We had 22 Scouts attend JOTA 22 on a beautiful October day. One of the focuses this year was to lay the ground work for Scouts earning the Radio Merit Badge. We had a number of posters on display each providing information relevant to the Merit Badge. Two Scouts completed the requirements for Radio Merit Badge on-site, with the rest set-up to continue and complete later.
To meet the on-air requirements, we had three HF transceivers running and a couple of HT’s on VHF for local contacts. On HF, we ran Phone and PSK31, with good contacts made through the US. Several Scouts running PSK31 had lengthy rag-chews with their contacts who often included former Scouts.
In addition to the radios and posters, we also had Code Practice Oscillators, a Ham Radio video, displays about NTS and Radiograms, a homemade antenna construction display and few other odds and ends. Scouts and parents could browse all materials while waiting for a turn on one of the radios.
In my observation, PSK31 remains a popular mode for young folks. Being a keyboard-to-keyboard “chat” mode not unlike SMS “texting” with a cell phone or keyboard chatting on an online game, they come to the mode familiar with the general idea of the “read, type, read, type” cycle. Even with the familiarity of the operational aspect, the young folks do seem amazed at the idea that there is no intervening “infrastructure” between radio stations and that their message is going straight from our radio+antenna to the station we are talking to.
Radio is not “dead” in this day of the Internet and cell phones. Several years of running digital stations like this at JOTA events has taught me it remains just as fascinating to youth as it was and is to us older hams. Their fascination may be born of a different communications climate they have grown up in, but the fascination is no less strong for them.
If we say, “I can talk around the world with ham radio,” the youth will say, “Yeah, I can too on the Internet.” So that does not work as outreach as it once did 20+ years ago. What does reach them is how “simple” radio can be and still function long distances.
I have yet to see a Scout that was not enthralled by the fact that the words he was typing on the screen were being “beamed” to a distant similar station followed by the decoded text coming in one letter at a time. He can HEAR the signal when we turn the volume up. He can SEE it on the waterfall. Radio still has its “magic” to youth.
Another aspect I have noticed after participating with JOTA numerous times is that there is no other communication medium popular with younger folks – Internet and Cell Phone – with an equivalent to “CQ.” When I instruct them how to send “CQ” on PSK31 and they do it, they absolutely light up when someone answers. When they answer a CQ from another station, they sometimes say, “really, I can just answer him?” Nothing on “Social Media” can equal this, and they really do respond to it.
They really do light up; it really is “magic.” When someone answers their CQ, there is that moment of excitement when you wonder who it will be and where they are. I keep a list of International Callsign Prefixes handy so we can look up calls as needed. Then the conversation begins and we learn their name, maybe what kind of radio they are operating. How strong is my signal reaching them? Why is it stronger to this location than it is to that one?
Every single QSO re-captures this magic for them. Just like it does, or can at least, for us.
So, yes, while cell phones and the Internet has changed the way young folks communicate, there is still a place for radio. One can’t call CQ on a cell phone and make contact with someone that just wants to talk. Nothing in Social Media, which is premised on closed circles like “friends” and “followers” has nothing quite like this, either.
I personally am looking forward to the next JOTA and coming up with new ways to spark that “magic.” If anyone reading this has any ideas as to how New Bern Amateur Radio Club can improve our Youth Outreach in the community, please let us know.