Amateur radio buffs gather in Deerfield
DEERFIELD - Amateur radio operators from along the East Coast met at the Deerfield Fairgrounds over the weekend to talk technology, sell and swap parts and share their stories at the 13th New England Amateur Radio Festival, or NEAR-Fest.
About 700,000 amateur radio operators, or hams as they call themselves, are spread throughout the country, with approximately 5,000 transmitting from their homes in New Hampshire.
The latest meeting of NEAR-Fest drew the usual crowd of tech-savvy tinkerers, curious global communicators and public service volunteers who step in whenever they can help with emergency services.
"The hobby is diverse, there's so much in it for everyone," said Manchester ham Rick Tenney. "The technology has changed dramatically, but as far as communicating and connecting go, it's still the same. Some people just enjoy talking, and you never know who you'll run into."
Amateur radio is often described as the original vehicle for social networking. But unlike some of today's online global networks, experienced hams have reached out and chatted with distant voices when chatting was exotic and exciting.
"When Russia was part of the evil empire, we could talk to Russia," recalled Don Curtis of the Contoocook Valley Radio Club.
Amateur radio also differs from Facebook and other modern networking sites in that it requires skills, especially in electronics.
"When we were growing up in New York, we would go down to Canal Street every Saturday and buy parts," said New York City ham Pete Ludwig as he looked at crates filled with faded packages of old vacuum tubes that seem to belong to a long-ago era.
New Boston resident Al Shuman, who heads the New Hampshire branch of the American Radio Relay League, said he hopes the enthusiasm of young people for understanding their modern computers and cell phones will lead some into the hobby.
"Kids are coming back into radio," he said. "They are beginning to look more at how things work."
Ham operators say they still have an important place when power goes off and cell phone service goes down.
Roger Martin, the ARES emergency coordinator for Coos County says they are a vital secondary communications tool.
"A lot of people think we just rag chew," said Martin. "But it isn't just talking. Amateur radio has been around for more than 100 years but I don't think the public realizes what we do or how we do it."