Is Radio better off as a Retro Mode?    

With all the new technologies, what is left for radio ops? 


You're driving down the road on a beautiful day, while enjoying a chat with a buddy several states away that you haven't heard from in a year or two.  Is the skip running strong that day?  Nope, that long lost buddy is coming to you straight from your hand-held cell phone.

You're sitting at home scanning through the latest ham radio bulletins and messages. Packet radio? AMTOR?  Nope, just another of many web sites brought to you from your high speed cable modem internet connection.

You're receiving and transmitting video between yourself and 2 other buddies across town in digital format.  A new breakthrough in Amateur television? Nope, just a bunch of guys playing with webcams in yet another facet of the internet.

You're about a mile from home when the wife reminds you to stop and grab a loaf of bread.  Boy having that CB in the car sure is handy...... Yea, but so is that text message you just got on your Blackberry.


These are a few of many examples of how the convergence of modern communications and data transmission technology has enabled people to remain "connected" to various other people, information, and entertainment, in ways that we would never have imagined 30+ years ago. You can be in your car, at the grocery store, or even relaxing on the beach, and still be able to "reach out and touch someone", send and receive E-Mail,  check your stock portfolio, or even monitor the status of your home.  Commercial companies are working feverously to seamlessly integrate more and more diverse services into relatively simple to use devices to give you virtually a "one-stop-shopping" experience (For a monthly fee of course). The world is rapidly shrinking, and it becomes increasingly irrelevant where anyone is as long as they are "connected" to the network somehow.  Somehow, with all this new-found connectivity, and its inherent ability to connect you with just about anyone anywhere,  this really makes those late night static-filled radio QSO's with people 10 or 20 miles away over the CB seem primitive by comparison.

So it is that we get to the meat of this editorial.  With all of the wonders in modern digital communications capability, what unique facet is left for radio hobbyists? Why put up with noise, static, jammers, and unpredictable atmospheric conditions, when you can just whip out a cell phone and make the call? Why invest in large beam antennas, lots of amplifier power, and wait for an often finicky mother nature to open up the DX window, when E-mail can keep you in-touch with your long distance acquaintances?

Well, for those who have been in radio for many years, the answer is that it's still fun.  There's a certain thrill in knowing that radio is unpredictable and that you never will know for sure whether you will make that contact or not.  The unpredictable nature of radio gives it a dimension of mystique that is glaringly missing with the almost clinical reliability of the digital communications services.  Communicating over modern networks holds about as much of a challenge, or fun,  as talking on a land-line telephone.  Many people, who are not into radio, do not understand this. To them, the whole point is to be able to communicate with the other party. The more reliable the communications medium becomes, the better.  To a radio op, making a 20 mile QSO with a hand-held radio, is a big deal. To a cell-phone user, it's expected. To a radio op, it's not what you say, and not who you are saying it to at the moment that truly matters.  For the true radio hobbyist, the thrill is in HOW it is done. The fact that you are communicating without depending on some commercial service provider, by utilizing your own equipment, you have the ability to customize and expand, and by extension, personalize it to reflect your own style. The fact that you don't have to pay monthly access fees is also appealing.  If the wonderful digital network were to go down, due to power or weather related conditions, simple analog radios can still function, albeit in a limited capacity compared to the world-wide capacity of the commercial network. This argument has been used by ham radio proponents for years, as a justification to the FCC for their continued consideration in retaining current frequency allocations. But many ham radio operators, are also reading between the lines and realize that radio has not kept pace with technology, and has been largely stagnant technology-wise, and left in the dust.  Many are proposing methods which can springboard the radio hobby into the 21st century with new modes and technologies that make it more compatible with what non-radio operators simply pay their fee and use on a daily basis.

So that brings up the $64,000 philosophical question.  Should we, as radio ops, strive to move the radio hobby forward?  On the surface, and at first guess, it would seem to make sense to say yes. But consider this: As a very best case scenario, ham and CB radio would likely only equal, not surpass, the capability of the common-carrier network. It would offer nothing more in the way of capability that doesn't already exist in the commercial market.  So why have the redundancy of a radio, when a cell phone would do just fine? The only advantage that I can see then, would be the more "open" nature driving the radio hobby evolution, with perhaps more input from the users as to the direction of the evolution, much like we see with the Linux operating system.  But there is also a downside, and I saw this with ham packet radio 15 years ago. With so many people wanting to do things "their way", consensus becomes more difficult, and that leaves the "radio network" vulnerable to local politics and ego wars.

Perhaps then, the answer is not to strive to make radio more like cell phones and the internet, but to reverse course and take radio back to its golden age. A time when making (and maintaining) contact was almost always uncertain.  A place where such antique modes such as CW and AM can still be used, and their unique charms can be experienced in the same way that our radio hobby predecessors did.  There is charm in that static!  Static (or more accurately the act of overcoming it) becomes a metaphor for the reason we pursue our hobby.  Simple radios could still be constructed, used, and experimented on, without a graduate degree in engineering or software development.  Instead of looking like the losers in the technology battle, we can be the winners in the nostalgia battle. We're still traveling the same road, but for a different reason: Escape.  Close the shack door, warm up the tubes, and roll the clock back 30, 40 or 50 years.

It would seem that our society, like always, has a mirror to compare to here. While our culture continues to evolve technology-wise, paradoxically there is also a growing interest in all things "retro". Whether it be cars, clothes, home styles, TV  programs, or "unplugged" bed-and-breakfast getaways, it would seem that most people, while on the one hand are embracing the new technologies, also seek to "escape" from them from time to time, and express a desire to return to a more simple life, if only temporarily.  It would seem that human beings require some sort of balance, or an anchor to counter the explosive evolution in technology and to mitigate the shock that it often provokes.   Perhaps that is what is driving my vision of the "Nostalgia Radio" hobby. Judging from the interest in old tube rigs that I see on E-Bay and other venues, I'm not the only one envisioning an escape from modern technology. 

Hopefully there is room to do both.  Embrace modern communications methods on some bands, while allowing the "ancient modes" to continue unabated on other bands. Hopefully then, there will be something for everyone.

Then again, maybe I'm just getting old........