Once upon a time everyone was a new “ham”. Starting that first QSO can be nerve-wracking, to say the least. You may ask yourself, “Who can I talk to? How do I get started?”. If you don’t already know a friend or have a group to chat with, making that first introduction can be difficult. Lord knows I’m no social expert, but perhaps I can give a few tips that may help you.
Your First Ham Radio
Let’s assume you are a new Technician licensee and are getting started on 2 Meter or 23 CM. For many of us, we start with a small, inexpensive handheld radio. Heck, I still have my first “HT”. The talking range of a little handheld with a small antenna is quite limited, perhaps just a few miles direct to another station, and a little further when reaching a good repeater system. Identify repeaters near you, program your radio and then listen. It’s important to listen for a while to discover what you can hear and learn.
I recommend against investing significant money into your first radio. For many, an inexpensive china radio (and programming cable) will have you off to a good start. Wait until you have a little experience, develop interests, and discover what you can do with better capabilities. Your experience will help guide bigger purchasing decisions.
Better Antenna = Better Comms
You can greatly increase your range with a quality antenna. My first good antenna was a Wilson 2 Meter magnetic mount antenna, installed on the roof of my car. Tough, great performer and lasts for years. For the home, consider an inexpensive J-Pole antenna, mounted outdoors if possible. A good antenna mounted high in “free space”, away from walls, trees and buildings, and fed with good-quality coax, will serve you well by greatly improving your communication range and enjoyment of radio.
If you live in a neighborhood patrolled by a homeowner’s association that bans antennas, consider hiding an antenna in a bush or tree, or in a potted plant on a porch/patio, or a magnetic mount antenna on top of the central air or air conditioner unit. Get creative!
If you have no choice and must transmit indoors, set your power output at a minimum usable level and position your antenna as far from yourself and others as practical. Nothing good can come from exposure to high RF power. Your signal will be reflected and absorbed by the building materials around you, greatly limiting your range. Placing your antenna next to a window or glass door will help at least “some” of your signal to get out of the house and into the wild.
Amateur Radio Repeater Etiquette
Most repeater systems are open and available to all licensed amateur radio operators. If your radio is set up, charged and ready to rock, don’t key up just yet! Start with these tips:
- Listen for a few minutes. Is the repeater currently in use? Is there a formal “net” running? If the repeater “traffic” is busy, wait for a slowdown or pause before making a call.
- Key your radio for a second or two before speaking. Repeater systems need time to react and begin re-transmitting your signal. Pausing for a moment before speaking will ensure the system is live, and prevent having the beginning of your transmission from being cut off.
- Speak clearly and in a normal voice. There’s no need to shout across the miles, let your radio do the heavy lifting. At the same time, you need to be close enough to the microphone to be heard well, about 1 to 2 inches away. It’s often helpful to talk “across” the mic rather than straight into it.
- Say your call sign clearly two times, slowly and clearly, then listen. This will give the receiving station a chance to hear you correctly, and you are more likely to get a response. Example:
Unkey your transmitter and wait for a response. You may not get a reply at first, or perhaps no one is around. If no reply after a minute, make another call. If still no reply after a minute or so, move on to another repeater and/or try back again later.
Holding A Conversation
Here’s where things get interesting. Or terrifying. Or exciting and fun.
- Use their name – When you get a reply, write down their call sign. Give your “handle” (first name or preferred nickname) and write down their name. People like to hear their own name, so use it when addressing your conversation partner(s). Like “Ya know Don, I can’t remember the last time it rained so much!”. Or when you’re identifying your station (every 10 minutes) you could say “KB3KAI with K3DON. So Don, what do you think about …”.
- Be respectful – There may be others out there listening to your conversation. Your conversation partner may have a friend or family member with them. What kind of impression are you leaving with their spouse or young child? It’s okay to be casual, but be polite and respectful.
- Avoid contentious subjects – Politics, religion, gun control, abortion, etc. If the subject is being discussed in trash talk radio or “fake news”, it might be something to avoid in polite company.
- Light conversation openers – Obvious subjects include sports, weather, road traffic, your location, what radio you’re using, antenna setup. Or if you’re joining a conversation already in progress, try to add to the conversation. Don’t show off or brag, and don’t quote Google or Wikipedia, but do add your expertise, experience, and point of view.
- Find common interests – Hobbies, sports, family, career, ham radio study and testing, antenna building, favorite ham radio, public service, emergency communications, electronics experimentation, computer building / programming, anything else you might think of (please add ideas in the comments section below!).
That’s about it – so enjoy the world-wide hobby of amateur radio, make new friends and have fun!