Elmers and Reversing the Ham Age Dilemma

Thanks to Ed (KG8CX) for contributing this great letter by K5KGH!


Amateur radio has always been an elite hobby. With historically high license levels it still barely counts as 0.2 % of the population. Driven by the confluence of the need for social connection and the lure of taming the mysterious force of electromagnetism, early hams (more amateur engineer than hobbyist) helped develop the technology that defined the telecom age-- a role luckily recognized by the Federal government as it simultaneously sought to regulate and propagate the first of the many paradigm shifts witnessed by the 20th century.


The United states has approximately 760,000 amateur radio operators (slightly more than the number of certified pilots). This number, while an all time high, is misleading regarding the state of ham radio’s place is society. With a predominately male (85%) base and an average age in the 50’s, it is easy to see that a generational cliff is on the horizon. In addition, membership in the ARRL averages 68 years old, making the primary voice for ham operators squarely in the AARP zone.

While aging out is a priority problem, it is surely not the only one.

Scouting has been heavily connected to ham radio in the past, but trends in our area have seen this weaken and flounder.


Public figures and influencers with licenses have all but disappeared (Barry Goldwater, King Hussein, Marlon Brando, Joe Walsh, Peggy Sue Gerron).

Public perception of radio as the “grandfather” hobby is intensified by the age shift. In addition, new technology form factors such as smart phones and the internet give radio a mistaken aura of obsolescence.


The non-instinctive workings of radio make acceptance difficult in a society that still struggles with STEM education and tolerates snake oil science in public discourse.

Finally, mentoring minors has become difficult or impossible in the last few decades. Parents gravitate to after school activities not just because they want to further their child’s experience but because they are perceived as safer than letting them spend time one on one with a non-family member.

This is a generations long decline, and will take a generation to fix.


But this is not a lost cause. There are a number of ways we can push back and make our avocation more accessible to those of all ages and expand not only the license base but more importantly the active ham base. Here are a few ideas:


It is time to end the YL, XYL, OM, and other dated language in use especially in phone modes. They promote and extend the perception of radio as an anachronism of days gone by.


Free club memberships to students and a free year to new tech licensees. We need more than just names on a database at the FCC, we need people on the air!


GOTA (get on the air) is a great ARRL program but we tend to bring it out of the drawer during Field Day. A structured program to get new tech operators on our local repeaters and encourage them to learn the basics of net operation and protocol would be a start.


More emphasis is needed on disaster preparation in the local community. This is where the interest is, and in our part of Texas a very compelling one. I personally had to rely on radio during the great 2021 ice storm due to a complete failure of local infrastructure.

School outreach is effective but can be tricky. The Clear Creek Independent School District has invited hams to teach a Tech course in several of their schools in the years past. As pandemic restrictions ease, we need to get back into the classrooms, but it takes volunteers. Be willing to put in the time and sweat to teach if you have that skill, or to support those who can. And make your desire for such education known to your local school district.


Wear AARL shirts. Yes, this sounds odd, but I frequently wear my ham radio badged shirts and headgear out in public. You’ll be surprised by the number of people who will stop you with a story about their dad or grandfather. This is a great way to let people know we’re still out there and they can be too.


Bring a radio to National Night Out. Once we can mingle safely, take advantage of this and other gatherings to make it subtly known that you’re a ham and are knowledgeable in the field. You don’t have to be ‘the guy with the scanner’ that drives people to tears in public, just be honest about why you’re a radio operator.


Be ready to educate those who show an interest. Don’t bore them with dry stats or odd trivia. Tell them how radio helped, entertained, or otherwise made your life better. Talk about the time when the phones were out, and you needed a way to contact family. What about that cool conversation you had with a young operator in Tierra del Fuego? Don’t forget to have stories handy and be prepared to dispel some of the crazier urban legends (no, static is not the screams of lost souls burning in the sun. Seriously.)


The list goes on. Be observant and take note of what works, what doesn’t, and what really hits home. And above all be patient and kind to those who show interest. Hams are a decent and dedicated group that has public service at its foundation. So, let’s make sure we can continue to serve the public for decades more to come.


Kelvin Hickman