesses listen to their customers and give them more of what they want. And what our campers want is more ham radio fun and less studying for licenses. What I propose is this:
- We continue to serve all of our Handiham members with our audio lectures for licensing or upgrades. Even those without computers can get our audio on Library of Congress digital player cartridges.
- This frees us to build and expand Operating Skills in the camp sessions.
- With more classrooms free because we don't offer licensing classes, we can get our op skills people into separate spaces in small groups that make it easier to use the radios or have a discussion.
- Our instructors don't have to worry about cramming an entire licensing class into a week and can concentrate on teaching operating procedures.
- We will have more time for traditional camp activities and the pontoon boat, plus field trips.
- We can set up more stations so that people with different skill levels and interests can get on the air more without waiting so long for a seat at the operating position.
- The Technician course would be replaced with a "Technician study group". This would be a way to include a small number of unlicensed Handiham members in the week of Radio Camp, but it would only be a study group, not a complete course. There would be no more "Go to camp and get your license in a week." Everyone there would have to be studying elsewhere prior to camp.
- VE Session: Maybe we have one, maybe not. We will see how this idea develops, but dropping the VE session gives us more time on the last day of camp to do our regular activities. The low pass rates in recent years do show that our traditional model of licensing classes is not effective. It might be better to review at camp and send the Tech students home to finish their studies and take the exams from their local VE teams.
- The emphasis will be on having fun through the week and being part of a community of friends. Learning can be fun, so we will learn about new things in Amateur Radio and learn how to be better radio operators.
Patrick Tice, WA0TDA