Episode 270 - Frank Howell - K4FMH Transcript
Eric Guth: (00:04)
This episode of QSO Today is sponsored by Icom America, makers of the finest HF, VHF and UHF transceivers and accessories for the radio amateur. Reminding you that they have just the right rig for contesters, DXers and ragchewers and by QRP labs. My friend, Hans Summers, G0UPL's radio kit company makers of the popular QCX kit transceiver. My thanks to Icom America and QRP labs for sponsoring the QSO Today podcast. Welcome to the QSO Today podcast. I'm Eric Guth 4Z1UG; your host. Some of the amateurs that I interview have long radio stories but short ham radio stories. Frank Howell, K4FMH has a love for radio and electronics that goes back over 60 years but is only a recent licensee. He makes a great case for recruiting retired people into the hobby by his energy, volunteerism and technical devotion that he discusses in this QSO Today.
K4FMH. This is Eric , 4Z1UG, Are you there, Frank?
Yes. K4FMH this is Frank. You are five by nine in Ridgeland.
How about that? And we're five by nine on Skype, you sound terrific by the way.
Frank. Thanks for joining me on the QSO Today podcast. Can we start at the beginning of your ham radio story? When and how did it start for you?
Sure. Like a lot of people, my ham radio story goes over long period of time and I got a little transistor radio, very inexpensive device, had the ubiquitous telescoping whip antenna and had one of those little white earpieces that by the day’s standards has almost a Donald duck nose end on it that you would jam into your ear to listen to. You only had one, you didn’t have two. And so that was the first thing that I ever really remember getting that was mine. And of course the first thing that would happen is my brother or somebody stepped on the aerial and snapped it off. Of course I was heartbroken, but I would listen to it and I could pick up the local station. But one evening when I was in my bed going to sleep or I'm supposed to go to sleep, my finger touched on the little nub where the antenna used to be and geeze, I could hear all kinds of stuff. So that kind of got the hook. That was the hook that that got set in this fish, if you will. So I began to think, okay, when you find a hook, hook that to the springs under the mattress. And so I found a piece of wire and probably cut it two or three times before I got an installation off of it. Wound around that nub mastic to the springs and wow. Then I was off and running WLS out of Chicago. I was a native of middle Georgia and so that was pretty good DX then and I had a wooden headboard that had a kind of rails. And so the next thing I knew, I found some old enamel wire that came out of a transformer and the old television set that had been thrown away and I got a hammer and a screwdriver and beat that thing to death and finally got that enamel wire off of it and scraped it clean.
I built what I later learned was to be an air core loop using thumbtacks on the back of that bed. Now my grandmother raised me, she was not very happy about finding that when she was cleaning up one day, but she let me keep it. And so I began at probably five years old maybe, with radio and we moved out to the family farm house. We were in town at that point, moved to the family farm house and there was an RCA, a shortwave receiver, and the living room had a green winking eye. When you tuned in the signal, that was our estimator of the day. I can hear all kinds of strange things. And so I ran a piece of wire. We were poor. I didn't know I grew up in poverty, but in old farmhouses there used to be a hole in the corner of each room with real wooden floors.
And there was a reason for that and it usually had a cork in it or some plug. It's because if you mopped, you take that plug out and you'd mop the water and it would run beneath the house. So that was my then PVC pipe to the outer world and I ran wire out and I was off and running. So really about eight years old, Eric, I really had the bug. I could listen to ham radio operators and it was 75 meters and they were beginning to talk about those mush mouths. They're just ruining ham radio. And I remember that comment vividly because it's very prescient to the day. What are we here today? FTA? It's ruining ham radio. And that was when side band was coming in and they would call them mush mouths because without a BFO it sort of sounded like they were talking with their mouths full.
So I began, certainly by eight years old, I was hooked, but there was no Elmer. I looked back in some old call books and I've only found three or four licensed hams in 1960. I was born in 1952. So about the time I was eight years old, there was an exceptionally small number of hams and I didn't know any of them. So I became a listener. And my little joke is, today when they say you should listen to the bands first before transmitting, I got licensed at 58. So Eric, I usually say, look, I listened for 50 years. Can I talk now? I can continue with that line. That was the hook that got me sort of established and it was magic. And every one of our listeners knows what I mean by that magic. How in the world could you hear these things? At night, you'd hear certain things in the day, you'd hear certain other things and what's up with that. And I finally had saved some money from working out on a farm. We had a hog farm, raised pigs and brought her family connection and I earned some money and I joined the International Radio Club of America, IRCA. They were a broadcast band DX group. And I learned an awful lot through that monthly newsletter that came about DXing about the ionosphere. I was thoroughly intrigued, you know, with that and I actually built through scavenging parts, another old radio that got thrown away, a ferrite bar and I built a ferrite core loop capacitor that was tuned in for broadcast band and a Faraday Shield out of a piece of aluminum that I think I'd bent on bricks and pounded it with a hammer to get it into what might look like a U shape to put on that board and built it from plans into IRCA newsletter.
So I was doing broadcast band DXing and listening to KSL in Salt Lake City and middle Georgia at night during the winter and collecting QSL cards and things of that nature. But there was no Elmer and I was interested in ham radio, but I was really interested in listening and hearing about stations and other strange things that we might hear sometimes airplanes. And today when I look at the things that we have about and blocking it. Amelia Earhart, yes. About trying to find out what happened to Amelia Earhart. And there were some hams who say they heard an SOS signal from where I think about my time during that period of time where all the things that I heard that I didn't know what they were, who knows what they were. But that love stayed with me and I kind of was on the way to becoming an engineer, but the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War school desegregation and things of that nature really caught my attention as a teenager.
And so I got interested in social justice. I really fell in love with Dan Rather when he was holding on that Palm tree in Houston during a hurricane and reporting for CBS news. And I thought, well, you know, that's what I want to be. So I went into journalism. I went to college nearby, worked my way through, had two pair of blue jeans when I was junior in college, I remember buying some shoes from Sears for four, $5. They were moon shoes. I don't know if you remember what moon shoes were back during the hippie movement. You know, they were called mules now and they're more, what we might identify as women's shoes, but they didn't have heels on it. But to me, I could put shoes on my feet for $2.50 a foot. So I was working my way through college and majored in sociology and built the campus FM station at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia against the wishes of the administration.
So I kind of had that love of technology and radio coming out, even though I had sort of embraced what was happening in society in terms of social justice.
Why was there an opposition to a campus radio station in those days?
Well, the history of the school, it had been an all-girls school until 1966 or seven. And so these newfangled guys showing up were causing all kinds of problems like wanting money from student activity fees to have dances and things like that. And it was a very conservative administration, and so what I did along with a friend who was president of student body, we said, okay, let's just take over the student activity budget committee. And we got two faculty, one of whom was a sociology professor and the other was a geographer and we got them to buy into our agenda and we won elections.
And this was a freshman in college when we were doing this and we got them to vote with us. So we actually got money for that campus FM station, I voted through the student activities budget committee. We also found that in years past they could control that committee and any money that students didn't spend kind of went up for administrative use. So we kind of began to see some interest in social justice coming out there. But I got the Dana students to buy into it. She was a champion for what we wanted to do and I got to visit WVBS at Valdosta State as a very successful campus station. The station manager there went to work for WTBS and Ted Turner. And he was the guy who did the voice over for this is WTBS and I kind of kept up with him. That was before trying to broadcast and got bought when I was finishing my degree, I didn't really know what I wanted to do.
Like a lot of people I wanted to go into journalism. I was in a small market. I was going to have to move somewhere else. But there were three people in town who wanted to build a commercial station because they got tired of paying exorbitant ad rates. One was a Ford dealer, one had a dry cleaners and one was an attorney. And so they decided to build one. Well, how are they going to do this? Well, there's this boy over at the college who was building an FM station, so let's hire him. And that person obviously was me. So I got to build a commercial AM station with someone else's money. So Eric, I went through two SEC application processes , one as a college student and then as an immediate graduate to get into broadcasting. And I held the third class broadcast losses from the FCC, went to Atlanta and took my exam.
Had a first-class engineer there in town who did radio engineering. Robbie had a way, taught me a lot never forget Robbie. He looked like Mr. Rogers because he always wore a sweater. Even in the summer he would have a cardigan, you know, that type of button-up sweater. So I learned a lot. Those were kind of early Elmers, not necessarily for ham radio, but for broadcasting. I watched them lay down that copper grid for the vertical antenna and so on. But I told them, I said, look, I don't really know how to run a radio station. You need to hire somebody with a degree in broadcasting because I don't know about ad rates. You know, there's a lot, I don't know. I really want to be news director. So I hired a new graduate from university of Georgia and broadcasting, Bruce Culpepper and he was originally from the next County over.
So Bruce came in, he was the station manager and I was news director and I did that for a few years and had my heart broken, my two best stories. The women took over the state women's prison and there was a bootlegging scandal at the veteran’s hospital and I covered those, broke those stories. When it came out in the Atlanta journal, I came out under that editor’s byline. He kind of stole and hijacked my story, not a thing I could do about it. It's kind of a rough and tumble business. But I had applied to graduate school, to kind of get a couple of professors whom I liked off my back. They wanted me to apply to graduate school in sociology. So I got a phone call one day when I got home from work and they offered me a graduate assistant-ship to Mississippi state come study sociology.
And just like that I said yes, changed my life, changed my career. I went to graduate school and became a college professor and spent decades trying to be successful in that. And I think I was. And when I, retired from Mississippi State or had the opportunity to retire the chancellor at the university system of Georgia and Atlanta recruited me to come over and be a senior policy analyst and I went, moved to Atlanta and my wife and I relocated there and I had some family North of Atlanta. I saw an ad at the Georgia Tech campus. Because I would go to these different campuses to do kind of flunky work for, for the chancellor. And it said, we can boot camp, gets your ham radio license and a weekend, Georgia tech amateur radio club. So I said, you know, I've never done this. I think they've dropped the Morse code. I never felt like I could take the time to do that. So I did that. Got a license as a tech, a one weekend, and then as a general the next weekend. That was in 2010 and I was 58 years old. So it was a long time coming. But it doesn't mean that I didn't buy QST off of the newsstand. It didn't mean I wasn't listening to ham radio. I just couldn't transmit.
What was your first call sign?
KJ4QJZ. Now say that back to me.
It's not easy. So I quickly got a vanity call of K4FMH, which were my initials
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Okay, so you're a latecomer into amateur radio, a latecomer from the standpoint of being licensed, but obviously not a latecomer with the love of radio. Can we go back just a little bit? I want to go back to the campus radio station for just a moment because I think that you said that you had an interest in the civil rights movement and social justice in those days. What was your agenda in terms of, what was the programming you were intending to put on the FM station?
Oh, it was just rock and roll music. It was WEX GC 88 rocks. That was our little low slogan. There was a very successful commercial station in Atlanta, called 96 Rocks and it was obviously on FM on 96 megahertz or so. And so it was modeled after that and it had no social justice agenda, although we had a very diverse ethnically speaking staff. So we were certainly open music at that time. College radio stations at that time were kind of the new wave. And if you think about what was going on in England where the postal service kind of re-regulated that is what you get. Well, Radio Caroline and all the pirates emerge because of that control. But you know that's the way college radio stations were back in those days and to some degree still are.
Right. It seems to me that, you know, campus stations often, are like album stations, you know, they'll just put a whole album on and play it all the way through.
There's a lot of that Eric, but, but let me just say that that station is now WGUR, it's still in operation almost 45 years later. They have a staff of 50 and they cut it off at 50 so when you think about what ever someone did, if they went to college, what did you do in college that would be around almost a half century later? I'm certainly very proud of the fact that it is still going, you know, 45 years afterwards.
That was a very interesting time. I was young in that time. I was a young, well I guess I came at the end of the baby boom. You are a boomer right in the middle. Right. For you, what is the most significant historical experience of that time that probably made the largest impact in terms of the direction that you took in your life?
I was a basketball player, high school and quite frankly thought I would be a basketball star as you know, many young athletes think they're going to be. And so I laid off the books and focused on basketball. Now I had scored in the top 5% my sophomore year of top two and a half percent my junior, senior years on something called the National Engineering Exam. So I got a letter from Cornell that they called it a pre application admittance, which basically said with these test scores, if you apply we guaranteed to accept you. So I kind of laid off the books however, and my grades were not stellar. But during the summer between my junior and senior year, federal judge in new Orleans, Judge Boodle who passed away a couple of years ago, rendered a court decision that legally desegregated many schools and particularly in the South who were segregated.
And so during my senior year, we had a forced desegregation. Many of my white friends went to some of the pop up white flight academies that occurred. There were two in my County. The buildings were literally sold for $1 by the white school board, to white groups that was later ruled in the state Supreme court in Georgia to be legal on devices. So you elected them, you gave them the authority to do that no matter whether it is good, bad or ugly. So I stayed in the public school and that was certainly a transition for both white and black students. And that probably had the single graced impact on me and how I looked at the world, what I wanted in life and what I wanted to learn about life. And that probably drove me into the social sciences and my PhD is in sociology and statistics, and I've spent several decades studying race relations, the social movements and things like that. I've published on hate crimes and church burnings and things like that. So that probably had the greatest single impact on me. That and of course the Vietnam war was there, and my lottery number was very high. My cousin was head of the draft board, so I got a pass. I felt a lot of guilt about that, but those were the times. And those were the things that were happening. And so that's probably the most significant set of events on my life.
Yeah, I think I heard today, we think things are bad today. On the one hand, we don't remember it, that in the late sixties 400 Vietnam soldiers were being killed a week in Vietnam. Casualties were high and campuses were burning in America. So it's a very interesting time.
As Paul Simon wrote, we're being McNamara, and McNamara was an official in that administration. So the music reflected that.
He was the Secretary of Defense.
Yes. And so the music really reflected a lot of what you're saying.
So we'll come to now, you know, when we talk getting new hams, we're usually thinking kids. And I think on the QSO Today podcast, every once in a while we talk about what does it take to attract new blood into amateur radio. But it seems to me, and you're an example of this, that our hobby has a big opportunity to attract retired people. How should we as a community make this presentation to retirees?
I certainly fit that and some of my bio is I do some volunteer work for the AR AOL. I'm assistant director for the Delta division, working with director Dave Norris. And I have a background in survey research. I've started to survey centers and have a chapter in the handbook of survey research and kind of taught that for years and all that. So surveys had been a big part of my career. I've done some surveys for the Delta division and one of the things that I was able to identify where these light and life hams that you're in, I think the definition and the reports are online, and I'll send them to you for the show notes. I think it was either over 45 or 50 but you've been licensed less than five years. So we have what we sociologists called a cohort, a birth cohort.
If you were born in a certain period of years, you kind of experienced society in a certain age in a very unique way. If you grew up as a child during the depression, you tend to be very frugal. Goes as Dolly Parton sang. There were a lot of hard candy Christmases when you're growing up and you remembered that uniquely as opposed to being older or perhaps even younger. So when we approach a people who may not actually be retired in terms of employment, but what they are, they're in the period of their life where they reached their peak earning potential. And when you look at age income curves, you'll see 45 to perhaps 55 to 60 era, it's where on average, people earn their most money per year. So they've got more discretionary money. Number two, they've probably got an empty nest. The surveys show that club participation as well as the weekly amount of time spent in amateur radio declined where you have kids in the household.
So you've got other things to do. Now we are all aware of those sort of a little selfish from my viewpoint and say, well you don't have your priorities straight, you know, ham radio, everything else is secondary. Well there are a lot of divorced people who have that philosophy here. So this is true. So, so they've got an empty nest, okay, money, empty nest and they probably got exposed to some of the stuff that you and I got exposed to early in life. But like me, they didn't have the environment or the opportunity to act on it and they got an opportunity now and so we ought to make sure we try to reach out to places where those people are. Whether it's public library, where there's coffee shops, where it's those third places where you meet people. Here in the US we say you meet everybody at Walmart.
We may not have a ham radio kiosk at Walmart, but we ought to reach out to places where there are social clubs, whether it's a rotary club or others where people in that age group might be, we need to do that because they are the fastest growing sector of amateur radio. I wish all kids got had an opportunity to get into it, but in fact they are the fastest growing segment at least in the Delta division ,not sure why there'd be any dramatic difference anywhere else in the U S at least.
Well I think this is actually created a Renaissance for amateur radio and amateur radio manufacturers, equipment makers, things like this. I think anyone who goes to any of the major ham Fest now in North America and around the world will see that there is no shortage of equipment and complimentary devices for amateur radio. As a sociologist and a person who looks at trends in statistics. It appears to me that, and probably to a lot of people that service clubs like Rotary Club, McEwan is Elks, you know, all of these groups that use to be philanthropic but had large memberships that those organizations that also have kind of almost gone by the wayside. Our retirees now joining those clubs as well. Are those clubs also enjoying resurgence or is it just amateur radio that has this opportunity?
Well, Eric, , there was a famous book by Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone. It's probably about 15 years or so old and his point was this, and the title came from it. There are more people bowling at that point than in recorded history, but there were far fewer bowling leagues. Hence people were bowling alone. The metaphor for that is that we are engaging in public groups at a far lower rate than before and yet that doesn't mean the activities around those groups are not continuing. You'll find that at least in our survey, and I'm not sure what the ARRL stuff shows. How many of you have ever been in a club? Only about half would say yes. And I'm not saying that's a universal statistic, but it's one that's at least they talking point around.
And when you ask those that are not, how many of you remember today? You'll have fewer than 50%. Those that are not a member today but used to be a member, you ask them why they go to one central point, what we would call bad leadership. And you can go into that about what constitutes bad leadership. You know, I'm the president of my club. We do it my way. Well people don't cotton to that to use a Southern term and clubs that are primarily, how much money we got in the bank and let's approve the minutes. Yeah. Who wants to go to a club meeting to have that? So, the form of how we collectivize or come together has changed. But that's not unique to amateur radio. You find those service clubs, to be climbing in terms of their membership and you'll have the local rotary clubs or other civic clubs have the same questions that we in amateur radio have.
How are we going to get younger people involved in those service clubs? So it's not anything unique to amateur radio. But now you ask about what's the answer? Well, I think there are probably multiple answers. One is you make something interesting. If you love ham radio, would you go to a club meeting once a month or whenever the cycle is to hear a budget report and in this kind of thing. No, you probably won't. But you will go to learn about what is really cool and neat and that somebody else in your club did. And hey, they built this thing. Or, hey, they worked this as extraordinary DX or they bounced a radio wave off the moon and it came back or they did a foxhole or they did something that was fun because that's where people will want to congregate.
So I think, and I've certainly said this in some interviews I've done with Howard Mikell of the relatively new, although he's been in office a year, ARRL CEO of how do clubs get brought along to do better. And I think they are, ARRL leadership is certainly thinking about late affiliated clubs and how do we teach them leadership and, and what clubs function is or that will be more effective. So you know, with love, 25 cent words, you got to do stuff and you got to make it fun. Why else would anyone go to somewhere for a club meeting? And we found in some of our surveys that are willing to drive 30 miles or more for club meeting, they may pass up clubs who meet in between their home and where they go. And you start looking at that. Why would they do that? Well, it's because that club is doing something that's fun.
There are almost 800,000 amateur radio licensees in North America. And it seems to me, I've heard that the majority of those hams may not be on the air or they may not be involved at all. They've gotten their license perhaps the same way that you did at a weekend licensing event. What was the difference for you? I mean, if the majority of people that go to a weekend licensing event ended up not getting on the air. Why did you end up on the year? What was different? What could maybe the VEC or the sponsoring organizations do to improve the number of active hams who come out of their licensing programs?
Well, it's a great question and I think it's one that certainly gets discussed a lot and I don't know that there is a silver bullet. Let me answer it in terms of my own personal experience and maybe we can go from there. I had some people in the Atlanta area who reached out to me and who were Elmers, and one of them was Arnold Solomon KC4ZUA. Arnold was in the Atlanta radio club, which I joined, Robin Cutshaw for RC of D-Star fame, a developer of the DevAp and some of the technology surrounding D-star and Hotspot and Bill Perkins, KB4FKFT. Bill was president of the Atlanta radio club several times I learned about operating from Arnold, the do's and don'ts of being on the air. And I would talk to Arnold. I had an hour commute each way from Buford, Georgia to the Capitol in Atlanta, and then an hour the other way.
And I taught at Emory at night. My name is still hanging on the wall at Tarbutton Hall and Emory's adjunct professor, but I don't teach there now. And so Arnold told me a lot about the culture of amateur writing on the do's and don'ts and how do you do a handoff on a repeater and, and things like that. And Arnold has a very distinctive, if you will, accent, he's from New York, lived in the South a long time. And my joke is Eric, that Arnold is the only person I've ever known who can do AM on an FM repeater. He uses Arnold modulation on an FM repeater because he has a very distinctive voice. Robin Cutshaw taught me a bit about digital radio and things around the star and building things when you have ideas, put them into practice.
So I got a little of those early and made attempts at building, receiving antennas. I got a little bit energized from being around Robin Cutshaw. Bill Perkins is probably the single best club president that I've ever known. And Bill developed something called a L expedition local D expedition where he might go a park and just announce it and people get on 10 meters and just try to work him. Or he might go on vacation, a state away or somewhere, announce it and people get on the air and they've got someone to talk to and it kind of provides you an opportunity to exercise the different bands, the different, locations and things like that. And to keep things fun he developed a quarterly outing in a park in Atlanta where it was like field day four times a year, separate from field day.
So Bill Perkins taught me a lot about kind of the organization of amateur radio. So the Atlanta club had a pretty good outreach and loud club in the Georgia tech, sort of student club worked very carefully or they have joint testing exercises together. And so that was the environment that I came from. I had only met one ham in my life before then and it was the younger brother of a high school basketball player, friend of mine. His name was Mike Holmes, WB4MWU, he lives in Franklin, Tennessee now. He's not been on the air much lately. His uncle Carver Holmes was the only other ham I'd ever heard of in my home County. And my cattle station had a shack built in the base of a windmill with the blade taking off and that's where his beam was located. And I got to visit his shack one time when I was visiting his older brother Eric, and I was just in transit and he was on side-band and talking to somebody in South America on 20 meters on an old Icom rig.
But the Atlanta outreach to me was key. And I think you can generalize that. That is an important thing for clubs who have the eighteens. Sometimes there's the focus on how many people we can run through here and we get them done. Okay. Have a nice life because it takes time to Elmer. It's a lot easier to test. And I'm not faulting VA's, you know, we have to have VA’Ss and there are many fine VA's. But that follow-up outreach of getting hams, even in a large city like Atlanta and circling in smaller areas, it's certainly as a case of finding out about them. How are they doing? What's going repeaters can be a critical element of that. And yet once the biggest complaint about repeaters, there's never anybody on the repeater. I think to some degree clubs, having an outreach to people right after they get their ticket is critical.
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I think we forget, maybe I do as well because I've been doing it for over 45 years. How hard it was just to get your head around making a dipole antenna, for example, without having someone show you or putting that PL 259 on the end of a piece of co-ax and getting it right without either burning yourself or melting the co-ax or destroying the connector. And I think that having those people available may actually makes a big difference in terms of people's early success. If they feel early success, perhaps they'll continue on down the path. Let me ask a question, Frank, you sent me pictures from your QTH and you have a really nice electronics test bench and work bench. Was that a feature of your home before you had an amateur radio license?
No. In fact, I have a picture of my first ham shack. We had an apartment in Buford and we were waiting on our home in Starkville to sell. And it took four years for it to sell. So we were kind of camping out, if you will in the apartment in one little corner of it. I had my first ham shack there. So, no. we'd built this home about seven years ago and on the one hand, it was probably the worst location for an amateur to ever build a home. There were no trees where the HOA, no visible antennas and so on and so on. But why did we build here? Like many husbands? Because my wife wanted to. Because we built a house here and we love our neighborhood. We live on a large barn at reservoir and at the time, I thought, well, okay, I'll just make lemonade out of lemons. So I had things like PVC pipe put in the walls for a second floor office and one little alcove where I have my shack, if you will. And it's in kind of an a U shape with the bottom of the U being a window where I never missed the UPS, or a FedEx truck because I'm looking out the window there at them. I have my shack organized there, but I had PVC pipes and things like that laid in. I laid a grid of copper tape down that Tom Rausch, W8JI had kind of pioneered, and he had done work for MFJ and I kind of got hooked up with Tom through Martin Jew. So I laid a copper grid on the plywood subflooring before the carpet went down and it kind of made a fault ground.
So I had an advantage of building a house with amateur radio in mind and we had a corner lot which required double setbacks and I could not get a third garage bay that I wanted. And at the time I had a Porsche convertible and so we're not even getting the third garage bay. So I also needed a pickup truck to go to Lowe's and home Depot and, and get things. So that third garage bay was the half bay and it became an electronics workbench area. Long winded story to say no, I had that built kind of from scratch and it's taken me several years to learn about equipment. I've got a couple of other Elmers here who are RF engineers, Tom Brown AE59. He was the RF engineer for WJDX which is a 50,000 watt station in Jackson and the well-known George Thomas W5JDX because he succeeded Tom Brown as the RF engineer there.
Tom now runs a horse barn and has a great love of horses, but he knows more about Tektronix equipment than anybody I know. He has over 50 Tektronix oscilloscopes and things. So Tom's taught me a lot about vintage test equipment. Thomas Gandy N5WDG is a a wide area network engineer for a three letter cellular company and he used a, can you hear me now guy, you know those go to him and Thomas is an engineer and has taught me an awful lot about test equipment as well. So those are two of my key local Elmers. So I got a lot of help in figuring out what do I need, what ‘s a good product, research that product, see what you want to spend, check out some of the new cheaper equipment coming out of China and mix and match things. So, I will tell you here, it's a little embarrassing, but you know, growing up in poverty, although I didn't know it, I built a crystal set back in the old farm house.
At my grandmothers and I had gotten this newsletter every month and you know, the big boys started everything. So even though I could build crystal radio that didn't need any solder in it, you know, I thought I needed to solder that. And a plumber had repaired a pipe in the bathroom, had left a part of his, an acid core soldered there. Well, I didn't have a soldering iron. So how did I solder it? Well, I took the iron tongs that you have for a fireplace. We have five working fireplaces in that house. And my job was to gather the firewood. So I knew how to swing an ax and I would take the iron tongs and take coals out of the fireplace and I melted that solder on that crystal radio. It looked terrible. It had burnt, you know, the board, I had it on kind of a pine board. It was burned and everything, but that solder was melted. And so I had kind of that envy. It came from early childhood and I said, you know, one can continue to learn and you need tools. So been able to put together through some good Elmering and good advice, a decent work bench. I have it referenced with a GPS discipline oscillator. So you can take 1980s vintage equipment, feed it with a good 10 megahertz signal and it's fairly accurate out to seven or eight places.
Well you wrote a paper that I found online called Time, It's Importance To Ham Radio. What was the central theme of that paper since you just kind of touched on it and what do you recommend amateurs do?
Well, I was actually on the ham radio workbench, one of one of the ones that you talk about in each episode, and I was a guest on their podcast first and I talked about a GPS discipline oscillator to feed test equipment and then a club out in Arizona heard that podcast and asked me to do a Skype presentation. So those were the same presentation. And the pitch is when you get into the study of time, you can focus on time itself. And those who love the measurement of time called themselves time nuts. And if you go into voltage, there are volt nuts. And so you have people that really focused on that measurement. Keep in mind, I taught experimental design in the Philosophy of Science for decades. And so Lord and Kelvin was someone I knew a lot about.
The measurement issue in science was something that I knew a lot about the philosophy of and taught courses on social measurement and measuring all observed attitudes and things like that. And people usually laugh and say, Oh yeah, that's, that's not really science. You know, physicists really do a much better job with that. Oh yeah. Ever heard of that Drake equation that talks about how many habitable planets there are and how old is the universe and all that. Not a lot different cause science is a method not a level of precision and you can kind of poke holes in a lot of stuff that my good friends in physics do as well. So keep that in mind when I talk about time is at times not absolute, it's relative to a standard. And so the folks who do time and call themselves time nuts, that's really their focus and they really are.
If you have a workbench and time is a way to get a very reliable frequency, that's how we do a lot of our circuit designs and things like phase lock loops and things of that nature. Then you're kind of interested in time, but it's time light, if you'll pardon the metaphor. You want to be able to get a good measurement of time. And our GPS system is one way to do it. Now, have we done that in the past? Well, we have used what we know out of physics and chemistry, with some radioactive materials and what their decay factors are in measuring those things. Cesium is one of them. And so when we talk about WWV having a cesium atomic clock, there are some lesser standards using rubidium. And so very often we have a rubidium based clock to get time, which we can then convert the frequency.
And so the GPS system that we have around the globe is a third way of taking that time reference. We get it through, you know, an antenna and we fade it into a box. And that box is the disciplinarian. If you go back to grade school and you're supposed to put your head down on your desk and take a nap, so the frazzled school's teacher could get a moment to relax and if he or she would wrap your knuckles if you disobey, well, that's a disciplinarian. And so we can take that metaphor and say we get a GPS signal, we've got a heated crystal and we need to either give it a little more heat or a little less heat depending upon the observed frequency that comes out of that crystal. So we use the GPS signal to be a school mom to wrap those knuckles and that crystal and to get it back within a certain tolerance.
And so in a nutshell and the time nuts would laugh at my explanation probably and elaborate vociferously and more accurately. But in principle, that's what a GPS disciplined oscillator does to get usually a 10 megahertz signal. It doesn't have to be, you go back in the earlier days, I used to have an HP 8640 B signal generator and there are people like my friend Tom Brown, who, you know, that is the gold standard. Well its reference input was five megahertz, not 10 because 10 megahertz was kind of a more difficult frequency back when that was manufactured. So it's usually about 10 megahertz. So I recommend getting started by going on eBay, buying something probably from China for about a hundred dollars or less, but about a hundred dollars. You can get a GPS discipline oscillator and it usually has, a heated crystal that has come from a re-purposes cell telephone towers equipment.
And then they'll put that on a circuit board and it will continue on and it will eventually wear out and get out of tolerance, but it’s about a hundred dollars. And then you've got to feed for that reference, a signal. Now how do you get it to all your equipment? Well, some equipment has a reference in and a reference out. So it's like plugging in Christmas tree lights where you can just, just sort of put them in in series, but you can also span probably another 75 to $100 and buy a distribution amplifier that will keep all those signals at about the same voltage output and keep them independent of one another. And you can feed your rack of equipment or stack of equipment as I have. And that's what I'm currently doing . I have a couple of others. I have a couple of items from Leo Bodner in United Kingdom and he has a frequency agile, box or two G P S D O and you can have them on a different reference signal if you need.
Now one of the things about Leo stuff. It’s good is if you go into the world of SDRs and you go into digital, you know, we really need a good reference signal to be able to decode over time some of those digital signals. So Leo Bodner’s stuff also works with things like flex radios, new line of SDRs as well as some others. So in a nutshell, Eric, that's what I would recommend people to get started with. They've got a good reference signal. I may never need anything else, but they'll probably learn about it more and can, probably change, upgrade like we all want to do. I'm about to switch over that little Chinese unit to one of Leo Bodner’s unit because I'm going to hide a GPS antenna in a Magnolia trace. So in my blog k4fmh.com, there'll probably be a blog post and the succeeding months that are midnight. Let's say something like, Mississippi Magnolias in mag loops, cause that there might be a mag loop in a Magnolia tree that's topped by a GPS antenna, but it sure looks like a Magnolia tree to me.
You say you live in an HOA neighborhood, what kind of antennas have you put around the house and what's the rig? So where do you hang out on the air these days?
Well, you know, the HOA thing and I read them very carefully and, and I've studied the issues on the amateur parity act for example, and was involved with some of that legislation in the Senate. So I've kind of looked at that very carefully. I've got some friends who are attorneys in 5DU. Mike McKay here in Jackson is an attorney who does real estate law. So he's fairly well read as a legal scholar in, in the CCR's. So one of the first things I did as the roof was going down was I put number 14 gauge wire, one inch around the edge of the shingles. And so I had our electricians install that and they said, you know, your neighbors are going to hate you and I said, why? It's just all these Christmas tree, this Christmas lights you're going to put up on this house, they're going to hate you. I said, that's not for Christmas tree Christmas slides that, that's an antenna. So I have a sort of horizontal loop that's just under the lip of my shingles and that's resonant between 80 meters and one 60 meters. And I can turn 160 fairly easily with that antenna.
You use a balanced line to that antenna?
Yes. For part of it. And then I have a balance. It goes back into co-ax, which goes into my antenna switch.
I see. And I would think that going around the eave of the house, you might have maybe an electronic noise problem. How's that antenna sound?
Frank_K4FMH: (54:43). I have some ferrite beads on things and it depends on the band, but I might have about an S for noise and that sort of thing. My first contact was with Steve Katz WB2WIK, I think it's just called in Malibu, California on 20 meters. So I figured, okay, well this antenna is at least going to work. That was the first antenna I have. But I do have some noise issues and I'll tell you how I'm trying to deal with that quickly. In my second floor, I had a walking attic installed. And so I have an 80/40 dipole from MFJ that runs the length of the longest run of attic space. And if you ever look up my address on QRZ and maybe go to Google earth and zoom down to my house, you'll see what I'm talking about.
And that works fairly well. And what's cool about that, Eric, is that it's broad side to the United Kingdom. So you know, just the way the house turned out is that I'm broadside to Europe for that dipole. I have a couple of inverted vees with the apex being at the top joist in that attic. And again, I've got about 16 and a half feet of head room in that walk in attic. I'm about to put up a Cushcraft D4 dipole that will be along that joist but down a couple of feet so I don't get as much in the way of capacitive loading and stuff. And you know, it's always an experiment. So I've got those antennas for VHF, UHF, I have what's called, a Ventenna and that is an antenna that is over one of the vent pipes that would, might come from a bathroom or something.
And I had a plumber installed that and of course the pigtail comes out inside that attic. And I had that same plumber come out to do something else. And as he was leaving, he said, now, which one of those pipes is your antenna? And I said, you can't tell. He says no. I said, well, I'm not going to tell you. And he said, why? I said, because if my HOA ever complains, I'm going to claim that the plumber who installed it can't find the antenna. So, that's kind of what I've got for antennas plus a WellBrook 1530 loop is in an alleyway outside the house and it's in a two foot pie in the ground. And I use that sometimes for 40 meters and below for reception. So through a combination of those with some little detective work on ferrite beads, I have a reasonable amount of noise. I’ve experimented with a phaser that may neutralize the noise and I'm still doing some work with that. But yeah, I have some noise. I do have an amplifier. I don't run power very much at all. I'm not running into problems with it yet, but, that's kind of where I'm at. It’s a challenge and it's a marathon, not a sprint when you're in an HOA and you're in a sort of urban area and that kind of thing. So it's a challenge
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I'm looking at your W4FMH.com website. I'll put a link to that in the show notes page. And I also see that you write frequently for amateur radio.com. Is amateur radio.com your website or are you just a journalist on it?
Well, the guy that puts that out is what we would probably called an aggregator. And so what Matt does is. if he likes your work, he will ask if he can kind of disseminate that, you know, like an RSS feed of a a sort. And so when I publish something on my K4FMH.com blog, I will put a tag in that post of amateur radio.com and so his little widget will go out and find that tag. It will extract that post and then it will republish it and send it on. And I think he's got between seven and 10,000 subscribers. So it's not my website, he's just kind of redistributing. There are a lot of others. I mean I'm far from the only person who gets re-distributed. But it's a way when you've just got a single ham blog and you're not doing a tremendous promotional activity, you know, to get it disseminated. And he invited me to join and I was happy to do so.
You seem to be quite active as a guest in cohost and number of amateur radio podcasts. We spoke before we started recording that you're also a big consumer of podcasts. How did you get started in being a podcaster and which podcasts are you contributing to?
Well, you know, what role we'll take back, if you will, so to speak. You know, I started out in broadcasting, so I've been behind the mic before. I made my fair share of errors. And during the time as a college professor, I was interviewed a lot by media and I've had my work on the front page of New York Times, worked with the Wall Street journal, surveying millionaires and could kind of go on and on to that. So then I was part of those being interviewed for, quite a number of years. And I taught a course on news and the news slant and how news is constructed and things like that as a sociologist. So I was around particularly broadcast news for a long time. Now kind of with that, in the interim, Eric, I was asked, by the ICQ podcast and Martin Butler to be their US correspondent.
And this was several years ago. And I did about a 20 minute to 30 minute segment. And, and as you well know, being a podcaster yourself to create a half hour of new content every two weeks, it might take you two to three hours from soup to nuts, you know, whole thing that you do and that sort of thing. And then I, I took a job when I left the board of Regents, I took a job as an editor in chief with Springer media. They're a large scientific publisher in the Netherlands. So I was over an area where I had expertise called spatial demography. So I was very involved on that side and I just couldn't keep the pace up of doing that. So I sort of withdrew, Ted Randall who does a QSO radio show at WTWW and Nash and East of Nashville.
I run into Ted at Hamfest and he would probably interview anybody that walked by and he found that I had a background in radio. He invited me to cohost that show. And I did that for, I don't know how long, but for some time. And we used to do a live show at the Huntsville, Alabama Hamfest, there on Saturday night. And I kind of faded out there. I was very busy working with book authors and then I had a couple books I wrote during that period of time and we started a journal and you're doing a lot of those things. I then worked with W5KUB Tom Medland out of Memphis who does a lot of the internet broadcast video stuff and love Tom to death. But every week and then wanted me to be on till midnight in the chat rooms. I'm not a night owl as I used to be back when I was writing computer software and things like that.
So, as my wife said, you just can't keep a steady job. So I faded out of Tom's weekly effort and then was finally asked to come back to the ICQ podcast. They had since changed the format and they are fortnightly or every other week. And so I would only be on once a month and they have two teams. So I'm on one of the teams, I'm on once a month. That gives me a little bit of time where I can interview people much like you're interviewing me now. And I enjoy that because I would call it the journalism of amateur radio and that there seems to be a place for that and it takes away from airtime. It takes away from bench time. But at this point in my life, Eric, I want to give back to this hobby. I waited 50 years to join officially .I'm enjoying doing it and as long as I am doing it, I'll try to continue.
What is the Magnolia inter tie?
The Magnolia inner tie is a nonprofit that Mike McKay N52U and I created. This company is a fledgling interconnection of link repeaters, primarily system fusion repeaters. We have had fits and starts. We were in negotiation with Mississippi public broadcasting for about two years to be on their towers and their lawyers finally wound up saying no. So we went back to square one and we've got some repeaters on top of hospitals and Avent helped install some of those. And we've got some that are on broadcast towers where we have a connection with the person that maintains those towers. So we haven't gotten as far as we want to, but it was a way to connect Mississippi being the Magnolia state. And we've had much more success with getting our APRS gateways and Igates.
We are about to fully connect interstate 20 from Louisiana to Alabama. We're closing. And all that. And then moving North. So we've had more success for APRS than we have actual repeaters. But we've sort of built it around the Yaesu fusion system because they came out with $500 repeaters. And that's not to say we'll stay with that forever, but, you know, at one time, Eric, I had 12 repeaters in my attic, you know, waiting to be programmed and installed. So I've done a good bit of that work. And with N5WDG, Thomas, as a bit of an elder and collaborator on that we've got some repeaters primarily around the Jackson area, but one of them is stark bolded. It's on the air that's about to be linked and one in Meridian. So, you know, it's like a lot of other things you find out the biggest problem is not the equipment, it's getting people to cooperate and to not only agree to do things, but actually follow up and do the things they say they're gonna do. And so it's a social problem and not a technical problem.
I think that's usually the case in the history of technology. Let me ask you, Frank, you mentioned earlier in the podcast interview here that one of the problems with two meter repeaters or repeaters in general is this, there's just nobody using them and yet you're building this repeater network of the Yaesu fusion repeaters. Do have users of your repeater network?
We do. We've got a couple of them who are down now and that's just simply due to some other things that happened. The person who has access to those towers, they were struck by tornadoes twice and so, he's had to get his business operations back in operation. That's got little dues with repeaters and sales. We had to update firmware and things like that. Now coming back to your main question, if repeater use is down, okay, let's go back to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. More people are bowling, but there are fewer leagues. Well, we've got probably more repeaters than ever before. Fewer people seem to talk on them. We've had a lot of things. A lot of people blamed the cell phone and in fact cell phones are sometimes more reliable. I hate to say it, but in fact that's often the case.
So who will talk on these things? Well I think when you look at the wide area where you've got link repeaters, Eric and I don't know what your experience is because I know you're involved in that in Israel, if you've got a wide area where you have a common channel, you're much more likely to find somebody to talk to. Now that would be my thesis. Now how that works out it's hard to say, but with hotspots and things where you can go almost anywhere, as long as you have that local internet connection, whether that's ready or not, or ham radio not aside, I'm hoping that a broader area, you're much more likely to find someone to talk to.
Yeah. I think our experience here is that you can build a lot of infrastructure and connect it all together and there still may not be anybody to talk to.
And that may prove to be the case. The emergency part of this, particularly with Magnolia Intertie’s main mission is to serve hospitals for emergency communications. Hence we were on top of a number of hospitals. So we've taught some classes too to get technicians in the hospitals. And we work with hospital’s security to your physical plant personnel because that's usually who the hospital administrator points to. The administrator of a local hospital is across the street from me. So she's kind of letting me in on how hospital administrators kind of look at the world. And so you may recall the devastation of hurricane Katrina in the Gulf here and how particularly along the Gulf coast hospitals were simply just out of business with communications and we want to have the capability so that never really happens again. When you go look at the Bahamas and you look at Puerto Rico now, I'm sort of pushing ARRL to have things like permanent repeaters, and maybe automatic link establishment or ARRL stations in Puerto Rico so that they're never offline. And we might find out that on a day to day basis, Eric, people aren't chatting and you know, talking about stuff. But when there's a need to certainly they will. And who knows? That's why the future's always interesting.
What do you think is the greatest challenge facing amateur radio now?
I'll give you a surprising answer, I think. And it's not surprising given that I'm a sociologist. It's not technical stuff or just conquering technical stuff left and right and we're just doing more and that sort of thing. It's something I call hardening of the categories. You know, like hardening of arteries where you get calcium around your arteries and the blood won't flow. We get these categories in amateur radio, like radio hams. Dot, dot, dot. Do CW real hams do whatever. We really take those things seriously. And just like the comment about if it ain’t our F from origin to destination, it isn’t really ham radio. Well, you know, you go back to those mush mouth to the Elmers who owned 75 meters, those silly side banders there's another pejorative for them. They weren't real hams at all. And we're now much more pluralistic for who we have in ham radio, what we do in ham radio, and we've got so much more we can do in ham radio that for us to insist that to be a ham radio operator, you've got to use it, the original mode CW or any other fill in the blank category that you might choose.
I think the league struggles with that. That's why many people are not happy with the league because it's their little category not being served or the fear that another category, damn all they are. They just catered to the big DXers or whatever. We need to deal with this lack of of appreciation for pluralism and that to me is the greatest single challenge facing amateur radio today.
What excites you the most about what's happening in amateur radio now?
Building, we're building stuff, we're putting stuff together and then of course that reflects my construction of a work bench so I can build new things. I've got a friend who's got a company and I service medical equipment, so I've got a figurative unlimited supply of batteries. Well, I'm building battery boxes. I started taking power supplies out of computers. I said, okay, power is going to be something I'm going to focus on and make sure I'm up to where I want to be with regard to power. So AC power, DC power building those things, and I've got wireless monitoring and a battery box. It's over a hundred amp so that I can ……. little wireless device to like monitor the discharge cycle at my operating position when I'm operating Porter play. And Eric, you know, you can go on and on and on and on. Just look at what they do on, on a ham radio workbench or many of the other shows we're building. I think we're in a true Renaissance for building and as my good friend and Elmer Martin Jue K5FLOU owner of MFJ enterprises says, oh, you're building a work bench less the fun part of amateur radio. Well, that's kind of his category, you know, for what's fun. So that excites me a great deal today.
What advice would you give to new or returning hams?
Know what you'd like in the sense that you like amateur radio. Don't let someone at a club that you go to turn you off. They may have had a bad day. They may not, you know, be the most welcoming. Keep going. You're going to find people who will welcome you. Don't get put off by any other negativism. as I think, Spiro Agnew said during the Nixon administration, those nattering nabobs of negativism, don't let those three ends get you down. Because if you love amateur radio, if you feel like you do, don't let anyone get in the way. And you know, you can be somewhere where there's no club. And if you have internet connectivity, you can learn about everything you need to learn through podcasts like this from hearing people and what they do and other podcasts or YouTube. There's probably a few things that you can't learn how to do, at least one person's approach to how to do it on YouTube. So just don't let anything negative stop you. And if you don't have a thick wallet, then do what you can do. And if you can't get a rig to go on all bands, get one band, but don't let the negativism hold you back.
Frank, I want to thank you so much for joining me on the QSO Today podcast. You're quite articulate and I really appreciate the perspective. I think it sounds to me like your sociology bend from the 60s has carried all the way through to this point and we're all benefiting from it. So with that, I want to wish you 73 and thank you so much.
73 for you and thank you for what you do because you have a wonderful podcast. I listened to every episode and it takes time and so thank you sir.
That concludes this episode of QSO Today. I hope that you enjoyed this QSO with Frank. Please be sure to check out the show notes that include links and information about the topics that we discussed. Go to www.qsotoday.com and put in K4FMH that's Frank Mary Hotel in the search box at the top of the page. My thanks to both Icom America and QRP labs for their support of the QSO Today podcast. Please show your support for these fine sponsors by clicking on their links in the show notes pages or by using QSO Today in the coupon box at the checkout. You may notice that some of the episodes are transcribed into written text. If you'd like to sponsor this or any of the episodes into written text, please contact me. Support the QSO Today podcast by first joining the QSO Today email list by pressing the subscribe buttons on the show notes pages.
I will not spam you or share your email address with anyone. Become a listener sponsor monthly or annually by clicking on the sponsor buttons on the show notes page or use my Amazon link before shopping at Amazon. Amazon gives me a small commission on your purchases while at the same time protecting your privacy. I'm grateful for any way that you show appreciation and support. It makes a big difference as I head towards episode 300. QSO Today is now available in the iHeart Radio and a bunch of other online audio services, including the iTunes store. Look on the right side of the show notes pages for a listing of the services. You can use Amazon Echo and say, Alicia, play the QSO Today podcast from TuneIn my thanks to my new friend in audio editor, Ben Bresky for putting this show together from the pieces that I give him.
Until next time, this is Eric 4Z1UG. 73
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