No doubt you’ve seen the recent ARRL proposal to increase Technician HF privileges and the expected ensuing online debate over it. In general I’m not opposed to the proposal, however I find myself indifferent. As others have pontificated, it’s not much of a hurdle these days to upgrade to General to acquire more privileges. I was very supportive of the code test elimination and various changes over the years that have simplified licensing. However, to some extent I think we’re at a point of diminishing returns with benefits from licensing changes and privilege increases. There’s perhaps one specific area I see the ARRL-proposed changes increasing on air activity: FT8. If Techs are given HF digital privileges on lower bands, I suspect we’ll see a lot of Techs end up there, and stay there, like a lot of Techs do today with 2 meter repeaters, unfortunately. With new radio amateur recruiting, participation, and retention, where should our focus be, what are the real stumbling blocks, and where is the opportunity? It’s not privileges. In thinking about the ARRL proposal, I’m kind of left thinking, “Meh.”
We need to look where the bulk of amateur technology hobbyist activity is today. It’s the Maker movement. These are intelligent, innovative, and inquisitive people who would be a great asset in amateur radio. It’s often been said that amateur radio and its perhaps dated technology can’t compete with the Internet, Xboxes, and cell phones. That may apply to your grandkids, but with Makers it’s not an issue. Makers enjoy playing with retro technology, like Nixie tubes, for example. They like building stuff and experimenting. They also like cutting edge technology, like satellites. Amateur radio has the perfect blend of retro and modern technology, and it has the opportunity to take Makers beyond the typical Maker fare of microcontrollers, single board computers, 3D printing, and robotics. Unlike “preppers” coming into the hobby for a specific application for their own purposes, Makers will be active and contributing participants and arguably are more likely to advance the radio art, as amateur radio was intended to do. But we need to have a culture that welcomes them, on their turf, and their venues, not just ours.
The Maker movement is a potential goldmine for amateur radio, one that needs to tapped, right now. This goes beyond having an amateur radio display at a Maker Faire stocked with pamphlets. If we really want to increase participation and new licensee retention, we need to pull out all the stops and target this demographic with technology, exhibitions, publications, and venues that tie amateur radio into their curiosities, interests, and projects. We need to be seen as innovators, not preservationists or on air retirement communities. There needs to be cultural change within amateur radio. While more kilohertz for newcomers is nice, and fairly easy to implement, it’s not going to get sizable returns in participation and retention. Targeting Makers will.
This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.