You Should Get a Radio License

Published 2021-03-25 on Cara's Blog - Permalink

Some of you may know this and some of you may not, but I’m an active amateur radio operator. I earned my Technician1 license in February 2019, and upgraded to General2 in October 2020. Getting “on the air”, as it’s called, opened my eyes to not only a world of technical fun, but also community service and worldwide fellowship, two things that I hold dear.

I came across a WIRED article today about how amateur radio is part of a California couple’s disaster preparations, and it got me thinking. Here on the East Coast, we may not deal with fires, but we still have our fair share of disasters and other public emergencies. A few years ago, we had Hurricane Sandy. In 2008, we had an ice storm that crippled the power grid. Being able to communicate without relying on the traditional infrastructure could become even more essential as climate change increases the power of storms. Even a “standard” nor’easter can knock out power and internet for a few hours or days.

In this series, I’m going to talk about what amateur radio is, how it can help you in an emergency, and how you can get involved.

What is Amateur Radio anyways?

Amateur radio has many definitions depending on who you ask. In general though, it’s non-professional radio operators coming together to learn, grow, and prepare. The FCC has three stated goals for the Amateur service:

  1. Developing radio science and the art of communication
  2. Public Service
  3. International goodwill

Those three goals are pretty broad, so let’s break them down.

Developing Radio Science and the Art of Communication

This one is definitely important to me. I love tinkering and experimenting, and amateur radio operators have always been at the forefront of scientific innovation. The WPI Wireless Association (WPIWA) was the first collegiate radio club in the US. It took part in the first trans-atlantic radio communications. Radio amateurs have developed systems to accurately report positions3, send email4, and measure long distance propagation5 6, all using radio.

Public Service

One of the most recognizable services of amateur radio, public service is a big part of being a “Ham”. We provide all communications support for the Boston Marathon, for example. There are also organizations, like ARES7 and RACES8 that officially support emergency response and local authorities. Many local radio clubs provide their services to more local events as well, including to the Scouts for Jamboree on the Air.

International Goodwill

This one is a bit trickier to define, because it’s so broad. What does “goodwill” mean? To many amateurs, it means getting on the higher frequencies and “ragchewing” or just chatting with other amateurs from around the world. With a properly tuned antenna and favorable atmospheric conditions, your 100W radio can go all over the world. All it takes is a couple calls of “CQ CQ CQ”9, and more likely than not you’ll get someone to respond.


This post got into what amateur radio actually is. The next one will cover how it can be helpful in an emergency or how you can get involved as a fun hobby. After that, I’ll take a look at the current US licensing system and how you can get your Technician license.

  1. Technician is the entry-level license ↩︎

  2. General is the next step up, and gives access to the worldwide frequencies. If all you want is emergency communications, then Technician is fine ↩︎

  3. This is done with APRS, which can actually do a lot more than just report position ↩︎

  4. This is done through a protocol called WinLink ↩︎

  5. Propagation is the way that radio waves bounce off of the Earth’s atmosphere and spread throughout the world. Different frequencies propagate differently. ↩︎

  6. WSPR ↩︎

  7. Amateur Radio Emergency Service ↩︎

  8. Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service ↩︎

  9. “CQ CQ CQ” is the standard way of asking for a contact on the HF (High Frequency) bands ↩︎

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