Amateur Radio in Popular Culture

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A scene from the 1938 film, Nancy Drew, Detective

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.

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Orson Welles confronts reporters after the radio broadcast, The War of the Worlds

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.

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A scene from the 2000 film, Frequency

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.

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Donald’s not-so-better self gets his attention by calling CQ from inside a mailbox

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.

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Henry, Fr. Mulcahy, and Klinger, in M*A*S*H*

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.

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Mike Baxter is on the air from his ham shack in a 2013 episode of Last Man Standing

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”.

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The original book cover to “The Short Wave Mystery”

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.

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WSSM Meeting on the Air – Dec 28, 2017

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Net Report for 12/28/2017

WSSM Meeting on the Air

Net commenced at 7:10PM (0010 UTC)

Moderator: Tim KB1HNZ, Saco, ME

17 Check-ins, including:

  • W1AMX  Dave,  Harrison, ME
  • KC1HBM  Peter,  Scarborough, ME
  • KC1FHU  Stephen,  Standish, ME
  • KC1HJN  Waylon,  Windham, ME
  • KB1YYC  Dakota,  Westbrook, ME
  • W1MSA  Sean,  Naples, ME
  • KC1HJK  Eric,  New Gloucester, ME
  • K1GJY  Stefania,  Saco, ME
  • KC1AMQ  Annette,  Greene, ME
  • WZ1J  Steve,  Brunswick, ME
  • NW1B  Troy,  Scarborough, ME
  • KB1ZLV  Bert,  Greene, ME
  • KR1MAC  Mac,  Saco, ME
  • N3AWM  Adam,  Buxton, ME
  • KC1HBL  Ben,  mobile in Buxton, ME
  • KB1PLY  Rory,  Saco, ME
  • KC1CWC  Tony,  Nobleboro, ME

Net closed at 7:45PM (0045 UTC)


The After Net (28.455 USB)

Net commenced at 7:47PM (0047 UTC)

Moderator: Tim KB1HNZ

2 Check-ins, including:

  • KB1PLY  Rory,  Saco, ME
  • N3AWM  Adam,  Buxton, ME

Net closed at 8:15PM (0115 UTC)


Net Announcements:    

WSSM will take part in Winter Field Day on January 27-28, 2018. A planning session will take place at the January 11th formal meeting at the CCEMA Bunker, 22 High Street, Windham, ME

Net control thanked Eric Emery KC1HJK for his support of SKYWARN during the most recent storms over the holiday weekend and on Christmas Day.

Stephen KC1FHU announced that he has a 6m J-Pole available. Call: (207) 831-3964 for more information.

A Ham Radio Operator’s Night Before Christmas

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by Gary Pearce, KN4AQ

T’was the night before Christmas,
And all through two-meters,
Not a signal was keying up
Any repeaters.The antennas reached up
From the tower, quite high,
To catch the weak signals
That bounced from the sky.

The children, Tech-Pluses,
Took their HTs to bed,
And dreamed of the day
They’d be Extras, instead.

Mom put on her headphones,
I plugged in the key,
And we tuned 40 meters
For that rare ZK3.

When the meter was pegged
by a signal with power.
It smoked a small diode,
and, I swear, shook the tower.

Mom yanked off her phones,
And with all she could muster
Logged a spot of the signal
On the DX Packet Cluster,

While I ran to the window
And peered up at the sky,
To see what could generate
RF that high.

It was way in the distance,
But the moon made it gleam –
A flying sleigh, with an
Eight element beam,

And a little old driver
who looked slightly mean.
So I though for a moment,
That it might be Wayne Green.

But no, it was Santa
The Santa of Hams.
On a mission, this Christmas
To clean up the bands.

He circled the tower,
Then stopped in his track,
And he slid down the coax
Right into the shack.

While Mom and I hid
Behind stacks of CQ,
This Santa of hamming
Knew just what to do.

He cleared off the shack desk
Of paper and parts,
And filled out all my late QSLs
For a start.

He ran copper braid,
Took a steel rod and pounded
It into the earth, till
The station was grounded.

He tightened loose fittings,
Re-soldered connections,
Cranked down modulation,
Installed lightning protection.

He neutralized tubes
In my linear amp…

(Never worked right before —
Now it works like a champ).

A new, low-pass filter
Cleaned up the TV,
He corrected the settings
In my TNC.

He repaired the computer
That would not compute,
And he backed up the hard drive
And got it to boot.

Then, he reached really deep
In the bag that he brought,
And he pulled out a big box,
“A new rig?” I thought!

“A new Kenwood? An Icom?
A Yaesu, for me?!”
(If he thought I’d been bad
it might be QRP!)

Yes! The Ultimate Station!
How could I deserve this?
Could it be all those hours
that I worked Public Service?

He hooked it all up
And in record time, quickly
Worked 100 countries,
All down on 160.

I should have been happy,
It was my call he sent,
But the cards and the postage
Will cost two month’s rent!

He made final adjustments,
And left a card by the key:
“To Gary, from Santa Claus.
Seventy-Three.”

Then he grabbed his HT,
Looked me straight in the eye,
Punched a code on the pad,
And was gone – no good bye.

I ran back to the station,
And the pile-up was big,
But a card from St. Nick
Would be worth my new rig.

Oh, too late, for his final
came over the air.
It was copied all over.
It was heard everywhere.

The Ham’s Santa exclaimed
What a ham might expect,
“Merry Christmas to all,
And to all, good DX.”

Rules for Band Cops

by Tim Watson, KB1HNZ

Originally published in the March/April 2014 issue of The Radiogram

In a recent QST article entitled “More Views on Pileup Misbehavior,” the author expressed his opinion that pileups are more unruly now than ever before, and the reason for this is that hams who are calling a DX station have either a genetic predisposition toward conflict, or a complete disregard for the rules. I don’t know about about any of you, but my own experience from recent pileups doesn’t quite match this description. Sure there are always those few who continue calling even if the letters in their call sign are nowhere near what the DX station came back to, or when working split, there’s the occasional few who don’t get the message and call on the DXer’s transmit frequency instead. But these are rare exceptions. The biggest menace lately is the increasing number of what I call “Band Cops.”

Have you ever wondered who these people are? The fact is, we don’t know because they never identify. They sit on a DX calling frequency, (obviously without any intention of contacting the DX, since they don’t operate split). Furthermore, they have stations that most of us would probably envy, because their signals are almost always 20db over S-9! This makes you question why they don’t just work the DX station and move on, but instead they park themselves there for an extraordinary length of time, just waiting for the opportunity to pounce.

But why? What authority do they believe they have to “police” the bands, and for who’s benefit? Certainly not hams like me who are trying to work the DX but can’t hear them because there’s 3 idiots who are screaming “he’s working split! Up! Up! Up!” over and over and over. Most of the time I don’t even hear the so-called offending station – if there even is one! As far as I’m concerned, these “band cops” are causing intentional interference, and are the only ones breaking any laws.

What is the Solution?

Now, in order to best answer this question, let’s first identify the disorder that is at the root of this problem. “Band Cops,” we know, have or show a feeling of patronizing superiority. In psychology, this is called a Narcissitic Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, this is one of the three most difficult disorders to treat. It is definied as an ongoing pattern of grandiosity and need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others. It should be noted that it’s three times more common in males than females. (which seems to hold true, since I’ve never heard a YL Band Cop). These individuals have an obvious self love, and they believe they are more knowledgeable and indeed an expert in “the rules of DXing,” among other things. Furthermore, they are usually shocked when they are not praised for their efforts.

The  QST article, which blames inexperienced and “unruly” hams for “Pileup Misbehavior” is unfortunately the kind of condescending and unhelpful nonsense that is actually the most damaging behavior in amateur radio today. It seems to me that if this were truly an issue, then the easiest way to fix it would be through education and support – something it doesn’t offer. It is more likely that this particular article, in a misguided attempt to deflect blame, is written by a card carrying “Band Cop” himself.

Since I’ve now shocked the “Band Cop” community by not praising their efforts, I will now attempt to explain my reasoning. The biggest being that you’re doing it all wrong! So, to help assist you in your future band-policing efforts, I’ve come up with a few simple rules:

Rule Number 1 – For a split operation, spend most of your day listening and transmitting on the DX sending frequency. On CW, if somebody calls on this frequency, right away, using your Vibroplex at 5 wpm, send: VP.. UG.. NP… UP (until you get it right).

This has three benefits:

A. Others waiting to work the DX station will be forever indebted to you for informing the offending station that the DX is working split.

B. The offending station will be grateful.

C. You will get some needed code practice so you can get over that 5 wpm hump.

Rule Number 2 – (For those with CW and Voice memory keyers, this will be easy). All you have to do is pre-program some macros with the words: “UP” and “LID.” For the more advanced operators, you can try “SPLIT” or “YOU IDIOT, WORKING SPLIT.” And don’t forget the simple, but effective “FU.”

Using the memory keyers for your days policing will save your voice. Should you happen, by chance, to have a QSO… you might need it.

Is DMR the Mass Adoption Phase Winner in Digital Voice?

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by Tim Watson, KB1HNZ

There is no question that DMR technology for hams has moved past the early-adopter phase and is now well into the mass adoption phase. The combination of an open source protocol and the availability of inexpensive, mass-produced Chinese DMR radios (in some cases for as low as $109 with a color display and free programming software), has made this possible. In addition to inexpensive new radios, there are a number of used, first generation Motorola and Hytera DMR radios for sale in flea markets. These radios perform just as well as the current models, but have less memory.

D-STAR, Fusion, and to a lesser extent NXDN, are all established digital voice modes, and are not going away anytime soon, but in many areas they are not experiencing any meaningful growth when compared to DMR. This is especially true for the Northeast. In New England alone, there are close to 80 active DMR repeaters, and this number is growing every day.

Because of Yaesu offering repeaters for $500 for a period of time, there were a few installed in the area (in most cases replacing existing FM repeaters), but from my experience, it’s been extremely rare to find anyone using C4FM, and in some cases these repeaters are operating in just FM mode, so the digital part isn’t even an option. It’s hard to say exactly why Fusion or D-STAR hasn’t taken off, (last time I checked there were only 3 D-STAR repeaters in Maine), but it probably has a lot to do with price. D-STAR and Fusion radios aren’t cheap, and without some assurance that there will be a repeater within range to use them on, it’s hard to justify the cost.

Unlike the other modes, there is also something unforced and organic about DMR. Its cutting edge, and yet, it still feels like ham radio. A lot of members of our club were early adopters, and have also explored uses for DMR in both the EmComm environment, and for SKYWARN. For SKYWARN, especially, the DMR-MARC network has been an extremely useful tool to gather weather reports from areas that are outside the range of typical FM repeaters.

For more information about DMR, click here to check out our DMR Intro web page.

SKYWARN Recognition Day 2017

SRD_2017 Waylon McDonald KC1HJN (background) operates the HF station, while Eric Emery KC1HJK operates the VHF station at NWS Gray, ME

by Tim Watson, KB1HNZ

On Saturday, December 2nd, the WX1GYX team participated in SKYWARN Recognition Day from the National Weather Service Forecast Office, in Gray, ME. Activities started at 8pm on Friday evening (0000Z Saturday), and continued for 24 hours.

Now in its 19th year, SKYWARN Recognition Day is a popular on-air activity that was developed 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.

SKYWARN Recognition Day 2017 was a fun event and perhaps our best so far! WX1GYX made 315 QSOs in total, on 4 different bands, including 44 different states, and 29 different NWS Offices/SKYWARN Clubs!

Operators included: K1GJY, KB1HNZ, KC1HJK, KC1HJN, & N1KTA

Among the 5 operators, there were three returning and two newly licensed hams, who were participating for the first time.

Thanks to everyone who got on the air during SRD, and also to those who contributed throughout the year!