Dr. Brian Robert Callahan

academic, developer, with an eye towards a brighter techno-social life


Why I got my amateur radio license in 2020

A small detour from the usual programming to talk about my recent adventures into amateur radio. I recently obtained my Amateur Extra class license (callsign: AD2BA), the highest license level for US amateur radio operators, and I think it's worthwhile to explore my thinking. This should not be read as "why you should get your amateur radio license in 2020." I am not you. You may not be interested in amateur radio and you might not be interested in my reasons. But if you think you might be interested in amateur radio, hopefully my thinking could help provide you clarity. I also want to talk about my experience with the process of obtaining my license and upgrades.

What is amateur radio?

While there is overlap between my usual open source Unix tech world and the amateur radio world, it might be worthwhile to quickly summarize what amateur radio is. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national association for amateur radio, defines amateur radio as "a popular hobby and service that brings people, electronics and communication together." And that is for sure true.

More specifically, it can be something close to whatever you want it to be. At the lower levels, you are mostly restricted to VHF/UHF bands (working local repeaters and VHF/UHF simplex) whereas as you progress through the license levels, more and more HF bands are available to you. But thinking about bands I don't find to be as meaningful as the FCC demands (to be clear: the amateur radio service is a self-policing service and the FCC can impose hefty fines on those who violate the rules).


I think a better way to think about things is about what aspects of our humanity sit at the intersection of people, electronics, and communication. Readers of this blog are hopefully aware that I am very much interested in electronics in all its forms: we've been exploring some interesting questions about how Unix binaries work. And I am very interested in communication: I'm a professor at $DAYJOB so I better figure out how to communicate to my students otherwise they won't learn the material. And yes, despite rumors to the contrary, I am in fact a person.

What a lot of people may not know is that earlier this summer, I went on a social media cleansing. Other than my Mastodon account, I deleted all my social media accounts. There just wasn't anything meaningful left for me on social media. The overcuration and corporatization on my timelines made it boring to scroll through—and removed any feeling of connection.

And I think for me that's the thing that sits at the intersection of people, electronics, and communication: connection. This is not really illuminating. Most people are looking for connection with their fellow humans. Amateur radio is one aspect of my greater journey this year to make more connections. Real connections. Not the trivial follow-this-account-but-never-interact type of connection. For me, connection happened on the very first day in the hobby.

The process

First, I want to take a moment to shoutout the Columbia University ARC VE Team (under ARRL/VEC) and AA7HW (under W5YI-VEC). I took my Technician and General exam with the Columbia University ARC VE Team and took my Amateur Extra exam with AA7HW. Hopefully, this blog post will make it to both groups. The process could not have been easier or smoother. And both groups could not have been nicer. Seriously, if you have any inclination to get your Technician license, the online testing has made it easier than ever. You can find testing sessions via HamStudy.org. Sessions do tend to fill up quickly but it's worth it.

I want to say first that I am not recommending you follow my study methodology. I came into the hobby already possessing a wealth of knowledge of electronics. After taking two practice exams, I was ready to take the Technician exam. I signed up for the very next exam session the Columbia University ARC VE Team was hosting. Though it was totally unnecessary, I figured that I would take the exam from a team in my state, and because it is very conceivable that I do go visit them (I do go down to NYC for NYC*BUG meetings, after all). Paying was quick and easy via PayPal and all that was left to do was wait until test day.

Test day came. The VE team was kind enough to email me early saying they were ready if I was ready; they had a few no-shows. I quickly hopped on, we said our hellos, the VE team played their obligatory pre-test rules video, and I was off. Passed the test quickly. And we ended up having a nice conversation afterwards because I had finished so quickly and they were waiting on the next person to arrive. I had not even been on their air yet and I already had a quality amateur radio conversation. First impressions are everything, and the VE team could not have made a better one introducing me to the hobby. I immediately registered to take the General exam on their next testing date, which I also passed. They let me take the Extra exam even though I said I wasn't ready, which was kind of them. I did not pass but I wasn't bothered by that.

I ended up taking the Amateur Extra exam about three weeks later: mostly due to me not having much time to study. The Columbia VE team was booked so I signed up for the next available exam with anyone, which happened to be AA7HW. And the same thing here too, the exam team could not have been nicer. They were all ready to congratulate me for passing the Extra exam before I even arrived. They did ask me to join their VE team. I'm not sure if they were serious or not but I said I would and I really meant it—if anyone from my exam team is reading this yes I'd be happy to join up with your VE team. I already sent in my paperwork to be a VE for ARRL/VEC. And thus the cycle continues. The kindness and enthusiasm—the connection—that was afforded to me in my exam journey now I have the opportunity to give back a thousand (or more, hopefully) fold.

And that was not all. One of the examiners told me about the Long Island CW Club and said that they would be very happy to have me. I've already joined. At every step on my journey so far, there were people who wanted to make connections. I've made more in a month than I have in a decade on social media. Sure, I might not be able to meet anyone, anywhere, at any time. But no one can do that, even with all the social media tools. Instead, while my pool may be reduced to self-selected amateur radio operators, it is still just as worldwide. And in an interesting way, more manageable.

Unexpected benefits

Since putting down the phone and picking up the radio, I have come to relearn some crucial bits of life. First and foremost, I have rediscovered the skill of listening. No, I don't agree with everything I hear on the local repeaters. But I don't find myself getting as angry or stressed. Hearing someone's voice is a powerful reminder that there is in fact another person on the other side. And even that is meaningful. There is no guessing if the person on the other end is a bot or not. And I can talk to them in a way where I'm not wondering if my words are being heard. Sure, it's not a perfect system. But I find it exceedingly difficult to attack someone when I am confronted with their humanity. I find myself wanting to listen. Still wanting to change minds when I don't agree. But doing so in a way that respects the other person's humanity. It is very possible that I am lucky in my local area. And I don't want people to think I have some romanticized ideal of amateur radio. There is still a lot of work to be done to improve our world. Perhaps I'm just designed to do that work on the local level. Perhaps I just need more humanity in my interactions.

I have also found that I have a lot more time on my hands. And a lot less stress. I don't worry about the tweets and posts that ultimately don't matter in the world. It has been a good reminder of just how little the multi-billion dollar social media industry is really worth: just about zero. I've also been able to read more, interact with a larger variety of news sources, and be able to really think about the things that matter to me. In a paradoxical way, by shrinking my world I have expanded my horizons. I think there's something we can learn from that.

I have also heavily reduced the amount of bombardment from advertising I encounter in my life. One of the nice things about amateur radio is that the airwaves are completely devoid of advertising (it's against the rules). Another small reclamation of our humanity. Some extra room for connection.

What's next

I joined my local amateur radio club and I look forward to meeting them in-person when the pandemic dies down. I'll be learning CW with the Long Island CW Club, which will expand my world and horizons without sacrificing connection. I plan on building some HF antennae. I'm really interested in transmitting slow-scan TV. And I have some thoughts about transmitting RTTY to control my computers.

Whatever I do next, it will be with people. Bringing people, electronics, and communication together to create connection.