Ham radio hobbyists share knowledge at Gadsden event

Sep. 12—ATTALLA — A gathering at the Etowah County Fairgrounds Saturday brought out the importance of traditional wireless communication in the smartphone era.

The mostly older crowd at the fairgrounds consisted of short-wave radio enthusiasts meeting for the 2023 Gadsden Hamfest, hosted by the Gadsden Amateur Radio Club. It's an annual event where "hams" — amateur radio operators — buy, sell and trade radio equipment.

Paul Frey, 72, with the callsign K9PTF — everyone in the hobby has his or her own alphanumeric identifier they use regularlywhile speaking on the air — was perusing the electronic offerings and said what he enjoyed most about the hobby is camaraderie.

Frey said he was first licensed in 1995 and is a member of the Quarter Century Wireless Association, a club for those licensed for 25 years or better.

Frey said there are more older people in the hobby, but there has been a resurgence of younger people when they find out that ham radio is not just a radio.

"Once they find out you can digitally go around the world on 25 watts on a hand-held they change [their opinion]. Many of the young people say, 'Well l can use my cell phone,' then we look at them and say, 'Well where on that cellphone can you go and call somebody and talk to them 24 hours, seven days a week without knowing them, without knowing a number whatsoever,'" Frey said.

"But you can do that on ham radio. Once they see that demonstrated they go, 'Wow, I've got to look into this, I thought it was just a bunch of old people,' because there are young people out there," he said.

The Gadsden Amateur Radio Club's own callsign is K4JMC.

Contrary to its name, ham radio has nothing to do with anything you'd eat. Nor is it related to self-absorbed bad acting. Rather, its etymology can be traced back to the earliest days of radio itself.

According to the American Radio Relay League — the largest membership association of amateur radio enthusiasts in the United States — the name "ham" dates back to 1908 when the first letter of each last name of three radio pioneers was used to creat it: Alfred Hertz, Edwin Amstrong and Guglielmo Marconi. However, it was also the station call sign of the Harvard Radio Club, who used the first letter of radio operators Hyman, Almy and Murray.

Mick Lindley, Gadsden Hamfest chairman, said the event has been held annually for at least 40 years and the name does in fact befuddle a few people.

"We've had people walk in and say 'Where's the ham and what time is it gonna be served?' It's not food, it's a ham-fest which is an amateur radio club gathering, people selling stuff, it's a big social gathering on top of that, a lot of fun," Lindley said.

Lindley has been licensed as a ham radio operator since 1984 and said the hobby is appealing on several levels.

"The fact that you can talk to the other side of the world, but then there's always the social aspect of it too, ham radio operators are a unique bunch, there's only 900,000 of us in the whole United States, what is that percentage, way low," Lindley said.

Fred Cross, from Pinson, was selling tables full of vintage and recent radio equipment.

"I get to sell all the people I don't normally see, we sell a few things, buy a few things, have a lot of fun," Cross said.

The Gadsden club was also offering ham radio license exams for people wanting to become hams and also for radio operators wanting to upgrade their licenses.

Frey said that one of the advantages of ham radio is how it can be used to aid first responders during disasters and emergencies.

Having been a first responder in Indianapolis, Frey said he has seen a trend where first responders rely on cell phones for communications. Yet there are also major destructive disasters such as the fires in Maui.

"Do you know what went down in Maui?" Frey asked. "The cell towers, so they didn't have communications. But you know what stayed up? Ham radio — they could communicate so you can't make these bold judgements that cells going to be the way to go in the future."

For more information on the Gadsden Amateur Radio Club: https://gadsdenradio.org/

The Calhoun County Amateur Radio Association: https://www.facebook.com/WB4GNA/

Staff writer Bill Wilson: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @bwilson_star.