When you think about technology that people deem “outdated,” the radio might be one of the first that comes to mind. Of course, that’s because most people think about old AM stations where you only hear talk radio when modern times allow us to listen to music and podcasts through the power of streaming. However, there’s an entirely different part of the radio world that is actually seeing tremendous growth, and that’s amateur radio.
More commonly referred to as ham radio, this is a hobby that has been in place for well over a century with a massive resurgence during the 2010s and 2020s. Ham radio has a lot of great uses from communicating with people for fun, competition, or even as a lifesaving function. Amateur radio operators have really taken to using their setups for emergency communication over time, showing that amateur radio is still a necessity.
There are more than 750,000 people in the United States alone that are licensed to operate an amateur radio, which has caused an uptick in interest. If you’ve ever thought about starting your own amateur radio, you might be curious about where to get started. Let’s take a look at the world of amateur radio and give you a guide to building and operating your own radio.
Assuming you’re in the United States, the first thing that you’ll want to consider is obtaining an amateur radio license. The governing body in charge of licensing is the Federal Communications Commission or FCC for short. When you’re applying for an amateur radio license, you should know what it is that you want to accomplish with your radio. If you’re planning on simply communicating with people nearby, a technical license will give you a low frequency.
The next step up is the general license which gives you a wide range and higher power while the top line is an extra license where you can communicate pretty much across the entire nation at maximum power. Most amateur radios, especially beginners, will fall into either the amateur or general license categories.
One thing that you should know from the beginning is that amateur radio isn’t cheap, but it’s a hobby that really only has an entry cost rather than being continuously expensive. After all, the FCC license is less than $40, but the equipment you need could cost thousands. The first (and most expensive) thing that you’ll need is a transceiver, which can cost well over $1,000 for a good one.
Thankfully, everything needed for your transceiver is much cheaper, starting with the power supply. A very solid one can cost less than $100 since you won’t need a lot of voltage to get started.
Next, you’ll need to get a VHF/UHF antenna, which may sound expensive at first since you’re likely used to seeing AM or FM radio towers. However, a good dual-band antenna with lower frequencies is less than $50. The same can be said for the HF wire antenna you need. Once you have all of the equipment, play with it for a little bit so you’re familiar with all of the knobs and dials.
Getting Set Up
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when you have new equipment sitting in front of you, but ham radios are actually pretty straightforward. There aren’t a lot of moving parts, and your transceiver will come with a guide on how to operate that specific model. In most cases, you’ll simply have to plug in your power supply and set up your antenna in a spot that doesn’t get in the way while also offering the best reception.
With that said, it’s best to have a dedicated space like a full office desk where you can place your ham radio. Some newer and low-powered model transceivers don’t even need that much room, and you might even just need a regular small table. Once you get more comfortable, you can upgrade antennas and start getting handy with your project, which includes drilling a hole in the exterior of your home and setting up the antenna on your roof.
Some people have the misconception that once you get your amateur radio set up and fully operational that you just hop on a frequency and start chatting with anyone else on that frequency. There’s a sort of etiquette that applies to amateur radio, and you should keep friendly casual conversation to the frequencies known as “ragchew” ones.
These are typically much lower frequencies, as higher frequencies are typically reserved for emergency situations. Always identify yourself, never talk over anybody, and adhere to any FCC regulations when using your amateur radio. If you don’t feel like using your voice, there’s also the option to communicate via Morse code if you really want that “old-timey” feel for your radio experience.
Amateur radio has been increasing in popularity for a reason, but you also have to know what you’re doing and how to operate it. Pretty quickly, you’ll get a handle on everything and become a professional amateur (sorry for the oxymoron) in no time.