W7BRS Advice for New Hams

This advice is suited for really young hams.

I'm writing this because frankly, I'm annoyed by the abundance of young hams who have absolutely no sign of being trained or coached by experienced hams. The fault is not the child, as much as it is the fault of the parent who let them get the license without supervision to see the process through.

If you're offended by this opinion then I am sorry that you are offended.

Go out and borrow from the public library a copy of the ARRL Handbook. It doesn't matter what year it is for. The newer books have newer schematic designs for projects and so forth. The newer books cover operating modes that are more current. But the basics of operating, conducting a QSO, making di-pole antennas, and general get-on-the-air hints -- those bits of information are virtually unchanged over the years.

If you are a youngster, without an Elmer and you're not operating with the Handbook, then stop operating until you get both the Handbook and the Elmer. Listen to the Elmer and Read the Handbook.

Easiest way to Impress the other Hams

  1. Talk less, Listen More.
  2. Listen before pressing PTT.

You have read/heard this before, but do you do it? Especially for the truly young hams, listen before pressing the key down, listen before pressing Push-To-Talk. Listen before transmitting.

When you're in a QSO, take a couple seconds after the other station is done to return. Give space between your transmission and the exchange with the other station.

Despite the seemingly infinite frequency sub-divisions among the band plan for finding a clear space to have your QSO, the signal does take up a few kHz of bandwidth for phone, much less for CW -- but it does take up bandwidth. Add up all the QSO's going on and the sum of bandwidth can easily chew up most of the band. There's room for all of us, but learning how to listen before transmitting helps everyone. You'll hear the DX station trying to call you. You'll hear the friend trying to come back to your call. You'll yield for a second or two to allow another new friend to be made when they can join the QSO.

It's also better to yield the frequency for just a moment in case of emergency. The primary function is to provide a communication link. If the back-and-forth of your QSO yields no space for a break to those who really need to get help, it would be unfortunate.

Listen before transmitting. In QSO, break a few seconds between pressing the transmit button. Yield the frequency to gain information from other stations who are also listening.

Operating

Listen before calling

Don't press transmit before listening.

Keep call short

A QSO is like a good bridge. It only needs to be long enough to make the connection and convey the information.

Use the whole band

Start at the bottom of the HF band and work up looking for contacts. You could simply park on a frequency and start calling CQ, but you need to use your ears and listen for contacts. Go find them by listening up and down the band.

What Ham Radio is NOT

Ham radio is not a walkie-talkie. It is not a replacement of Instant-Messenger, ICQ, or IRC.

Rat-a-tat-tat back and forth mind-numbing QSO's where every fourth word is "ya know" and "yea" and giggling and so forth -- we don't want it on the air. It's not essential and wastes the bandwidth.

If you want to giggle, laugh, and say "ya know" and "yea" every four or five words, then use your cellular phone.

If you want to have a private conversation, then use a cellular phone.

If you want to tie up the repeater for 30 minutes while you chat about what you watched on television, then use a cellular phone.

Signs and Prosigns

When talking on the radio, using your voice as the means to relay information then it's important to use words and phrases that are easy to understand and convey the message without indirection.

On FM modes especially --- it's really not as critical to express every call-sign in Phonetics (unless you must), nor is it critical to use Q-signs (QSL, QRT, QRM, QSB, etc..) on FM.

On Single Side Band (USB, LSB), you'll have more need to use Q-signs for the HF bands. Use them there, not on FM.

By listening on HF you'll pick up some habits that other operators use that are good and bad.

Good operators sign. They keep their QSO's short to the point. When they rag-chew (long conversations) they are aware of where they are transmitting. If you are on a repeater, do not rag chew. Move on to simplex.

If you're on HF there's a bit more flexibility on where you can operate and operate without causing too much hassle for the other hams on the band.

Your First CQ

Good operators know what they intend to say before they press the transmit switch. They don't "think out loud" on the air, especially on repeaters. If you want to have a QSO that is essentially a rag-chew, then do so on a simplex frequency or do so with respect of the signals around you. There's no need for you to change frequency (QSY) if you are on a clear frequency that is being crowded after you start the QSO.. But if your QSO is being crowded after you start, and you cannot maintain the QSO it may be necessary to change up/down a few kHz. Likewise, if you start calling CQ on a frequency -- did you listen first? If you did not listen first, you're doing it wrong. Listen First. Did you notice if a QSO was taking place just below or above you? The other operators may be in a brief break and you may not hear them at that instant. Listen for a while.

And just before you push the transmit button, it doesn't hurt to simply ask: "QRZ, this is YOUR-CALL-SIGN, is this frequency in use?"

And ask it a few times over a couple minutes. Do not simply start talking or calling CQ without listening and checking the frequency! On FM repeaters -- no need to be as diplomatic about it -- you'll know if the frequency is in use by listening for a while before using it. And when you do use the repeater be aware that many many people are listening at your signal. If you key up on the repeater, the listeners know you are there and if they want to reply, they will. Do not call CQ on a repeater.

We also do not really want to hear kids usurp the repeater in mind-numbing QSO's that should be better on a cell phone or instant messenger. That is what Discord/Skype/Twitter is for.

Your Responsibility

Finally a stern warning: Just because you are a youngster with a ham license doesn't mean it's OK for you to act like a child on the air. The amateur radio license is not special for children. The same rules and usages apply to all operators. Act accordingly. Even adults make mistakes and must own up to them. Children are no different. As the old cartoon goes "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

The parallel for ham operators is "On the Amateur bands, no one will excuse childish behavior even if you are one."

Parents of children who are hams need to take an active role in monitoring their children's radio use and not let bad habits build up.

Advice such as this web page is meant to improve the hobby for the kid who just got his ham license. It explains a few things, but much of what the young ham should do is learned by doing. Encourage your child ham operator to learn by doing with an experienced operator at their side (either physically or on the air). Un-monitored bad operating practices by young hams breeds bad operating practices of older hams.

Having said all that, it is truly remarkable that the young kids are on the air and their population is growing. I'm more pleased than anything to hear the young voices on the air.

But like I mentioned earlier -- with the privilege to operate comes a responsibility to operate well -- and that responsibility is shared between the young ham and the parent/guardian plus the ham community that encourages the young ham.

Nip problems in the bud. Correct mistakes early. Encourage experimentation. Nurture the desire to learn. Make them A1 operators, not just kids with a radio.

Good DX, good luck and welcome to the Amateur Radio Community.


Other Advice that Won't Hurt

Selecting Radios

Of course you listen before transmitting, you may have already demonstrated mastery of the listen-before-transmitting lesson. But what if you don't have a radio for the HF bands. You may have started out with a 2 meter hand-held radio for working the local hams on the repeater.

Go for HF. Get a rig, any rig, that can get you on the HF bands. You've just got that Tech or General license -- so go on the HF bands!

Before you decide to buy a radio, try a radio. Try any HF radio by asking local hams to loan you their un-used backup HF rig. If they truly wish to help new hams get a good start, they would be glad to loan you their basic backup HF radio. Take them up on their offer. Ask them if you can borrow a backup radio so you can figure out what you like or dislike about that kind of radio.

Finding a radio by browsing QST magazine ads and reviews is not the way to select a radio. Every QST review glows on the radio they review. There have been seldom a review in a magazine that takes advertising dollars from the manufacturer's of radios in the ads. It's marketing.

You'll know what radio to buy by getting a radio to try.

While you are trying the radio, subscribe to mailing lists for various manufacturers. ICOM, Yaesu, Kenwood, Elecraft, Alinco, etc.. Most of the time there's someone on the email lists who is selling their radio (so they can upgrade). Their decision to sell is your opportunity to get the radio you want at a discount. Avoid Ebay unless you can personally vouch for the quality of the sale item -- for radios and amplifiers -- this is just smarter advice. For accessories that don't cost as much -- the chance is worth it, usually.

If you have an "Elmer" -- someone who is willing to spend the time to show you how to work HF, then chances are you already have a loaner-radio.

When working stations on HF it's very difficult to tell if the other station is working with the new expensive radio or a used-classic radio.

What's more obvious though is how they operate. How they sign their call, how to conduct the QSO, and how to listen before transmitting. NO RADIO can give you those abilities. That's what's between your ears! The radio is just the tool you use to receive and transmit with.

Obviously some radio's are better at receiving than others. Some radio's make better signal output. But most of the time, most of the radios do a good job at both. And for you, the new ham, the goal is not to have the best receiver money can buy, or the best signal output money can buy. But it needs to be a good signal. You can find out how good it is with the help of an Elmer.

Your goal is to have a good receiver in terms of the radio and a good receiver in terms of the brain you were born with. Listen before transmitting. No radio can prevent you from pressing transmit at the wrong time.

What used loaner-radio's are good ones to get? That question could get a different answer for every ham you ask. But your Elmer will help you find one that will suit you. It may be a new rig, it may be a classic radio, it may be home-brew. Take whatever you get -- the Elmer will be there to show you the way. Yaesu, ICOM, and Kenwood all have good radios. Elecraft makes two good radio's for HF the K3 and K2. The K2 would be easier to find for a budget minded ham. Yaesu and ICOM radio's have a multitude of model numbers over the years, like Kenwood -- you'll find out after reading "E-ham" reviews what the relative differences are between those radios. (E-ham reviews are different than QST reviews because they are unvarnished opinions vs. editorials by magazines that make their money selling ads from the companies that make the radios.. Remember, QST reviews are as good as an advertisement)

Modes

Modes to start out with? Where ever your interests take you, go there. On SSB (USB/LSB) you can work HF. FM us usually good for local repeater use and satellite work. CW is usually good for HF and repeater work. Other digital modes (RTTY, PSK, etc..) work well on all amateur bands. Some advice on CW: Learn CW with a paddle. Not a straight key. If you have never learned CW, you could be a natural straight key operator. Chances are you are not a natural. Chances are you will find CW difficult.

It's just a mathematical fact that a straight key and a paddle are different. The keyer can produce the key signal regularly, every time. There is no "swing" in a paddle as there is in a straight key.

You also learn a completely different muscle movement in paddle vs. straight key use. Many CW decoders will be able to function easier with paddle generated signal than straight key. The personal swing in a the straight key is still detected, but the DSP of decoders have more difficulty with it than keyer generated signal -- again a mathematical fact. The "DSP can either be the grey-matter or software".

You can try to argue that you can make straight key sound equivalent to the quality of regular paddle keyed signal. But who can do that? Someone who trained and mastered a straight key. How many do that? Not many.

If your goal is to master straight key CW, then go for it. If your goal is to get on the air with CW quickly and be able to send well formed characters, go with the paddle. Don't carry too much on your "CW Plate". The paddle clears up one problem. It lets you send well formed characters much faster sooner in your learning. A straight key is like a musical instrument -- you have to learn the instrument as you learn the code. Why make it more complicated? ;-)

Antennas

For the impatient:
Go search ARRL.ORG web site for dipole antenna.

QST magazine has published articles, at least a few times every year, on "how to make a dipole".

Go to the public library, ask where the QST magazines are, and pick up any volume from any year and browse the index for "dipole" antenna.

There are more dipole antenna designs than hams.

The idea here has been written so often that it's funny that it has to be repeated. If you have a copy of the ARRL Handbook (any year will do!) then you know that a simple dipole antenna -- one of the most simple antennas to make -- is probably the best kind of antenna to put up if you are just starting out. Don't worry -- you can get a beam, or quad or anything else later. Focus on getting on the air now with HF and doing that with a dipole takes about an hour or less with what you already have in your garage/workshop. Take the ARRL Handbook and go to the chapter on Antennas. Look up Dipole.

Copy down the ingredients for the Dipole.. Now go find the parts:

Go take a walk into your workshop and garage and find the parts you already have. All you may need are some connectors (PL-259/SO-239) but a trip to the electronic supply house near by can solve that.