Since Jaybird is busy bailing out the basement, I thought I’d throw together something just to provide our breathless readership with something to read on Monday, other than a post about how the guy who does all the heavy lifting around here isn’t lifting today.  No games today, but it definitely qualifies as a nerd hobby.

My vanity call sign came through this weekend.  I’m officially Whiskey Niner Papa Sierra Charlie (W9PSC) in the FCC database. Technician class, radio operator level one.

I know, the purists will say, “But you’re not in area 9!  California is area 6!  And *Whiskey*, west of the Mississippi??”  To which I respond… dude, Whiskey Niner is so much more apropos than Kilo Six.  It’s a vanity call sign.  Sue me.  But I digress.

Amateur radio (HAM radio) in the U.S. has been around since the late 19th century. The first listing of amateur radio stations was listed in the First Annual Official Wireless Blue Book of the Wireless Association of America, in 1909. Uncle Sam got into the regulatory business in 1912, restructured the licenses in 1951 (replacing A, B, and C with Novice, Technician, General, Conditional, Advanced, and Amateur Extra), and then again in 2000, reducing the number of overall licenses to three: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. The main difference between the three licenses is available frequency bands for transmission… you can do almost everything you’d want to do with a handheld radio with just a Technician’s license.

There’s no real excuse to not get your license. The question pool for all of the exams are public. You can run through practice exams for free on the web. There are guides available for free. But really, you can just download the entire question pool, run through it, memorize the answers that you don’t know… and after about 10 hours of study, you’ll be able to pass the exam (and dump all of that data right out of your head). Simple mnemonics will get you through passing the exam, and actually using the radio will embed all the necessary stuff in your head over time. If you’re never going to use anything other than a handheld or build a radio from scratch, you don’t really need to know what the standard repeater offset is for the 70cm band (5MHz, for those who are curious).  If you want hints on how to pass, let me know in the comments.

In 2003, the Morse requirements (aka CW for the radio geeks) were dropped entirely from the testing requirements, , no more skill test, really.  This means that your only real requirement to legally use a radio is to pass a multiple choice exam.  I’m a fan of this myself, since I’d like to pass the General and Amateur Extra exams just to unlock the frequency bands (apparently here in Southern California the available Technician bands get crowded).

Your cell phone probably won’t work in a regional disaster like a hurricane or earthquake or tsunami.  If you live in the Western U.S. or Canada, there are still large areas where you can’t get a cell signal at all.  You can almost always find a repeater within range of a mobile radio, if not a handheld (with a decent antenna).  You can be invaluable in the event of a large disaster just by being able to transmit messages and get information.  Now, anybody can use a radio during a real disaster, but you won’t know how to use one under duress if you don’t practice, and you can’t practice without the license.

And then, when the zombie apocalypse comes, and everyone is freaking out that “all the television stations just went dead!”… you can just fire up your radio and check into your emergency response net.


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.


    • 23 knights of the realm were born between 1240 and 1300.

      A one and a quarter foot hot dog goes for $2.22, or $2.25 if you get the drink.

      2 chickens lay between 144 and 148 eggs in a month.

      Did you take the exam at some point, JB?

      • My work involves operating systems and my hobbies involve software.

        Hardware is off the radar, sad to say.

        • I’m going to idly introduce Jack to electrical engineering at a young age.

          • Let me take you back almost a year and recommend these. Seriously, he will *LOVE* them, as soon as you stop playing with them first.

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