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Locals keep ham radio alive and well

In a time when social media platforms are often criticized more for their divisiveness than praised for their ability to bring people together, a number of Seacoast residents are tapping into a different network to forge connections worldwide.

Local interest in ham radios has been growing at an accelerated rate in recent years thanks to lower entry hurdles, according to clubs and operators. They say it's put new generations one twist of a dial or tap of a touchscreen away from the rush that comes from a meaningful chat with people on the other side of the globe.

"It crosses all barriers of careers, of families, of different social environments, of different cultures," said Rochester resident Mark Pride.

Pride is a longtime ham and retired communications engineer who like other operators goes by his unique alphanumeric radio call sign, K1RX.

"You have just a tremendous bond with these people," he said. "You run into these people years later — I mean 40 years later — and you just pick right up from where you were. It's just fabulous."

And they say it's not hard to strike up a conversation for the first time.

"There's not a night that goes by that you can't hop onto one of the bands and guys are talking to the same guys every night," said Neil Collesidis (AA1SB), an Exeter resident who has been a licensed operator since 1966. "After a while, you can't stop us from talking. We all have that same disease."

Local hams say the hobby is more accessible than ever thanks to lower-priced handheld radios, computer and smartphone radio apps that route signals through the internet, and portable antenna systems. Those things also expand overall communication capabilities for the diehards who have extensive professional equipment in their homes, like Pride's elaborate multi-radio and multi-antenna rig.

In addition to highly active groups like the Great Bay Radio Association and Port City Amateur Radio Club, another development driving local interest is the federal government's relatively recent decision to lift the requirement that all ham operators need to be proficient in Morse code before they can be licensed.

"That's what kept me out of the hobby," said Chris Hart (KC1HZA), a Groveton resident who drives to Greenland to participate in PCARC's meetings and repair lab nights. "I just didn't think I could do it."

While some might consider ham radios an outmoded technology, the reality is the equipment and their operators still play key roles in today's modern emergency infrastructure.

Cellphone towers and internet networks can get overloaded and shut down during major incidents, like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, whereas radio waves and antennas continue to function. It's why local public safety departments have ham radio equipment, and why emergency management plans call for licensed hams to help disseminate messages during something like a meltdown at Seabrook Station nuclear power plant. It's also common for officials and groups to tap hams to assist with woodland searches, crowd control at parades and races, and community events.

"As you see all the time on the major news outlets, amateur radio is always the first form of communications out of storm ravaged locations, since we are extremely good at overcoming obstacles in getting reliable comms out of a storm-ravaged area," said Kriss Kliegle (KA1GJU), a pilot, Kensington resident and PCARC's president. "We can throw some wire in the trees, connect a radio to a battery, and get the message out when the grid is down or cellphone towers are toppled."

Ham radios are also popular with local hikers. They serve as a safety net for people traversing remote and treacherous areas, and as a leisure item in casual climbers' packs because higher elevations do wonders for the range of handheld units.

There are more than 5,000 amateur radio operators in New Hampshire, a figure that regional hobbyists consider to be high given the Granite State's relatively small population.

Local club members' entry into the hobby is diverse.

Collesidis and Hart each had fathers who operated some form of radio equipment in their homes when they were kids. They said the hobby drew them in with a warm sense of familiarity and nostalgia.

"I saw you could talk around the world, and from that moment I thought, 'That's cool, I want to do that,'" said Hart, who has since shared his passion with his sons, one of whom now has a better radio than he does.

Others said they were drawn in by their work in communications, by other personal connections, or by the intensely competitive side of connecting with people in different corners of the globe.

Throughout the year, groups organize worldwide competitions in which hams try to make as many verified connections as possible in a short period of time. There are also countless milestone-like awards up for grabs at any time, like the DX Century Club, an honor reserved for those who have successfully contacted at least 100 different countries.

Locally, PCARC members enjoy a weekend-long competition during their annual field day and demonstration in Stratham Hill Park, which is held on the fourth full weekend of every June. The GBRA hosts a similar annual event at Garrison Hill Tower in Dover.

"It's so much fun," said Sherry Brooks (N1NSB), a Newton resident who participates in the hobby with her husband Bruce (AB1ZU).

Pride is one of the Northeast's most prominent figures in competitive amateur radio and in the hobby's Olympics, the World Radiosport Team Championship.

Pride was on the organizing side when the WRTC was held in the greater Boston area in 2014, and he was chosen as the referee for Finland's team at the 2018 WRTC in Germany. He's traveled the globe in pursuit of new connections and face-to-face meetings with those connections, and his ability to simultaneously decode two different Morse code signals has become the stuff of local legend.

"I find contesting represents the best of all the parts of the hobby," said Pride, who has made approximately 100,000 unique contacts from hundreds of countries in his five decades as a ham.

Digital logbooks and sites like QRZ.com make it easier to track any ham's connections if you have their location or call sign, but for many the real proof of your proficiency and reach is measured by how many postcards you have, according to Brooks.

To commemorate connections, it's common practice for clubs and operators to exchange postcards, a friendly and tangible example of the hobby's familial nature.

"They collect these postcards like gold," said Brooks, who manages PCARC's collection of more than 100,000 cards.

The really valuable cards are those from small countries and those that have communication challenges. It's why when someone from one of those places is heard broadcasting on a clear channel, that person's rig becomes ground zero for the frequency equivalent of a 40-car highway pileup.

"When you get everybody calling you, all you can hear is noise," Pride said. "It's absolutely maddening. Maddening, but it's fun. It's a huge adrenaline rush."

New Hampshire is a popular state with international hams, due to its small size. Worldwide, North Korea is the white whale because only two or three hams have successfully made contact with the restrictive country in the last 40 years, according to Pride.

GBRA and PCARC members say they're always looking for new connections and postcards, as well as introduce the hobby to local youth and adults.

More information about GBRA, its meetings at the Rochester Community Center and its events can be found at w1fz.net. More about PCARC, its meetings at the Piscataqua Fish and Game Club in Greenland and its events can be found at w1wqm.org.

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