An Editorial: What Is A “Real Ham?”

real hams

real hams It’s a question I’ve seen on social media more than once. Or more often, a statement declaring that someone is not a “real ham” because they do or do not do X. I’ll go ahead and reveal my bias upfront, that I find this sort of elitist attitude off-putting.

These sorts of conversations seem to arise in at least a couple of different contexts: Technical knowledge and operating skills and preferences.

“You passed an exam and you don’t know that?”

On several occasions on social media, I’ve seen cases where a person asks a technical question or solicit a recommendation, only to have someone else respond with something along the lines of “Do your own research! Don’t expect others to tell you what you need to know! If you passed a license exam you should already know this!” One of the appealing traditions of ham radio, however, is the mentoring relationship that often develops between new hams and more experienced operators. Many of these “elmers” seem to derive a lot of satisfaction in passing along their wisdom gained from years of experience. I know I have benefited greatly from the knowledge of friends in the ham world who have offered advice on everything from antenna construction to which modes are fun to try. There’s so much to know about ham radio, and no one knows it all.

And yes, ham radio is at least partly about experimentation and learning how to build and operate a functional radio station. However, asking for advice from experienced operators is one way of conducting research. If I went to my local radio club meeting and asked one of the elmers there what sort of cable they recommended for feed line for my HF setup, I am confident not one of them would respond with a lecture on looking it up for myself. While they might tell me about a resource on the web or the ARRL Handbook that would give the characteristics of various types of cable that would enable me to understand whatever decision I made, they would see it as an opportunity to encourage a new ham to advance.

One must also remember that there are hundreds of questions in the exam pool running the gamut of ham radio topics. Just passing the exam is not a guarantee that a person thoroughly understands every facet of the radio hobby–nor should it. Otherwise there would be no reason to continue experiment and pushing the frontiers of our hobby.

“A real ham operates like this…”

I’ve also come across hams on social media who declare that people who only operate on FM repeaters aren’t real hams; or those that don’t know Morse code are not real hams; or real hams will build their own antennas. But the fact is, not everyone has the same interests or means to operate on every mode. Given the range of possibilities–voice, digital, images, satellites, code–this should be obvious.

I think we sometimes forget, too, that technical proficiency is only part of radio. The other important part is ability to communicate. As an example, while I can operate my equipment fairly well, and can set up computers to do what I want, and build antennas for various applications, I tend to be more of an introvert. I am slowly getting more comfortable calling CQ on SSB, but it still makes me nervous. Digital modes are less intimidating.

The point is that if everyone in the radio hobby were like me, there would be very little actual communication happening, and it would be a dull hobby indeed. When I do get on the air, I am grateful to find someone who can carry the conversation, and has the communication skills draw me in without making me self-conscious.

And furthermore, suppose a person only ever uses a handheld 2m transceiver to chit-chat on a local repeater. So what? Does it diminish the hobby for others who like to chase DX on CW? No. Does it interfere with another person’s ability to get on the air? Probably not.

I’m a new ham myself, and hope I don’t come off as a know-it-all, because I certainly do not know much yet. But that’s all part of the experience. The bottom line for me is this: if you have a ham radio license, you are a real ham.  So long as you are not causing interference to others, operate however, whenever you like. Agree or disagree? Let me know why in the comments.




7 thoughts on “An Editorial: What Is A “Real Ham?”

  1. Very well said! I have been licensed since ’96 and just upgraded to General in 2011. This has always been a topic of conversation and I share your opinion. If someone were to ask me a question, I would do my best to answer it. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll look it up myself, but I would never chastise someone for their inquiry or lack of knowledge on a specific topic. Those who do, forget that they too were once “noobs” and needed to ask questions.

    Great read!

  2. This tendency exists in life in general; some people hoard their knowledge like precious treasure (I don’t get it), and others are happy to give it away. So many people have given me their advice, I just like to pass on the favor. Excellent point that anyone licensed is a “real ham.”

  3. Well, just “having a license” does not really make you a real ham. But having and USING a license makes you a real ham.

  4. Scott, thank you for the excellent write up on this. I experienced the wonderful negative feedback from some not so kind individual when my son announced his Eagle Scout project on Google+ (An amateur radio station in the local firehouse for auxiliary and backup communications to the County EOC). He launched into this verbose diatribe on how my son exemplifies the “FM HT toting morons” who do nothing for Amateur Radio. He is 14 years old and has a whole life of this hobby ahead of him, it was depressing to witness one of our own slam a kid. I know he looked at your article b/c he commented on it, apparently he didn’t read it at all… I do what I can on my level with new Hams and Scouts, thank you for what you do on your end, please keep it up! AND THANKS FOR SAYING WHAT NEEDS TO BE SAID! 🙂 -Scott/NV8P

  5. Thank you for writing this. I’m a licensed operator (General), but I am not very active just yet. I’m still working full-time, and often just don’t have the time to spend on air.
    As an introvert, I’m also a little shy. I expect that I will get more comfortable over time, but this does slow down my progress.

    1. Hi Linda, thanks for the note. I understand the time issue. During the week I rarely get more than an hour or two on the radio if I’m lucky!

      I have found digital modes to be a little bit easier way to get on the air if I’m feeling especially introverted. If you have the gear set up for digital modes, you might find that a bit more comfortable.

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