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The Fifth Pillar of Amateur Radio: hiding in plain sight

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The Fifth Pillar of Amateur Radio: hiding in plain sight

pillar_pillarLogo“On Saturday, May 17 at the Dayton Hamvention, ARRL President Joel Harrison, W5ZN, plans to announce that the League will expand its identity program to include greater emphasis on technology. Harrison explained that “Ham radio operators, and particularly ARRL members, closely identify with current and emerging radio technology.

Today, we are naming ‘technology’ as ARRL’s new fifth pillar.” ARRL’s other four pillars, the underpinnings of the organization, are Public Service, Advocacy, Education and Membership.

“For hams, expanding the four pillars to include technology will reinforce one of the organization’s guiding principles — that ham radio is state-of-the-art, innovative and relevant,” he said.” – The ARRL Letter Vol. 27, No. 19 May 16, 2008

Here comes everybody –

The ARRL (American Radio Relay League), and Amateur Radio by collateral damage, took a beating in on the above release from the ARRL  You can read the comments for yourself.

ARRL President Joel Harrison, W5ZN, tipped his hand (revealed a secret) when he made the statement “that ham radio is state-of-the-art, innovative and relevant”.  Of course, as observed by one writer in, if one has to publicly assert that amateur radio is relevant, state-of-the art, and innovative – then there exists an underlying perception to the contrary.

At least the threat of irrelevancy would be credible enough that it would motivate an organization to make such a statement.  What’s more, if an organization takes an action to mitigate what they say is not true in the first place then this demonstrates that the threat of irrelevancy is credible in their assessment.

Relevancy is only part of the solution

So, as a “Fifth Pillar” of Amateur Radio, the ARRL has added technology – specifically “radio” technology.  How does making such an assertion address the problem of irrelevancy?  Some of the comments posted to are very perceptive.  What can the ARRL  do other than assert that a focus on technology will address the issue of irrelevancy?  Hasn’t Amateur Radio, from the very beginning, been about radio technology at its central core? So what’s new?

Relevancy alone isn’t  the real issue.  It’s also about the numbers.  A tiny handful of individuals that consider something as relevant is not going to out weigh the majority of individuals that consider that same thing as irrelevant when it comes to sustaining an organization like the ARRL, the amateur radio equipment manufacturers R&D budgets, or anybody else in the line of fire delivering products or services related to the amateur radio community as a diminishing market.

The numbers game

If Amateur Radio is is perceived as irrelevant then it will have difficulty attracting new people into the Amateur Radio Service and retaining existing Amateurs through FCC license renewals.

Of course the ARRL, as an organization with a mission to amateur radio,  has to pay attention to the numbers.  The number of licensed operators , the percent of this number that are ARRL members, the conversion rate, the percent  retention rate of ARRL members through renewals, and other metrics are all important predictors for the ARRL’s future.  And of course, the bottom line is the revenue generated by these members through which the ARRL can carry out its organizational mission, pay its staff, and fund its future liabilities.

It really comes down to an issue of the ability of an organization to grow.  Or,  worst case, for an organization to survive.  In the context of perceptions of  irrelevancy, lack of innovation, and that Amateur Radio as a legacy of the past may be on a trajectory to obsolescence, the ARRL and amateur radio has less than an optimistic future.

A compelling demonstration of relevancy & numbers

So there are a number of things bound up together.  If Amateur Radio had a compelling demonstration of relevancy, innovation, and positions itself in the  of state-of-the-art of anything significant then there would be more Amateurs, more ARRL members, and more revenue to the ARRL to fulfill its mission and grow.  If all this could be accomplished then all would be right with the world and no more “pillars” would need to be added to Amateur Radio by ARRL Presidents.

The analogy of adding a pillar may suggest an unintended image.  To add a pillar to an existing structure implies something about that structure and begs the question as to why another pillar is necessary.  One may get the image of adding additional structural reinforcement to a crumbling edifice.  If everything was OK then no supplemental reinforcement would be necessary.  So why has another “pillar” been added by the ARRL to Amateur Radio?

I doubt very much that renewing a focus (“fifth pillar”) on “radio” technology will address the underlying perception by the ARRL that Amateur Radio is irrelevant to the general public – or that segment of the general population from which Amateur Radio would draw new membership.

The other 4 Pillars of Amateur Radio

What are  the other “pillars” of Amateur Radio as set out by the ARRL?

ARRL’s other four pillars, the underpinnings of the organization, are Public Service, Advocacy, Education and Membership. “For hams, expanding the four pillars to include technology will reinforce one of the organization’s guiding principles — that ham radio is state-of-the-art, innovative and relevant,

Public Service.  Is that in ascendancy?  No, not really.
Advocacy, Education, and membership?  Even a slick marketing plan and huge unsustainable ad budget and campaign – unless they have a compelling image and message against perceived irrelevancy – will have little affect.

The fifth pillar with a strong emphasis on radio technology may have the opposite affect.  That is, drive people away as the underlying electronics, software, and mathematical models of modern “radio” technology is inaccessible to the majority of people – including licensed amateurs.

It is not the early 1900’s when it was typical for Amateurs to build their own equipment while comprehending  the underlying  radio designs and electronics technology that realizes these designs.  Nor is it  even the era of the 1960’s when Amateurs built kits from Heath.  What characterizes the majority of modern Amateurs in 2009  is “appliance operating”.

In a response on to the ARRL announcement of the Fifth Pillar, Charles Cook, K6CRC,  articulated a similar sentiment…

I found this story very confusing. What does the ARRL mean?

1. We all have to buy a $50,000 spectrum analyzer, and pass a Smith Chart test in our sleep? The hobby is limited enough now. Turning it into a hobby of microwave engineers and DSP programmers, and what will it be? Maybe 10,000 hams?

2. Try new things and grow your technical knowledge? Sounds good. To that end, please review all of your educational materials to see if they are written to support that goal. Some of the stuff is awful, some of it helpful. Hams will be looking to ARRL for guidance.

Just be clear on what you are trying to do. As a marketing professional, I am not sure what to make of these statements. A confused customer doesn’t usually buy much.

Relevancy – by the numbers

Amateur Radio

How many individuals are licensed?

According to, as of May 2009, there are 792, 565 licensed amateur radio operators.

Pillar_TopSocialNetworkSitesSocial Networking

We can look at some web analytics to see what is in ascendancy.

How many individuals?

In June 2007 the top social networking site had 72.5 million visitors.  There are 91 times more users to this single site in a single month than there are licensed amateurs world-wide.

This 91x factor does not count the users of other social networking sites. How many individuals are attracted to social networking?  Hard to tell.  But at a minimum, at one site alone, 72.5 million individuals sampled over one month.

What sort of Commitment?

For the top social networking site in August 2007Pillar_mySpaceFaceBookStats

69 million visitors…
… making 1.2 billion visits to the site…
… requesting 67 billion page views.

Who are they?

Mostly 18-34 year olds
Mostly male
With a college or graduate school education


The Fifth Pillar of Amateur Radio – Hiding in plain sight

If the ARRL wants to increase the number of licensed operators by attracting new members then why not associate Amateur Radio with aspects of the culture that are clearly, and unmistakably, in ascendancy rather than in decline?

“You can see a lot just by observing” – Yogi Berra

What sustains Amateur Radio on a daily basis?  Perhaps all you need is to remember a few things from the past and look at the current situation and environment.

HF nets

I sometimes listen to the 75 meter amateur radio band.  On one particular night I heard the beginning of one net.  Typically these nets use a fixed script to introduce the net.  The introduction to the net usually articulates the purpose of the net and how the net will operate.  For this particular net the introductory script also included how long the net has been in operation – since 1964.

So, in 2009, this particualar 75 meter net has been meeting for the past 45 years.  Long-lived nets on HF are probably the rule rather than the exception.  HF nets are operating morning, noon, and night.  One net was so popular – the Breakfast Club on 75 meters, that a group started the “Before Breakfast Club” net.  These nets are simple round tables of general social conversation.

The Night Patrol

This blog is being written near Chicago Illinois.  I can hear amateur radio repeaters within about a 100 mile radius from my location.  A local club is the Argonne Amateur Radio Club associated with Argonne National Laboratory.

For at least the past 20+ years, every night at 10:30pm central time you can tune into 145.190 MHz and listen to the Night Patrol.  This is a round table net  that has sustained this club and its members for at least the past two decades.  It is a net of general social conversation.

The Lunch Bunch

Another club near Chicago, the Dupage Amateur Radio Club, has a net on 2 meters called “The Lunch Bunch”.  It meets every weekday at noon and regularly gets 35+ check-ins.  There is generally a “question” or “topic” proposed by the net control for those checking in to the net to discuss.

Sometimes this topic has nothing to do with Amateur Radio.  The Lunch Bunch on the Dupage repeater is a net of general social conversation.

… and the common element

These are just a few examples of activities which are repeated many times over in every geographic location, daily – morning, noon, and night.

So what observable activity sustains amateur radio every hour of every day of every year for 100+ years since the beginning of amateur radio?  Is it public service?  Is it emergency preparedness?  Is it radio technology.  No

What do all the examples above have in common?  These are social nets bound by casual conversation.  Beware a potential brush with a huge cultural and social phenomenon in 2009.

The “Get”

If the ARRL wants Amateur Radio to shed this tag of “irrelevancy” then one strategy is to hitch its wagon to aspects of the culture that are in ascendancy and not in decline.  What is in ascendancy?  It’s in plain sight – and it’s not “radio” technology.

As distasteful as it might sound to the ears of traditional Amateurs, linking Amateur Radio to the social aspect of human interaction in the form of casual conversation is just what might save Amateur Radio from irrelevancy.  In 2009, social networking is as far away from irrelevancy as one could possibly imagine.  It is also as far away from “radio” technology as one could imagine.

In 2009 there will be no need of any executive from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, mySpace, or any other social networking site to make a public assertion that the activity to which their site and organization is dedicated to is  “state-of-the-art, innovative, and relevant”.

The analytics that show that a single top site has 70 million people making  1.2 billion visits viewing 67 billion pages in a single month makes a compelling case of both relevancy and numbers.  Consider also the age demographics – mostly 16-34 year olds.  If the ARRL is looking for the next generation – here it is.

“A Hobby of Casual Conversation”

In the public news media several years ago I heard Amateur Radio described as “A hobby of casual conversation”.

Swapping some aspect of social networking for “radio technology” may be just the ” fifth pillar” that the ARRL needs to pull Amateur Radio out of perceived irrelevancy.  At least, the metrics related to social networking make a clear and compelling case that here are tens of millions of individuals within the 16-34 age group that are primed for the next organization that can offer something that can fit this model and facilitate such an interaction.

Amateur Radio has demonstrated just this social networking aspect  in its long-lived HF nets and conversations that happen every day on HF and VHF.  It’s about “passing messages” – correct?  In the past, Amateurs where focused on the infrastructure.  That is, the nuts and bolts of the electronics technology needed for communication.  But have they ever thought about the messages being passed over that infrastructure?

In a certain sense, in traditional Amateur Radio, the infrastructure (RF technology) was the center of the world.  The message passing over that infrastructure was less important than the technology that made that message passing possible..

Perhaps the new strategy is to make the message more important than the infrastructure that carries the message.  This turns traditional Amateur Radio upside down.

In 2009 “radio” technology is invisible.  It is invisible because it is so successful and ubiquitous.  Every teenager running around with an Apple iPhone  or a common cell phone has a “radio”.  But that “radio” as underlying technology  is “irrelevant”.  That teenager is more interested in what rides on top of that technology – texting, voice, images, e-mail, calendars, and social networking apps like Twitter and others.

What about the ability to talk across the globe?  What has been fascinating for Amateurs to accomplish historically is now no big deal – a teenager with a cell phone can do this effortlessly.  Again, global “radio” communication is so successful and ubiquitous it is invisible and “irrelevant”.  We’ve moved on to new things.

For this teenager within the next generation of potential Amateur Radio operators, the ARRL pushing a renewed focus on “radio” technology may just be accelerating irrelevancy of Amateur Radio.  In 2009, the general population is more interested what rides on the RF infrastructure (the message)  than the RF technology itself ( the infrastructure).

The challenge would be to find a way that Amateur Radio can link into (“hitch a ride on”) this cultural phenomenon of social networking  and not lose its identity.  Associating Amateur Radio more closely with radio technology may chip away at the irrelevancy issue for a very small segment of engineers  but it will never match an affect on the general public achieved by linking Amateur Radio with the compelling cultural phenomenon that is social networking.


Metrics on licensed Amateurs by state –

Analytics –

The Fifth Pillar of Amateur Radio –

Amateur Responses to the “Fifth Pillar” –

Web Analytics on

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Given these demographics, how many more years does Amateur Radio and the ARRL have to re/invent itself to relevancy to the next generation?


Written by frrl

May 31, 2009 at 3:23 am

One Response

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  1. Hmm,

    I think this is a bit wierd. If you read the FCC rules for Ham Radio, technology is spelled out as one of the main justifications for the service. So, its probably about time the ARRL made it one of its pillars.

    For me, technology has always been pillar or my ham radio activity. But, then I was given my novice exam in a Bell Labs facility (by a guy who worked on the Measurements Group Grid Dipper design), right down the road from Amoco Research (where cheap poiyester was invented by one of my neighbors), and halfway between Fermi Lab and Argonne National Lab.

    If there has been any disappointment in Ham Radio over the years, its been the lack of technology resources in the general Ham Radio club. A local club is putting together a Test Equipment bank. That would be have been great back in 1974.

    I think the reason the ARRL is making it official, is that with the Internet (wifi/skype/facebook/email..etc) available to many people , and cell phones ubiquitous, the inexpensive capability to talk to people all over the world, as social thing, is no longer unique as it was in my youth. The organising power of a mobile hand held telecomunication device, again is also no longer rare and a unique service Hams can provide. What a ham club can do to help out local community activities of a disperse nature can be done by any group of people with cellphones.

    This is the age old battle in US radio, as the comments indicate. Like the dicotomy between Sarnov (radio operator / sales and buisnes oriented guy) and Armstrong (new technology generating engineer).


    June 12, 2010 at 5:57 pm

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