Much is written about Social Media and how they are revolutionizing the way we make friends, maintain relationships, independently of geographic location. And in the typical hubris of our times, we forget that mediated relationships are anything but new. For many youngsters from rural communities (like myself), the ticket to personal contacts on a truly global scale was ham radio, ever since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Ham radio was not free for all. You had, and still have, to pass an exam to obtain your government license. Yet, the licensing requirements creates an instant esprit de corps, the feeling of belonging to a select group – something that is thoroughly lost in the free-for-all social networks of today.
But once you got your ticket, you accessed a virtual network in the true sense of the word: without boundaries, without infrastructure, owned by nobody, governed by laws, yes, but more importantly by a general consensus called the ham spirit.
I got into ham radio when I was fifteen. The Grundig shortwave receiver I bought from money I received from relatives for my Confirmation celebration, was able to decode the amateur single-sideband voice communications, which had puzzled me for years of listening to shortwave radio broadcasts.
At that point, I was already used to receiving news and opinion from all over the world, and from beyond the Iron Curtain which divided the world in the seventies. Shortwave broadcasts, in those days, were seen as the primary means of projecting your own ideology into areas beyond your immediate control, and so broadcasts were plentiful, and transmitters powerful. Like many other radio listeners, I wrote reception reports to foreign radio stations, expecting confirmation cards (“QSLs”) in return. Imagine my parents’ concern when our mailbox started to fill up with calendars from China touting the “Red Detachment of Women”, Mao’s little red book, and portrait cards showing the likeness of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Ham radio, by contrast, was apolitical, by law, restricted to conversations of a technical and personal nature. Not a severe restriction, it turned out, judging from the long conversations I listened to with growing fascination, especially on the 80 meter band. I learned about personal concerns, about fascinating technical details I had no clue about. Soon, I joined the German Amateur Radio Club (DARC), and faithfully traveled to Siegen once a week for a ham radio training course. The licensed radio amateurs I met there seemed omniscient, became my personal heroes for a while.
Many of the parental fears associated with the Internet today were common in those days as well. There were the differing political views we young radio listeners were exposed to through short wave broadcasting; there was the fact that we associated with older men, ‘and you never know about their motives’. And as for the unlicensed Citizens Band radio, there were rumors about men preying upon young boys (radio was an almost all male avocation then), very similar to the stories about adults preying upon unsuspecting minors in Internet chat rooms today.
There were evil hackers, too. Still convinced that radio amateurs were a very special bunch, always well meaning, always ham spirited, and immune to any illegal activity, I learned with horror that a club member had been systematically eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations, with a bank of receivers and tape recorders documenting the few analog, unencrypted mobile phone channels simultaneously. Our geographic proximity to Bonn, then the federal capital, meant that quite a few ministers ended up on his tapes, something that foolishly he bragged about in public. He was tried, convicted to a prison sentence, and worse yet (so I thought), he lost his license.
I earned my first license (for VHF only) in 1973, and upgraded to a “full” license, with shortwave privileges in 1976. Near the height of an eleven-year sunspot cycle, even my simple antennas allowed global contacts. My first conversation with a radio ham in Australia, in Morse telegraphy, I will never forget. Is there anything that compares to this in today’s Internet? The joy of communicating around the world, thanks to your own skills, the antennas you built, without any network operator in between.
And occasionally, a contact which was truly newsworthy. In 1978, I had a long single-sideband voice contact with a radio amateur in Guyana, South America. The young man on the other end spoke enthusiastically about the religious group he was a member of – the People’s Temple, the community they had built, Jonestown, and the assistance they provided to the poor people of Guyana.
A few months later, the group was headline news all over the world. A US congressman had visited Jonestown, and had been killed along with four other people. Before authorities were able to investigate, the whole community had committed suicide, with unwilling members being brutally murdered. At that time, I already had the “QSL” confirmation card for the earlier radio contact in hand. This earned me my very first mentioning in a local newspaper.
Can you top this, Facebook?