June 19, 2006
Ham Radio Fan Communities

Every day brings something new at the offices of The Ohio County Times-News (terrible Web site, but they have no interest in my helping them with it), the weekly newspaper in Kentucky that I'm working at part of the time this summer, in an effort to "get back to my journalism roots." And two surprise guests I had today seemed to have particular relevance with my work at C3--a pair of ham radio enthusiasts.

With all our buzz about new technology, we often forget that there are vibrant fan communities surrounding very old technology. Studies have been done to examine fan communities for outmoded or endangered technologies, such as the Fisher-Price PXL-2000 and the Apple Newton. And I'm sure there have been plenty of people, whether journalists or scholars, who have examined the national fascination with ham radios.

These guys, Felix Miles and Henry Morgan, were dedicating their performance in a nationwide ham radio competition this weekend to a ham contemporary who had died after falling while working on his radio antenna. We got into a discussion of the philosophy of the ham radio operators, and Felix told me that old school ham operators primarily like to communicate in Morse code and don't go for the voice communication that most "newbies" go for.

The fact that there are thousands of people around the country dedicated to what most people would consider a technology of the past, as with "Ten Four, Over and Out" on the CB, the telegraph, and--soon to be, if the massive switch to cell phones is any indication--the landline phone, is fascinating.

We discussed the move away from Morse code and Miles' own anger that modern ham radio operators no longer have to prove their competency with Morse code when getting an operator's license from the FCC.

My emphasis here at the C3 blog has been on content instead of the medium, more often than not, but we can't forget the importance of attachments to old technologies and distribution means. People become fascinated with vinyl records and eight tracks, and a beloved member of our department here at CMS often treks out his Beta player to show us clips of old television shows, even when many of these shows are available on DVD.

What is it about these old technologies that fascinate us? These ham radio operators give part of their life over to keeping this technology alive and vibrant, and it's aided the country substantially during natural disasters, etc., with ham radio operators creating a communication chain. But people are willing to give part of their lives--and even their lives--through maintenance of radios and antennas. As much as any brand, these outmoded technologies seem to connect with people's lives in fundamental ways, and even specific brands develop continued brand communities surrounding them, long after they have outlived their major pragmatic usefulness.


On June 22, 2006 at 10:59 AM, Max Dawson said:

As a collector/fan of old Polaroid cameras, I agree that there is something haunting or poignant - almost tragic - about "failed" or outmoded media technologies. They capture in their material form a design aesthetic that speaks of a lost moment in the past, and of a lost vision of future media technologies. When I hold an old Land Camera, I'm struck by how its "outmodedness" in this moment of digital photography brings into relief the future inscribed into its surfaces and the user imagined by its form. Not to mention the fact that I love to look at the goofy hairstyles of the models in the instruction manual!

On the topic of ham radio, Kristen Haring has published an excellent article on the gender dynamics of the ham hobby and the sometimes bitter, sometimes humorous negotiations that hams (a predominantly male population back then) and their wives engaged in over where to locate radio technology in the home at midcentury.

Check out Kristen Haring, "The "Freer Men" of Ham Radio: How a Technical Hobby Provided Social and Spatial Distance" Technology and Culture 44:4. (Oct., 2003), pp. 734-761.

On June 22, 2006 at 12:06 PM, Sam Ford said:

Thanks for the reference on the ham radio essay. I haven't had that much contact with the ham radio culture, although I was aware of it through a previous co-worker. The gender dynamics still seem to be a prevalent part. The gentlemen who came to talk to me about their fallen comrade, who had died fixing his tower, was actually pretty emotional. One of the men contacted his friend daily through ham radio, and they drove back and forth (a few hours' distance between them) often to work on each others' towers. It does seem like a boys' club for adults, based on technology that, in some ways, have passed them by.

There is something of a freedom as well as a haunting feeling in hanging on to those old technologies, in still finding some type of pragmatic value in something society has, by and large, dismissed. It's like the antique hunters or the garbage raiders who turn discarded doors into coffee tables.