Still on the Radio
Michele Hilmes on ham radio culture
HAM RADIO’S TECHNICAL CULTURE.
By Kristen Haring. MIT Press. 220 pp. $27.95
Kristen Haring has written a valentine to the ham radio community. This largely invisible sphere of two-way radio communication among technical enthusiasts blossomed in the early 20th century, as amateurs built radio sets with tubes, wires, and switches, and launched Morse-coded messages on the newly discovered airwaves. In the decades since, changes in technology and shifts in the culture have diminished the romance of radio amateurs, but not their numbers. Today, they can still be found in basements and garages, logging distant contacts and keeping up with regulars on the frequencies that remain available to them.
Haring, a historian of science and technology, takes an anthropological approach to ham radio culture that reflects the concerns and values of its denizens while acknowledging the realities of its male-dominated culture, in which female hams have been disparaged on the air and discouraged from joining the fraternity. Her emphasis, however, is on respectful description rather than critical analysis. The ham radio community will likely receive this book with accolades (part of it that was previously published won a prize from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). For the rest of us, though, the experience of reading it may sometimes feel like an encounter with Uncle Alvin, the ham radio enthusiast, at a family get-together. Our eyes glaze as we nod tolerantly, hoping that we don’t have to trek yet again to the radio shack and pretend an interest in circuits, call signs, and wall charts.
Those seeking an account of ham radio enthusiasts’ contributions to American broadcasting, an analysis of why technical pursuits are so frequently gendered, or an exploration of how ham radio operators’ marginalization may have inspired other technological countercultures, such as pirate radio or computer hacking, won’t find what they’re looking for here. Instead, Haring has given voice to the hams themselves, trolling patiently through journals well known within the ham community such as CQ and QST along with texts as specialized as Jobber News and Electronic Wholesaling and RCA Ham Tips (not a cookbook). She also dusted off books with titles only a hobbyist could love (e.g., Vacuum Tube Circuits for the Electronic Experimenter).
Haring situates radio hobbyists not only in the technological realm but within the worlds of work and home, as consumers and as contributors to civil defense. A thread of domestic tension runs throughout this history, as reflected in one ham’s query soliciting “anyone [who has] managed to build a ham rig into a modern home and keep it unobtrusive.” During the first half of the century, hams often faced government suspicion that they might be using their instruments to communicate with “foreign” agents, though in the World War II years they dubbed themselves the minutemen of radio and some joined the (tightly supervised) War Emergency Radio Service. By the 1960s, anxiety about what those tinkerers were up to in their backyard shacks had eased, just as the emergence of integrated circuits posed another threat to ham radio: If anyone could buy a prepackaged set and be on the air within hours, what made the hobby distinctive?
Yet ham radio remains popular in this era of cellular phones, CB radios, and the Internet. Why? Haring argues that in ham radio’s heyday, men found fraternity, indulged a fascination with gadgetry, and gained the respect of employers through this community. Though today’s advanced technologies have rendered much of their expertise obsolete and undermined the “powerful, skilled, precise, and manly” ham image, says Haring, an “emotionally charged technological nostalgia” lingers. This sounds like the same motive that drives others to collect records or attend Star Trek conventions. The technical side of ham culture, then, may be less relevant to its endurance than its hobbyist aspect—but that’s a subject for another book.