Amateur radio — more commonly known as ham radio— has been around since 1908. In Lafayette, ham radio enthusiasts say, the hobby is growing in popularity, despite the array of ever more sophisticated communication tools available in the 21st century.
A group of Lafayette-area residents has been attending a free class at the Lafayette Science Museum to learn more about amateur radio and how they can be part of a network that can provide a vital communications link during emergencies.
“Even though we have cellphones and all this infrastructure, when all that goes down, amateur radio is still here,” said Mark Saltzman, president of the local Amateur Radio Club.
“We’ve made contingencies that if we lose the grid, we can still communicate with the ham radio,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are interested in the emergency communication aspect and communication in general. We have people from all walks of life getting involved.”
What separates ham radio from citizens band, or CB, radio is the amount of power used and the regulations. Ham radios can go as high as 1500 watts. The class at the Lafayette Science Museum is giving the more than 20 attendees the knowledge to pass a test required to obtain a license.
“We have a much higher power cap with amateur radio,” Saltzman said. “The biggest hang-up to get started is actually studying for the license and having to take the test. This class is to help those people who are interested in the hobby to give them a subject matter description and put the material in layman’s terms to help better understand before taking the test.”
Paul McCasland, who serves as the Lafayette Science Museum’s technician and has been a ham radio operator for 30 years, said the museum took the class over from the Children’s Museum and said interest has been strong.
“We wanted to give back to the community a little bit,” McCasland said. “I had been out of the hobby for a few years and decided to get back involved by holding this class. The Children’s Museum had been teaching the classes, and we decided to take over and provide the venue.”
Nick Pugh, a self-proclaimed “lifelong ham,” was involved with teaching the Children’s Museum classes but said the Science Museum is a more appropriate environment for growing the hobby.
“They’re a little young over there, so this tends to be a little older crowd,” said Pugh, 75. “The amateur community is growing, and it’s our job to get the next generation involved.”
Abbi Wilson is part of that next generation of ham operators. The 18-year-old freshman at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette said she got involved with amateur radio in sixth grade and fell in love with it.
“We got involved through a class at Paul Breaux Middle School as an opportunity to use it for a final grade for a tech class,” Wilson said. “I liked it and stuck with it. I consider myself a very social person, and I love the social aspect to it, as well as the science part. It makes for an interesting topic when people ask what we’re doing or about the equipment. It gives a chance to explain to other people about the hobby.”
Saltzman said the Internet is full of resources for amateur radio operators and getting started can cost as little as $35. Saltzman said the local Amateur Radio Club has about 30 to 40 hard-core members, but he said that represents only a small number of operators in Acadiana.
“We have regulars, and we are recruiting all the time,” Saltzman said. “Not that the purpose of this class is to recruit, but this provides them the opportunity to get their license.”
He said the local Amateur Radio Club assists anyone who wants to participate.
“It’s not your grandpa’s hobby, but you can certainly still use your grandpa’s radio,” Saltzman said. “The hobby is ever evolving. You might find the niche you started in on and take a different journey once you get involved. Once you think they’ve learned it all, they invent something else.”