Hamming it up HEARING VOICES: Ham radio operators are devoted to their method of worldwide communication, which often is the only thing working when disaster strikes

June 22, 1998|By JAY APPERSON | JAY APPERSON,SUN STAFF

Doug Wittich presses a button and talks to the world.

"This is November Three Victor Echo Juliet in a classroom demonstration -- C-Q, C-Q, C-Q."

He fiddles with the knob on his HF Allband Transceiver and cocks an ear to the radio's hiss and fizz. Finally, he finds a voice, and words that bring a rush of excitement: "Yes, this is Greece."

In the Internet age, when static-free communication with strangers in distant lands can be just a keystroke away, one might think amateur radio would be going the way of the telegraph. Not so.

"You can get to the top of a mountain in a helicopter, but the thrill is the climb," said Wittich, a Perry Hall resident who this spring indoctrinated a small band of newcomers to the hobby.

"You can click on a button and talk to someone in India on the Internet, that is true. But can you do that by stringing your own wire up in the air and bouncing waves off the ionosphere?"

Amateur radio's enduring popularity seems to show that some hobbyists still savor conversation that comes in sound bites instead of bytes, and still gain satisfaction from doing things the harder way.

In Maryland, the number of ham radio buffs has increased slightly in recent years. Nationwide, the number has grown to more than 600,000.

Amateur radio operators say they do more than just chat with faraway counterparts: They play key roles in relaying information during natural disasters.

On a recent Monday evening, Wittich shared his knowledge of ham radio in a Cockeysville classroom. The Baltimore County school system's adult education series -- which has included auto repair, rock climbing and Yiddish among its classes -- offered amateur radio for the first time this year.

The first class included a retired firefighter, a food company account manager and two engineers. Wittich, who last week was elected president of the Baltimore Amateur Radio Club, provided advice on how to buy the equipment, which can cost hundreds of dollars. He passed along tips to help his students pass the test for a Federal Communications Commission radio license.

He told them that the length of their wire antennae is important. He told them they should remember that sunset means radio waves may be harder to pick up as they begin to "lose the skip" in the atmosphere.

And he explained some of the jargon of the airwaves. For instance, "C-Q" is hamspeak for "Is there anybody out there?" That is, "C-Q" means "seek you."

Mastering all this was an irresistible challenge for Blair Donohue, a retired engineer from Guilford who signed up for the class. To him, going on the air is as important as meeting his other recreational goals: owning a convertible and a boat and flying an airplane.

He said he even wants to learn Morse code "so I could make some sense out of that da-da-da-dit stuff."

Marty Lynch, a retired firefighter from Fork, wants to make roaming the country in a recreational vehicle a full-time pursuit. He learned how ham radio worked so so he could phone home from most of the badlands.

"You can be boondocking out in the desert and you can call somebody," he explained.

Many of the 11 students had at least some radio experience, most often from the military. Most were acquainted with computers and say the Internet has its place -- but ham radio offers its own advantages.

"You don't really control it when you put something on the Internet -- you're dependent on what other people have set up, and you don't really know how it works," said Walt Barczak, of Timonium. "I thought it would be neat to talk to somebody in Japan or Germany or the West Coast, and do it with your own equipment."

Jennifer Gagne, spokeswoman for the American Radio Relay League, a national organization of amateur radio operators, said many ham radio buffs are computer-literate. In fact, they're a technology-curious lot who are likely to tinker with all kinds of electronics.

But the Internet has its limitations, Gagne said. "People look at amateur radio as a lot more personal."

She said there are about 668,000 licensed amateur radio operators in the United States, up from about 587,000 six years ago. In Maryland, the number has increased from 11,082 in 1995 to 11,363 at the start of 1997, the most recent period for which figures are available.

To some, amateur radio conjures images of the neighbor with the unsightly antenna that seems to scramble television signals. Even now, some Virginians are worried about a new law allowing amateur radio towers up to 200 feet high in some areas.

But amateur radio operators like to emphasize the public service side of the hobby. They say ham radio can be the best link to the outside world when floods or high winds bring down telephone lines and cellular phone towers. For example, Gagne said, ham operators played an active role in getting help to victims of tornadoes that struck Alabama and other parts of the Southeast this spring.

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