Brian Johnson loosened the cords on a plush bag that used to hold a bottle of Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey. Today it has the means to speak to anyone in the world, or perhaps even to people outside the world.
Johnson is the club station manager of the Hughes Amateur Radio Club, which attracts members across South Bay. Amateur radio, popularly known as “amateur radio,” is a hobby that allows people to communicate remotely without relying on the internet or a phone. Ham radios can connect people in the same city, but they can also bounce signals from the moon and, in some cases, let Earth residents talk to those on board the International Space Station.
Because the technology is portable and does not depend on a large infrastructure, it is also seen as an important part of the emergency response to disasters like an earthquake that could destroy cell phone towers and broadband data centers. Thousands of amateur radio enthusiasts prepare for an emergency like this on Field Day, an annual event held on the fourth weekend in June.
The Hughes Club typically participates in Field Day by setting up a communication post with a truck antenna and solar power supply in Redondo Beach’s Wilderness Park, which is attended by around 40 members and guests. The coronavirus pandemic has abandoned plans for a grand gathering this year, but that hasn’t stopped them from attending. From Saturday at 11am and until the next day, members will set up their own radios and chat with other enthusiasts around the world.
Howard Karse, the club’s next vice president, will set up a “One Delta”, ie a solo operator who will run a home station. Although the Delta classification technically allows him to use a traditional power grid, he will set up external batteries. His goal for Field Day is to “reach as many frequency bands as possible” and enjoys the technical challenge that comes with it.
“I’m still a bit of a little kid. If I make a contact that is really far away, I have to turn off the microphone and do a little end zone dance, ”Karse said in a Zoom interview.
Radio waves, first theorized by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, are the waves with the lowest frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum. In some cases, the distance between two ridges can be thousands of miles. Guglielmo Marconic, an Italian engineer, developed the technology to use the waves as a means of long-distance communication around the turn of the 20th century. As radio quickly became a form of information transmission and a booming business, governments realized that without regulation it would be easy for signals to get mixed up. They distinguished between commercial operators and amateur operators that were limited to part of the spectrum. The American Radio Relay League, which sponsors Field Day across the country, helped organize “relay stations” that allow amateur radio users to reach people farther away than they otherwise could possibly reach.
Hughes Club member Betty Barch, who will attach an antenna to the trailer hitch of her motor home and another antenna to the railing of her balcony on field day, remembers seeing the power of technology as a child. A major earthquake struck Mexico, and news reported that there had been significant damage, including widespread power outages.
“I asked my father, how do we get all this information? And my father said, “Oh, the amateur radio operators do that,” said Barch.
Manhattan Beach residents Karen and Mike Vahey started out on ham radio after their daughter, a member of the Placer County Mountain Rescue Team, gave them a book on how to get their license. Their hobby enabled them to talk to others while they were deep in the wilderness where the cell phone signal cannot reach.
“We could talk on a tiny little radio all over the country when we were camping,” said Karen. “But the real purpose is in the case of the great.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s guidelines for Community Emergency Response Teams, citizen-led organizations in South Bay and across the country to help residents prepare for disasters describe amateur radio as “a very reliable method of communication used during emergency response becomes”. Amateur radios are also described as “complex devices with sophisticated protocols,” and it is noted that operators must pass a test and obtain a license from the Federal Communications Commission.
There is a geek series on amateur radio, and many of the Hughes Club members have trained as scientists and engineers. (The club is named after Hughes Aircraft, the company founded by the eccentric aviation entrepreneur Howard Hughes, who is himself a amateur radio fan.) However, the club helps anyone interested in preparing for the exam required to obtain a license is. And besides their love for devices, amateur radio enthusiasts have an aversion to presumption, a DIY ethic that enjoys independence and communicates with as little as possible.
During a Zoom interview, Johnson took the components of one of his setups from the Crown Royal bag: a battery, a tuner, an amplifier, and the radio itself. Each one fits into a can of Altoids. (The tuner went wintergreen, the amplifier mint.) Combined with a tightly coiled 40-meter cable that doubles as an antenna, Johnson said he could take the neat package anywhere and set up a radio station.
“This is what Field Day is all about: you can take a radio and some spare parts with you and go on the air.”