Celebrating 100 Years of Ham Radio

May 27, 2014

This month marks the centennial of the American Radio Relay League. That’s the largest association of ham radio hobbyists in the United States that is headquartered in Newington, Conn. WNPR paid a visit to “the mecca of ham radio” where each year hundreds of people converge to broadcast signals across the globe.

Sean Kutzko remembers his first time. "I said my name is Sean and I'm a guest operator here, and I'm really nervous," Kutzko recalled. "And the guy said, Oh, don't worry. You're doing fine! You'll get the hang of it"

Kutzko is a ham radio operator with the American Radio Relay League. For decades, he's contacted others all across the globe: coral atolls in the South Pacific, even a research station in Antarctica. And even though he carries an iPhone in his pocket, for these calls -- he doesn't need a two-year service plan. "No Internet. No cell phone needed. None of that," Kutzko said.

That's because ham radios don't use transmission wires. They use nature's built-in phone line -- the ionosphere -- reflecting speed of light signals from radios off the atmosphere, which can carry them thousands of miles. "To be able to go out to a park somewhere and literally throw a length of wire into a tree and sit down and talk with somebody in, say, Italy, is endlessly thrilling to me," Kutzko said.

Today, Kutzko's sitting behind a microphone at W1AW -- that's the station of the American Radio Relay League -- a working memorial to the place where the nation's biggest ham radio group started in 1914. Hundreds visit each year to use the equipment and thousands call up the station. 

W1AW is considered by many around the world to be "the mecca of ham radio."
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR

But these calls aren't always social. Mike Corey is sitting in a studio next door. He works as the League's emergency preparedness and response manager and he's sending out Morse Code signals. In an emergency, it's a skill that might come in handy. "It's almost textbook now with a hurricane that you can expect for the first 72 hours communications will be disrupted," Corey said.

During Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and the Boston Marathon Bombing, phone lines and cell towers were unreliable, but ham radio, and America's network of more than 700,000 licensees, still worked. "You have some amateur radio operators that may be in an emergency operations center, national weather service forecast office, at a Red Cross Shelter," Corey said. "Others are at home and those are really a tremendous asset because they provide the eyes on the ground in the neighborhood that is affected."

Corey continues punching out transmissions. It's the middle of the day and the sun is bright, which means limited signal strength. He logs contacts all over the U.S. -- Washington, Arizona, California --- and, for a brief second, one signal even comes in from Japan. It's kind of like being in an online chat room or messaging a stranger on Twitter.

That's one reason Sean Kutzko hopes the league will last well past it's 100th birthday. "It's 100 years of being the original social network, you know?" he said.

A network of first-responders and hobbyists who hope ham radio's fun -- and proven record during emergencies -- will carry it forward another hundred years.