Two small ham radios sit on top of a larger ham radio on Ed Sershon’s desk at his home in Edmonds. He turns a dial to hone in on a signal that was coming from Argentina.
Beeps, static and a few whistles filled the air while two computer monitors above the radios showed the current weather, solar conditions and a Mercator map of the night and day cycle around the world. Sershon’s friend Greg Gadbois sat behind him, sipping his coffee and staring at the screens.
A voice garbled on the radio like an Imperial droid from Star Wars. Sershon grabbed the lollipop microphone on the table and tried to make contact with the person on the radio, but that person continued to garble as if they did not hear Sershon.
“Oh, well,” he said. “That happens sometimes.”
Sershon is the club president of the Edmonds Woodway Amateur Radio Club, where members celebrated its five-year anniversary this month at the Lake Ballinger Center. Members meet every Tuesday evening on the air and every second Thursday of each other month in person.
“I have been interested in radio and electronics since middle and high school,” said Sershon, who has had his own radio callsign (N7PHY) since the early 1990s. “Greg and I try different bands and modes, build different antennas, different service opportunities such as the emergency preparedness bit. I do like to communicate with people and keep in touch with new folks.”
Communicating with a ham radio is not too different from chatting online, Sershon added, but some setup is required. All Sershon did was set up the radio station at home, put an antenna on a tree, and piece together his own station. However, not everyone needs a setup like his.
“There’s different radios for different purposes,” Sershon said. Pointing to his radio setup, he said: “This one’s very expensive and unnecessary.” He then pulled out an example of what most people need: a handheld radio – which resembles a typical walkie-talkie – that he purchased on Amazon for $30.
Radio bypasses a third-party system like a central server or cell tower used for internet and cell phone communication. If these systems are down due to a disaster such as an earthquake, people with ham radios – also known as amateur radio – can still communicate locally, state-to-state or even internationally.
“Governments will shut down amateur radio during a war,” Sershon said. “The U.S. did it during World War II. Ukraine did initially, but I see Ukrainian stations on again. I don’t know what their current status is.”
“We can get messages across and ask someone, ‘Can you call so-and-so’s relative to let them know we’re OK?’” said Gadbois, who is the treasurer of the Edmonds Woodway Amateur Radio Club.
Gadbois received a crystal radio set for Christmas when he was a child and later started his ham radio hobby in 1975. His father, who served in the U.S. Army, had described how military personnel would correspond with each other, which got him fascinated with radio.
He said that he is learning about new places around the world whenever he is on the radio, such as Malawi and the island of Timor.
“This is so cool, it’s like talking to people from outer space,” he said in describing his first ham radio experience.
“I love it for many reasons. First, I love to talk,” Gadbois continued. “It’s 24/7. While we’re asleep, there’s always something going on, so it’s a hobby that you can do any time of the day. You can do it on land, mobile or handheld. I got them all.”
Gadbois even talked to two people from England simultaneously – one who was on a home phone while the other was on a cell phone from his car.
“I never forget that I talked to a guy in Israel,” he said. “He was a maintenance guy like myself. This had this huge, huge, station, halfway across the world.”
Despite the prevalence of the Internet and other digital technologies, Gadbois added that ham radios are still used widely today, including by emergency medical technicians, pilots and aviators, and even for marathons and similar events.
He recalled the 2019 Tunnel to Viaduct 8K Run/Walk in downtown Seattle, where he volunteered as a support staff to monitor the runners’ safety.
“The level of help from ham operators to police to fire spread out on this course was just the funnest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “People knew why we were there. We wore the bright vests and they saw the radios and they were high-fiving us and said, ‘Hey, how you’re all doing? Thanks for doing this!’ It was fantastic, but I was worn out by noon.”
A license is required to transmit for both amateur and commercial radio because there are a limited number of frequencies available.
Governments around the world have been keeping tabs on radio transmissions since the early 20th century after the International Radiotelegraph Convention of 1906 took place in Berlin, Germany. It was the result of international efforts to establish regulations for the rapidly growing field of wireless telegraphy, which laid the foundation for modern radio communication.
Radio licensing via the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) includes radio theories, rules and regulations, and a multiple-choice test before a callsign and license are issued, Gadbois said. Anyone who is caught cheating in the licensing process can have their licensing privilege removed for good by the FCC.
“It’s done very strictly, it’s very by the book, and it’s very government boring,” Gadbois said.
“If you’re just dipping your toe into this or you know that you’ll never be in radio, buy one, have a ham friend program it for the local frequencies, charge it up, and put it away,” Sershon said. “Everyone can own a radio and listen to one, [but] a license is needed to transmit. If an earthquake happens and you need a radio, it’d be too late to order one.”
Sershon suggests first-timers look up the requirements for licensing, including what to study and where to take the licensing test. They should also research what to do with the radio, which will guide what to buy.
Gadbois suggested a few professional amateur radio suppliers, such as Amateur Radio Supplies, Texas Towers and Ham Radio Outlet. Sershon suggested visiting Amazon to purchase a starter set, like a VHF/UHF hand-held starter radio for less than $20. Hardcore radio hobbyists can get a base station receiver that can pick up a wider frequency range, allowing users to communicate internationally. These cost more than $2,000.
“The experience of talking to different people in different areas, to me, is everything,” Gadbois said. “It’s not like you can get on and say, ‘I’m gonna talk to this guy in New Zealand.’ The [radio] propagation has to be there. It’s like fishing.”
The Edmonds Woodway Amateur Radio Club was started on Nov. 20, 2018 by John Vanderbeck, who had his ham radio license since 1956 and has been “on the air” for most of that time. He said that he started the club because he felt that “being retired was lonely.”
“My wife Fran and I moved to Edmonds from a condo near Kinnear Park in Seattle after my retirement in 2004,” Vanderbeck said in an interview. “I worked in electronics. While working, I had plenty of company. Lunch every day with people who did the same work.”
He discovered in 2016 that there were more than 300 ham radio users in the 98020 zip code area but the closest radio clubs were in Everett and Kent – with none in Edmonds. He mailed postcards to all of Edmonds users, inviting them to join and help build a local club.
“There was no response [initially]. Two years later, I did the same thing,” Vanderbeck said. “This time Greg Gadbois (N7IAD) and Jerry Johnson (WA7EDM) replied. We met at the Pancake Haus in Edmonds for breakfast, and the club was born. We made Greg president, Jerry vice president, myself John Vanderbeck (KM7O) as secretary, and soon added Barry Hansen (K7BWH) as treasurer.”
Currently, the club has more than 100 club members from Edmonds, Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, Shoreline and other nearby neighborhoods. While 55 members are actively paying the monthly membership, which covers clubhouse rentals and website maintenance, Gadbois said that the club is a nonprofit and people do not have to pay to participate.
Meanwhile, Gadbois said that he would like to see the club connect with schools and teach about radio licensing and ham radios, adding that plans for school outreach fell apart during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were going to work with Mountlake Terrace High,” he said. “They asked us if we can come to the school and teach the kids how to get a basic license to operate drones on a 6-meter bandwidth.”
While ham radios have a more-than-120-year history, Vanderbeck said that teaching young people today about them is important as part of growing up. Many youth have “lost touch with technology” and do not really understand how things work, he added.
“When I was young, almost all young men knew how to service an automobile, change the tubes in a television, do repairs on their home, etc.,” he said. “My high school had a metal shop, wood shop and an auto shop. Now young people have lost all these skills because the technology is too advanced. Hams [ham radio users] can still build their own equipment and understand how it works. This alone brings great satisfaction.
“Hams have made sure that if all the power is off and all the cell phones are not working, they can still communicate,” he continued. “This has been proven many times in disasters around the world. In the mountains where you have zero bars on your cell, you can still reach help via a handheld amateur radio transceiver.”
“Amateur radio has always been like a miracle to me,” Vanderbeck said. “With just a piece of wire for an antenna, you can be in contact with people all over the world.”
Visit the Edmonds Woodway Amateur Radio Club website for more information about the schedule and activities.
— Story and photos by Nick Ng