Amateur Radio has never been considered a mainstream hobby, but it has had its fair share of time in the spotlight of American popular culture – the most notable being when the hobby is featured on television or film. We’ll take a look back at some of ham radio’s more memorable appearances from the past, and a few recent ones.
When I was a boy, I used to love reading detective books and watching movies of the same genre. One of the first ones I remember that featured ham radio was a film called Nancy Drew, Detective, starring Bonita Granville (Warner Bros., 1938), where the teenage sleuth’s friend, Ted, showed off his radio shack and demonstrated the art of making a QSO. It played a minor role in the plot of the story as well. Ted even had a call sign – W8YZR, by which we can infer that Nancy’s fictional home town of River Heights must be located somewhere in the Midwest.
Another film from around the same era is The Men of Boys Town (MGM, 1941). In this sequel to the popular film Boys Town, Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), has frequent conversations with his friend Pee Wee (Bobs Watson) over the airwaves. Whitey transmits from the home of his adoptive parents, while Pee Wee operates from the Boys Town club station.
A scene in Orson Welles’ famous rendition of The War of the Worlds for Mercury Radio Theater, which aired on October 30, 1938 over the Columbia Broadcasting System, features an amateur radio operator saying: “2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . New York. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone . . . 2X2L”
The Glass Bottom Boat (MGM, 1966), starring Doris Day, who has a “20-foot antenna,” shows her corkboard full of DX QSL cards above her Collins and Marine radio gear. Day uses a radio to talk to “Pop” (played by real-life ham Arthur Godfrey, K4LIB).
Based on true events, The Red Tent (Paramount, 1969), tells the story of the dirigible Italia, which crashed over the Arctic ice cap after flying over the North Pole in 1928. Authorities believed no one could have possibly survived the accident and soon gave up searching for survivors, until a young Russian radio amateur, Nikolai Schmidt (Nikolai Ivanov), heard on his modest radio set the faint SOS signals sent from the wreck site by Roberto Biagi (Mario Adorf). Thanks to the information provided by Schmidt, the rescue of the survivors was organized. The Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, first man to reach the South Pole, perished during the rescue operation.
Another film from around that time, The Anderson Tapes (Columbia 1971), starring Sean Connery who portrays a recently paroled thief that decides to rob an entire apartment building, while unknown to him, the government is watching and listening to every move via telephoto lenses and shotgun mikes. His character disables all telephone lines, but a young boy, in a wheelchair, is able to summon help via his ham radio. In the end, the government destroys all tapes because they had no legal business placing him under surveillance.
Ham radio enjoyed a renaissance in popular culture in the 1990’s. Some movies from the time include Pump Up the Volume (New Line Cinema, 1990), where a teenager’s father provides him with amateur radio equipment to keep in touch with his friends on his native east coast when his job transfers him to Arizona. However, the teenager uses the equipment to start a pirate radio station promoting his cynical views on American life.
The science fiction film, Contact (Warner Bros., 1997), starring Jodie Foster playing Dr. Arroway, opens with the heroine operating a ham radio transceiver as a child, using the callsign W9GFO. She later becomes a researcher working in SETI.
The Sweet Hereafter (Alliance, 1997) starring Ian Holm, features a scene where a man is sitting at a table, holding a pair of communication headphones up to one ear. On the wall is a plastic QSL card holder full of cards.
In the mystery-science fiction film, Frequency (New Line Cinema, 2000), John Sullivan (played by Jim Caviezel), and his father Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) use ham radio to communicate; due to unusual aurora borealis activity John is able to communicate via ham radio with his father 30 years in the past.
So far, we’ve looked primarily at movies, but ham radio also been referenced several times in television and short film as well. One of the more-subtle references appears in the Disney cartoon, Donald’s Better Self, (Walt Disney, 1938), where Donald Duck is pursued by both angel and devil versions of himself. In one scene, the devil duck calls CQ from a mailbox as he passes by.
In the popular TV show, ALF (1986-1990), an Alien Life Form crash lands at the Los Angeles home of Willie Tanner, who is a ham.
In an episode of the Munsters (1964-1966), Grandpa Munster, uses an army surplus BC-654 field radio as a ham station.
In an episode of The Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), a young couple are snowed in at a ski chalet when a boy with pneumonia shows up at their door. Rita (played by Loretta Young), uses a ham station at the chalet to summon medical assistance.
In a double episode of The Waltons (1971-1981), Jim-Bob uses ham radio to help two young guests speak to their mother in England.
In an episode of The Jetsons (Hanna-Barbera 1962-1963), George’s son, Elroy, uses an interstellar version of ham radio to chase DX.
In an episode of M*A*S*H (Fox, 1972-1983), called “Springtime”, Henry uses ham radio so Father Mulcahy can marry Klinger to his girl back in the USA. The other “ham” that gets in the middle of the QSO with her recipes is Mary Kay Place.
Similarly, in an episode of McHale’s Navy, one of McHale’s crew members finds out about the birth of his baby back home via a phone patch from a Stateside ham radio operator.
On the Tonight Show with Jay Leno that aired May 13th, 2005, they held a showdown between Morse code ops Chip K7JA of Yaesu USA and Ken K6CTW and “the fastest text messagers in the country” to see who could transmit the message “I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance” faster. The Morse code operators won by completing the message first.
The main character of Last Man Standing (Fox, 2011-Current), Mike Baxter, (played by Tim Allen), is a ham radio operator, and ham radio is figured into many episodes – one of the most memorable is a scene where Mike retreats to his basement ham shack during Thanksgiving dinner to talk on the radio while his family squabbles upstairs.
Club member, Brad Brown KC1JMH, let us know recently that, in addition to the character, the show’s executive producer is a real licensed ham and he and several other crew members are on the air every Tuesday night at 23:45 UTC (6:45p EST) as “KA6LMS”. They often work 20 meters, and post where they are on dxsummit.fi. They also post the station log on Facebook and send out cards. This coming Tuesday, they plan on being active on D-STAR REF 012A during the same time slot.
Amateur Radio has also been prominently featured in print. One book that I remember distinctly was a Hardy Boys mystery called “The Short-Wave Mystery” (Grosset & Dunlap, 1945). The events that set the plot into action are when the Hardy Boys hear a mysterious call for help on their shortwave radio set: “Help — Hudson”. This happens while their father, Fenton Hardy, is investigating nation-wide thefts of radio equipment by a group of criminals called “The Hudson Gang”.
Ham radio is also featured in an Archie Comic, Archie’s Ham Radio Adventure (1997), and in at least two Dilbert cartoons. In one of them, Dilbert’s date hints that Dilbert’s sex appeal would be increased if he got his ham radio license. In another, one of Dilbert’s team members says that she got her ham radio license in a workshop held by Dogbert.
Looking back, a lot of these rekindled old memories. At the time I first encountered many of them, I had no idea what amateur radio was really like, and remarkably, many offer an accurate portrayal. This was by no means a complete list, nor was it meant to be, but hopefully you’ve had as much fun revisiting them as I did.
“CQ CQ CQ Winter Field Day, Whiskey Sierra One Echo Charlie, QRZed? We are 2-Oscar Mike Echo Maine, QSL?”
If you were new to the hobby or a passing stranger, hearing these ramblings, emanations of weird radioesque noises like you’ve heard on the original Star Trek, and a blaring generator from a trailer with wires and poles hanging off it, you’d think you have walked into a science fiction movie set. This was us, all day and night for 24 hours.
Winter Field Day is a fun way to practice emergency preparedness. The Wireless Society of Southern Maine used it as an exercise to familiarize ourselves with the Cumberland County EMA’s equipment, and put it through its paces. As a new ham, it was invaluable. I learned how to operate complicated radios, with several visits to RTFM. We identified shortfalls in our plan and the limits of the equipment, and are both updating our plans and identifying resolutions for the equipment problems we had experienced.
We met Saturday morning at 0800, unloaded our vehicles of sleeping bags, food, and cold weather clothes. Some brought tools and spare parts. At about 9, we started setting up. We can’t use permanent installations as part of the exercise, so we pulled down our folded dipole used for the HF rig installed in the EMA Bunker to hang a temporary end-fed 160m ~240 foot wire antenna; to be draped over the fence, suspended by a makeshift pole on another nearby fence, and strung down into the field, the very end held up by one more guyed pole. From the antenna, a 200 foot coax cable was strung down back of the Bunker, over the hill to the trailer.
We learned a few things from the antenna deployments:
Don’t leave the original antenna on the mast when hanging the new one, even if they’re running in different directions. It means that you’ll be taking it back down again to remove the installed antenna, and re-raising the temporary one to correct the 17:1 SWR.
Purchase a cord reel for long cables, especially 240+ feet of wire. It can become a horrible tangled up mess.
Learn to tie knots. Thankfully, Rory and CJ are veteran knot artists. My old mantra of “if you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot” is messy and slowww.
Raising a temporary large assembled mast and rigid dipole to the trailer in an emergency is not feasible. In our post-op, we’ll be reviewing alternative options that can be deployed by 1 to 2 people of any ability quickly, effectively and safely.
After setting up the trailer and antennas, it was time for food and warm-up. EMA donated some funds for food and refreshments, in exchange for our testing of their equipment. A few of us brought in some pot luck, as well. Rory on the left brought in meatballs and sauce for meatball subs, and sausage, peppers and onions for sausage subs. Pete W brought in baked beans. I skipped out to the store for chicken and veggies and made a chicken stew. There were also some excellent Hannaford sandwich trays, bagels, english muffins and snacks for later that Pete Hatem KC1HBM and I picked up Friday afternoon with the County’s donation. We were well fueled for our operation.
Promptly at 1400 hours, 000Z, we get on the air. Several people take turns in the rotation throughout the evening and into the next day. A few people stopped by that we don’t get to see too often due to busy lives, and a few that were new to the hobby. At least one young man will be going home and studying for his license.
We encounter and overcome a handful of challenges, and learn how the equipment operates. It was mostly small stuff. We had to retrieve radio manuals from the Bunker or Google them, found an outlet that needs repair, the hotspot’s charger cord disappeared as all USB cords seem to, we needed to print off the band plan, and only one of us knew that the outlets wouldn’t operate without a flip of a lightswitch. Nothing some time with a label maker couldn’t fix.
The big notable issue of the night was that propane doesn’t seem to work well under the heavy draw of a generator in 9°F temperatures. The gas flow kept dropping down, choking the generator to its death, leaving us in the dark and cold. I thankfully wore thermals and brought a flashlight, not knowing what to expect, but after several bottle swaps and clearing of the connectors, we all took a long break just before daybreak to rest and let the bottles warm up in the sun. During which, we brainstormed some options to keep the bottles warm.
At breakfast, a fellow named Chris stopped by and made us bacon and eggs. I’ve never seen such perfect eggs over easy. While he cooked, we tried to assimilate him into the hobby. We had him ready to operate after breakfast, but by then the trailer and the bands were alive. Stefania K1GJY stopped in with Tim KB1HNZ and their baby Elliot, and she was pulling in contacts at a steady pace. Pete was in the back trying to rack up bonus multipliers on CW with morse code. While this was an Emcomm exercise, it was also an opportunity to contest and try to bring in a high score for contacts on multiple bands, using different operating modes: voice, digital and CW. I learned a lot about CW, and setting it up on a radio from Pete that morning.
Overall, we all learned a lot about our equipment, each other, and what to plan for in the case of an actual emergency.
I must share much praise and respect for CJ Carlsson, who headed up the coordination of WFD or Winter Field Day, this year. He did an admirable job herding the cats and documenting everything that we needed, did and must do in the future. He’ll be providing the club and the County with our After Action Report (AAR) shortly.
Wireless Society of Southern Maine and Androscoggin ARES members ventured to the National Weather Service Forecast Office, in Gray, Maine, to participate in SKYWARN™ Recognition Day.
On-air activities began Friday evening (0000 UTC on December 1st), with Tom N1KTA working Echolink, and Eric KC1HJK operating DMR and VHF, and later EchoLink as well, while Brad KC1JMH operated HF. They operated throughout the night into the next day.
Everyone took a break from the operating at 11am Saturday for the annual SKYWARN™ Strategy Meeting, which featured a presentation by Tim KB1HNZ, followed by a period of discussion, and lunch courtesy of the NWS. After the break, it was back to the radios for a few more hours, until activities ended at around 3pm Saturday.
SKYWARN™ Recognition Day is an annual on-air event, that was developed in 1999 by the National Weather Service and the American Radio Relay League. It celebrates the contributions that volunteer SKYWARN™ radio operators make to the National Weather Service. During the day SKYWARN™ operators visit NWS offices and contact other radio operators across the world.
The radio tower at the National Weather Service, in Gray, ME
WSSM Meeting on the Air
Net commenced at 7:11PM (2311 UTC)
Moderator: Brad Brown, KC1JMH, (mobile in Limerick, ME)
10 Check-ins, including:
W1CJC, CJ, Portland, ME (Vice President)
KC1RHM, Rich, Poland, ME
KC1HJN, Waylon, Windham, ME
KC1HJK, Eric, New Gloucester, ME
KR1ZAN, Frank, Gorham, ME (Wassamki Springs “Ham Shack”)
KC1AOT, Ron, Denmark, ME
W4FWW, Fred, Gorham, ME (Wassamki Springs “Ham Shack”)
KC1XT, Pete, Scarborough, ME
W1MSA, Sean, Naples, ME (Listening Only)
KB1TPH, Jim, Auburn, ME (Listening Only)
W1CJC – Recovering from neck surgery, just listening
KC1RHM – Props from Rich for taking on net control. He is enjoying the temperature change and the colored leaves starting to present themselves.
KC1HJN – Pushing through a cold, operating with his 3-element homemade fishing pole yagi to reach the repeater. He later provided the search terms to find the plans “KD5VIP Backpacker’s Yagi.”
KC1HJK – Advised he’s helping log the check-ins
KR1ZAN – Advised that he’s at the “Ham Shack” at Wassamki Springs Campground, and its 56 degrees. He announced that this is his last full season at the campground; they will be selling their spot and staying in Texas. He hopes to hear folks on 20 meters, and will try to visit us.
KC1AOT – Net control thanked Ron for his donation of books, and the car his son loves. Ron stated that he was having trouble hearing some people on the repeater.
W4FWW – Fred was also at the “Ham Shack” with Frank. He’s heading back to Florida in a few weeks.
KC1XT – Well wishes for CJ, and Pete thanked CJ for heading up the Winter Field Day Committee. Enjoying the Fall weather.
Net control provided a brief review of last week’s business meeting notes and upcoming club events, then took further check-ins before closing the net.
People are happy at the arrival of Fall, and the break of our run of heat and humidity. Many expressed their happiness of the return of our meeting nets. A few lamented their trouble reaching the repeater. W1DXX from Old Orchard was unable to stay in the repeater for the start of the net. A few others attempted to check-in, but were too far in the static to be copied.
Net closed at 7:42PM (2342 UTC)
The After Net (28.455 USB)
Net commenced at 7:44PM (0023 UTC)
Moderator: Tim KB1HNZ, Saco, ME
4 Check-ins, including:
KR1ZAN, Frank, Gorham, ME (Wassamki Springs “Ham Shack”)
W4FWW, Fred, Gorham, ME (Wassamki Springs “Ham Shack”)
KC1XT, Pete, Scarborough, ME
N5QYQ, Mike, Westbrook, ME
Net closed at 8:00PM (0000 UTC)
Net control mentioned that the Maine QSO Party will take place this weekend, and thanked Frank KR1ZAN and Fred W4FWW for assisting net control by making call-ups for additional check-ins.