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Issue #6- Four Things Your Elmer Never Told You About Ham Radio

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ


In this hobby, many of us are blessed with great Elmers, people who will sit down with you and explain how the hobby works, such as what is required for entry and where you can go with your future station. I had two Elmers – they were great – but I was just a 15-yr old at the time and perhaps I didn’t hear all the gory details. Luckily, they put me on a good course, and I had the persistence to stick it out. Today, I'm an Elmer when asked to do so, and have fun with people who are just catching the bug. 


For me, there were a few things that I learned later. . . aspects of the hobby that weren’t a part of my discussion with the Elmers. I’m sure it was the same for you, and I wonder what those little “surprises” might have been. In my column this week, I’d like to elaborate on those areas that are typically not discussed when Elmer and trainee get together. Use the forum to tell me where I’m on target or where you’d like to disagree.


1) Not every radio operator is as courteous and respectful as your Elmer taught you to be.


It’s different for everyone when they experience this awakening. Ham radio is a terrific hobby because you meet so many great people along the way. But not everyone treats others the way your Elmer did or has the same level of courtesy (on the air or off). Instead, you may be shocked when you turn on your new transceiver and realize that our hobby is just a microcosm of society in general. There are wackos on the air and no one warned you about that. . . people cursing or pitching religion and politics into the air without anyone on the other end of the conversation. There are hams purposely tuning up on top of QSOs, or others blasting music over nets and conversations they don’t like. There are people who will tear down everything you say or do in an open forum, just to show their "knowledge." In short, it's just like walking down a street in a big city . . .  as you cruise the amateur bands you will bump into odd behavior from those you’d be better off avoiding.


One frequency that gets a lot of multi-operator activity and informal nets is 7255 on the 40M band. Reading the mail one day, I found my friend Steve (W7DJ) and his buddies in conversation on that frequency. I was surprised to hear an operator maxed out with compression, shouting obscenities into the air each time one of them tried to speak, and it went on and on. According to group members, that character has been with them forever and they hang in there despite him.


“We just ignore him,” a fellow Arizona operator told me. “If you take ten people at random, one of them is likely to be off-kilter a bit. We’ve seen our share of it here at 7255.” He believes this happens because there is no accountability, much like an Internet forum that allows anonymous comments. Ever seen the anonymous posts on CNN or FoxNews? The weirdos come out in environments like that. 


2) You could get on the air with your first radio and no one will be there.


It’s a lot of work to get licensed. But it’s sure exciting when you’ve taken your test and that Volunteer Examiner looks at you from across the room, shooting a “thumbs up.” What a great feeling that is!


But, as many newbies have found, it’s one thing to have a license and another thing entirely to get on the air and communicate. What’s the first thing that so many new Technician Class operators do? They’ll go on Amazon or some other website and buy a $40 Chinese radio, open the box and start calling CQ. Nothing happens, so they’ll monitor the 2-meter band until disappointment sets in . . . because “there’s no one talking.” This is why an Elmer needs to stick with trainees until they get past the inevitable first stage of disappointment.


I try to stress to new licensees that there is a lot happening on VHF and UHF, but that you need to know where and when to show up. You need to program that radio for repeaters, know when the nets are operating and more. You’ll also need to set your goals on the General Class license, because so much of what captured your newbie interest in radio isn’t in the cards on the Technician Class frequencies. (See the Short Takes piece associated with this issue to see how I'm now programming radios for my Newbie friends.)


3) CW is no longer required, but it sure is important.


Here’s one that is bound to get some back-and-forth going in the forum discussion. My belief is that even though CW is no longer required for licensing, it’s important to the hobby and to the newcomer. Of course, when I got my license, it was a part of training and testing. Today, it is not, but it’s still something that has relevance for a new ham’s true integration into the radio hobby.


As all hams know, when you are an amateur radio operator you are a part of a greater community. You feel this community daily in your QSO’s, in your ham club meetings, your Hamfests and more. It’s not just a hobby with a future, it’s a hobby with a wonderful past, and with a history that each of us needs to be aware of and respect. There isn’t a better hobby anywhere on the planet. And the one thread that runs through all of us (which takes us back to the turn of the last century’s great experimenters) is the code and our ability to pull messages out of the air by connecting dots and dashes. Let’s not let that fade. Let’s ensure that as Elmers we pass along the passion for this part of our history, one which makes our hobby so unique.


Yesterday I had a friend, Woody (K7CQX), visit my shack and I asked him to sit down and try out a new key I had just acquired for review (a Kent, review coming in January). Despite not tweaking it to suit his touch (he likes a lambic key to be much more sensitive than I do), Woody started cranking out code at way more than 40WPM, which just blew me away. I am in awe of high-speed operators.


4) You can get burned when doing business deals with fellow hams.


I am reminded of this on almost a weekly basis when I read QRZ forums of people who have been burned in some eBay transaction, or where a Swapmeet purchase didn’t meet the promised expectations upon getting it home. It happens, right? That always surprised me, because our hobby involves a close-knit group where we trust each other . . .  but apparently that shouldn’t be the case.


When I built my first radio, I was a bit heavy handed with the soldering, and that Heathkit almost burned down my family home. When I took it to one of my Elmers he suggested a local guy who was good at trouble-shooting. As my paper route and allowance were the only sources of income, I was pleased when the fellow said he’d look it over and let me know. He seemed nice (like every ham I had met to that point) and I thought he was offering to do this as a favor to a young novice. Later, he presented my Dad with an outrageous bill of more than twice the purchase price of the kit. He was a real jerk about it, and my father reminded me about that debt for months. At that point, I had learned the lesson that just because someone is a ham doesn’t mean that they have automatically earned my trust. There are good and bad hams, just as there are good and bad people, right?


Don't forget to review the Short Takes release with this issue for some interesting tidbits on new products, including the Mercury LUX amplifier and some very hot new software to control the ICOM IC-7300.


Click here to Discuss this Article in the Trials & Errors Forum 

73 for now,






Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated December 29, 2022 00:14