Photo: Eric England
Thousands of Nashvillians were affected by the cell and internet service outage that came after the Christmas Day bombing downtown — but it was exactly the type of situation amateur radio operators prepare for. They pride themselves on not needing internet or cell service to relay electronic messages.
The Radio Act of 1912 required amateur radio operators, sometimes known as “hams,” to get a license, and in 1914 the national Amateur Radio Relay League was founded. Nashville Amateur Radio Club has been around for 85 years, making it one of the oldest clubs in the country. The group’s 70 members now look for ways to be of service in a world in which technology has evolved beyond amateur radio’s original usefulness.
“When the news started coming out about the bombing, there were a lot of hams online, there to assist with the radio for people who worried about their relatives when they couldn’t reach them on the phone,” says Monvel Maskew, president of Nashville Amateur Radio Club.
The Federal Communications Commission allocates parts of 29 different bands — or ranges of frequencies — for amateur radio operators. Some work best for chatting locally. Some are capable of national, international or even off-planet communication. (The International Space Station has a ham radio kit.) Taking a test to get a license is required to send messages, but not to listen.
On Monday nights, area hams convene on a “net,” a planned gathering on a specific frequency. This serves as practice for when an emergency would call for an impromptu net. Most members of the club are also part of the local chapter of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service. Lee Alder, president of Davidson County’s ARES chapter, was inspired to join after Nashville’s historic 2010 flood affected internet connections and cell service.
“Basically, we are radio people waiting for a place to be in the event that Metro needs us,” Alder says. “We fill this little gap of communication when everything else quits. And radio usually works.”
When activated, Nashville’s Office of Emergency Management used to call on hams for help relaying messages, though they haven’t in recent years. Alder says in the event of the bombing, hams could have hooked up phones and email to a frequency that still works, albeit slower than we’re used to. But instead, for now, the hams try to help by passing information to friends and neighbors.
“I think the Christmas Day bombing would have been a perfect event that we could have helped out had we had this understanding going on,” Alder says. “But unfortunately, we didn’t.”
The need for ham radio has of course been shrinking. Services like WhatsApp can connect us to people around the world. Improvements in weather radar erased the need for ham storm trackers to be in the same room as meteorologists, and the prevalence of reliable cell phones keeps us connected — most of the time. Even so, the practice has continued among hobbyists, and the barriers for entry for have been lowered. When Maskew first became interested as a teen, radio supplies were way out of his budget — $200 to $300 in 1970s dollars, the equivalent of roughly $1,500 today. Today, he says, you can get started for less than $100. Testing used to happen only in person, but now Maskew spends around 30 hours a week proctoring license tests over Zoom. Until 1991, aspiring hams had to learn Morse code, and while it’s still a common part of the hobby, it’s no longer required.
Roger Womack learned to operate a radio with help from the Courage Kenny Handiham program, an organization in Minnesota that adapts radio supplies for people with disabilities.
“There has been an upsurge in the last year or so of new members and people getting into the hobby,” says Womack, who is visually impaired. “Because people are sitting home, and new people are getting their license where they can talk to people and communicate. I can think of right offhand maybe 15 or 20 new ones [on local nets] I’ve heard in the last year, probably more than that just listening.”
Photo: Eric England
Though the hobby tends to skew boomer-age and male, club member Cindy Leech would like to see that change.
“The club has a great community of mostly guys that will help you out if needed,” she says. “They’re very welcoming. I just wish there were more women, because it’s a different thing for women. The guys tell me, and most other radio operators say, you can tell the difference on the radio. A woman’s voice carries better.”
Leech got into the hobby to be closer to her father, who lives in New Mexico. He used to help relay messages to families from soldiers overseas. His loud machine’s beeps reverberated through the house when Leech was a child, and now the practice is something she’s made her own through volunteering with the club. Amateur radio operators often volunteer for things like charity horse races, runs and bike rides, especially in rural areas lacking adequate cell service. Leech says on one occasion that meant alerting bike riders to a llama on the path, though other times she’s needed to call for medical attention.
“What was interesting to me and very fulfilling was the community aspect, where they’re always willing to volunteer and help out these organizations to make their event successful,” Leech says.
Still other hams do “contesting,” wherein they try to make the most connections to other operators in a given period of time, or they’ll attempt to reach all 50 states, or 100 countries.
On a national level, ARES maintains a partnership with the National Weather Service. Red Cross stations, including the one in Nashville, maintain radio rooms in the event of a disaster too.
“All they have to do is call and go, ‘Hey, come operate the radio,’ ” Alder says. “Usually, you don’t have to tell a ham twice about that.”
The space granted to amateur radio operators by the FCC has been shrinking over the years, with most frequencies bought out by commercial radio stations and used by cell phones. Because hams can use radio waves for free, they don’t have much leverage when a larger entity wants to pay for them. So it’s “use it or lose it.” Part of the reason hams are so eager to get more people involved is to fill up those frequencies, but it’s hard to say how long those frequencies and this practice will survive.
In the meantime, the hams are here for backup.
“I hope it doesn’t go away for phones,” Leech says. “Because sometimes phones, in an emergency, are not gonna work. They’re gonna lock up. So that’s one thing I don’t think people realize. It’s really important that we get people in ham radio so that we have plenty of coverage in case that happens.”