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Amateur Radio: Projecting an image of ham radio to 7 million people in 22 minutes

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The Opportunity

Episode 17 of Last Man Standing (wikipedia) depicted the use of Amateur Radio.  The ARRL gave the Amateur Radio community early notice that Amateur Radio would be depicted in a major prime time sitcom.  Many amateur radio folks were looking forward to watching this episode.

The episode aired in March, 2013.  For many hams, it was not what they expected.  One could ask, what sort of image did the script writers project of Amateur Radio and what do seven million people now think of Amateur Radio?  One could also ask, what is the power of the ARRL in influencing the public messaging and image of Amateur Radio?  The ARRL spends some portion of its budget on PR.  Did episode 17 of Last Man Standing enhance or detract from that messaging, “brand building”, and PR by the ARRL?

Impressions from the Amateur Radio community

You can look to the ARRL forums for some discussions.  Three months after airing, there are only 4 comments on the official ARRL forum.  Only three of those comments contained any real content and analysis.

Here they are:  ( http://www.arrl.org/forum/topics/view/780)

“ABC Comedy Last Man Standing Episode 17”  It was disappointing in how Ham Radio was depicted.  This looked more like “CB Radio” and advertising for the equipment and the illegal Linear Amplifier shown. The average TV fan would assume that anyone could use these expensive radios to chat without having to type to their friends! According to the show, some of the writers/producers are Ham Operators and they know the requirements to become licensed. Being a 40+ year ARRL Life member, 20 WPM Extra Class licensed Ham, makes me wonder about the shows story line and how far they are going with it. Lastly, while Ham Operators enjoy the hobby, they also volunteer their services in disasters and various community events. KB3SM: a proud Old Ham…

Another

Dear OM,

Our main page had a news story back on March 4th that announced the airing of this show. The spokesman of this show, who is an active Radio Amateur, warned us about the way Amateur radio was presented. From our news story, Mr. Amodeo says,:

“As a ham, I am very excited to be able to have an episode that presents our hobby in an upbeat and positive way,” Amodeo told the ARRL. “As a television producer, I am pleased to present a very funny episode for our more than 7 million viewers. This episode will feature more ham gear than seen in mainstream movies such as Frequency, Contact and Super 8 — all great films that had Amateur Radio in them. It’s worth noting that although hams will enjoy the episode, it was written with our 7 million non-ham viewers in mind. Please be prepared for some inconsistencies related to Amateur Radio, but enjoy the show nevertheless.”

I don’t watch this show, since I’m too busy to watch television, so I can’t comment on it. Wish we could come up with a show of our own, but we don’t have the resources.

73,

Bob Allison
WB1GCM

Another

As a retired geezer, I did watch the show. It was a 30-minute sitcom, what do you expect? Answer: not much when it comes to “important content” regarding amateur radio — or anything else.

I noticed the “illegal” use of the radio by an unlicensed and unsupervised person, of course. It was irresponsible to say the least for a ham to leave his rig “live” in a house full of teenagers.

But I marveled at how the writers could weave radio and international QSOs into the plot in a very quick and (to the uninformed) believable way. I bet there are a lot of young people who now have a different impression of ham radio as an alternative to mindless texting, Facebooking, etc. It was artfully done, I’d say.

Not that I’m likely to watch again. I’m the wrong demographic!

If we had a “show of our own”, I’m sure it would not get 7 million viewers.

73 Martin AA6E
ARRL Technical Advisor
ARRL Test Engineer

Storyline and writers depiction of Amateur Radio

We can look a little deeper into what was depicted in this episode.

Amateur Radio was a sub-plot in the episode titled “The Fight”.  The daughter, Mandy was getting poor grades in high school.  So, the parents decided that the reason for this was that she was spending too much time using her computer and smart phone.  To remedy the situation the parents decide to take away Mandy’s computer and phone until she pulls up her grades.

Of course, Mandy recites the mantra of her generation when her parents take away her devices, “This is how people of my generation communicate and exchange ideas”.  Without her devices, Mandy is having withdrawal symptoms.

Mandy wanders into the basement trying to find out where her parents hid her devices.  On the shelf she comes across an old typewriter.  She mistakes the typewriter for a laptop with a missing monitor.

Across the room is her fathers Amateur Radio station.  It’s fired up and running.  So, she walks over to it, sits down, picks up the microphone and stats talking.

All the comments above made by Hams is dead on.  What she did was illegal – you need a license to use a ham radio or be “third party traffic” with a licensed amateur radio operation present at the radio.  Leaving a ham radio on and unattended  like that was irresponsible.  And finally, no one just walks up to a radio with a linear amplifier and just starts talking without doing some technical fiddling.

“Who Are You People?”

When Mandy starts talking on the Amateur Radio, other Hams come back to her.  She asks, “Who are you people?”  One ham responds that they are amateur radio operators and that people all over the world can hear what you say.  In response, Mandy says, “Oh, it’s like twitter but more advanced since you don’t have to type”

Mandy tries to use what she knows about Twitter on Ham Radio.  So, after talking, she “hash tags” her last sentence and gives permission to “Re-Ham” (Re-Tweet) what she just said.  The ham folks reply with “LOL Mandy.  Did I get that right?

The writers have set up the dialog to get a laugh out of the generation gap between Mandy (a millennial) and the amateur radio operators (Baby Boomer generation and older).  Both generations try to talk to each other across the generation gap by trying to use idioms and phrases they think the other generation would understand.  Mandy tries to adapt her generations terms and concepts (hash tags, re/tweet) to the language of hams (“Re/Ham that’).

The personal stories of World War II

Mandy is trying to do a paper for school on World War II.  A couple of Ham’s respond.

Mandy tells the hams she is working on a paper for school on World War II.  She gets two responses.  The first ham (Walter) says he was on Omaha beach (D-day invasion).  Mandy misunderstands this as Walter trying to tell her about his vacation.  The second ham, a woman says, “I remember the war like it was yesterday.  Better than yesterday since I’m in early stages of dementia.”

Again, the script writers play on the generation gap between Mandy and the amateur radio operators go get a laugh.  Anyone of age who was present in World War II to have personal stories to tell is now in their late 70’s or 80’s.  The writers throw in the comment by the Ham that she is suffering from “early dementia” for good measure – it got a laugh.

Mandy does her paper and her parents compliment her on the all the personal stories of World War II she has cited.  She got those stories from the ham radio operators who she talked to.  They were there in World War II.

The Take

This episode of Last Man Standing was seen by an estimated 7 million people.  What impression did the mainstream masses come away with of Amateur Radio?  That Amateur Radio is a legacy technology with a bunch of old people?  Perhaps.

The 2009 ARRL has set this strategic goal

The ARRL will have a membership in 2020 with 60% of the members being under the age of 40.

I have not seen them report on this progress.  But engaging young people is essential to their continued existence given that the average age for hams is late 50’s and into the early 60’s and 70’s.  Young people are heavily under represented in the Amateur Radio community.

Is this a crazy idea?

While watching episode 17 of Last Man Standing on the internet I got treated to a whole bunch of commercials.

I saw ads for Google, Verizon, Internet Explorer, Land Rover, Nokia, and Bank of America.

I was treated to an interactive ad for Nokia smart phone video stabilization.

There were two ads for cat food and one ad for a carpet company (Luna).

What I did not see was an ad for the ARRL, or for any amateur radio equipment.  Was there no company or organization associated with Amateur Radio for which it would make sense to squeeze a 15 second spot for Amateur Radio between the two cat food commercials or the carpet commercial for this episode where Amateur Radio played a role?

Of course, any ham will tell you, that it’s crazy to advertise amateur radio to the mainstream.  The key is to ask them why.  Further, given the episodes depiction of Amateur Radio an ad would be embarrassing to whatever company or organization placed it.

The lasting impression to  7 million people

Those 7 million people who watched the episode of Last Man Standing now know the term “Amateur Radio”.  They saw some nice (expensive) equipment.  They got a few laughs at Amateur Radio’s expense built on the generation gap between Mandy and the Hams.  Now they will go on with their life and forget about amateur radio or know it as some sort of quirky legacy technology ( in the same scene where they saw a typewriter) before the advent of always-on global communications available to nearly everyone on the planet.

For Amateur Radio to survive it’s about influence and impact.  But I think that the portrayal of Amateur Radio on Last Man Standing to the mainstream masses has now relegated Amateur Radio only to a technical curiosity easily forgotten.

As a ham, I am very excited to be able to have an episode that presents our hobby in an upbeat and positive way,” Amodeo told the ARRL…  It’s worth noting that although hams will enjoy the episode, it was written with our 7 million non-ham viewers in mind. Please be prepared for some inconsistencies related to Amateur Radio, but enjoy the show nevertheless.

How many chances does the ARRL get to reach 7 million non-hams in the Last Man Standing demographic with a 22 minute story at no cost to them?  This high stakes portrayal of Amateur Radio to the mainstream also gives us some insight into the ARRL’s influence (influence to a team of creative sitcom script writers?) and ability to mange the public image of Amateur Radio.

Written by frrl

June 3, 2013 at 2:33 am

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