Corey Stephan, Ph.D.

Amateur Radio, Society

Electromagnetic radiation, social distancing, & good cheer

Corey Stephan

As weeks of social distancing have dragged into months, good cheer has become scarce. Spending quality time with someone outside of one’s household has not been a (responsible) possibility for too long. Even face-to-face interactions with extended family have been replaced by video calls. With people trying to manage a host of potential daily problems—unemployment or other financial uncertainty, working at home rather than at work, childcare, consolidating errands, etc.—anxiety rears its ugly head. Worst of all, we are still separated from the sacraments. I, for one, must find a way to attend drive-thru (or otherwise sensibly managed) Confession in the next week or two, and I find that not being able to venerate the Blessed Sacrament in person becomes more of a spiritual burden with time (not less). Perhaps care for body and care for soul should not be dichotomized. However, time is limited.

A month and a half ago, I passed the Federal Communication Commission’s Technician class amateur radio license exam, thereby taking my first step into a newfound rabbit hole. The FCC allows anyone to request a vanity call sign, so I did, and a few weeks later I became known as N7CJS (with N7 being a non-ugly prefix that follows the required formula and CJS being my initials).

Hams, as us amateur radio operators are called, always seem to be in good cheer—almost to an aggravating degree. Whenever I successfully make a transmission from my modest handheld transceiver to one of the local repeaters (“N7CJS, listening”) and someone else is monitoring, I can count on receiving a hearty greeting. Hello, N7CJS! This is XXXXX. You can call me “Bob.” You are Lima Charlie. What sort of equipment are you using? How long have you been a ham? Are you new to this repeater? It’s a beautiful day in southeastern Wisconsin, isn’t it? Even when the conversation lasts only two minutes, it is warmer in tone than the most polite interaction with a grocery store cashier or bank teller—perhaps more akin to shooting the breeze with an old friend.

One reason for the good cheer on amateur radio waves is that hams follow (and enforce internally) a strict code of conduct. An amateur radio operator is expected to be courteous at all times. If a fellow ham should struggle to follow protocol, for example, “XXXXX, this is YYYYY; please do A to avoid B” would be the correct way of handling the matter. An amateur radio operator never has the right to use a particular frequency, so first come, first serve is an important rule of thumb. When one first tunes to a new frequency with the intention of transmitting, he is expected to wait for a minute or two to make sure that it is not active. If the frequency should be in use, then he might politely announce his call sign and say “hello” before moving to a different frequency, or he might move onto another frequency without bothering his fellow hams at all. He would never try to overtake the frequency. The courtesy on amateur radio waves helps keep everyone returning to them. Ham culture is unshakably amiable.

A deeper reason for the good cheer on amateur radio waves during the pandemic seems to be that it is an intentional, preexisting forum for partakers in one hobby to converse with each other while respecting social distancing. Whereas video chat is often cumbersome for family members and coworkers, radio communication is ordinary for hams. When the world is topsy turvy, the mundane is refreshing. “N7CJS, listening” is not a desperate cry for help but, rather, a quotidian call for discussion about simple things.

On one occasion, I had the privilege of tuning into a local repeater to hear two fellow hams discussing the use of GNU/Linux in amateur radio. I listened for about twenty minutes (while jogging) before I finally reached a viable position for transmission. All that I had to do was state my call sign, thank them for sharing their thoughts, tell them that I had similar interests, state my call sign again, and go “clear.” What could be more cheerful than that? Thank you, electromagnetic radiation.

Deus vos benedicat,
Corey Stephan / N7CJS


Leave a Reply