Your new callsign has appeared in the FCC database and your license came in the mail. Congratulations, you are now officially a Ham Radio Operator. What’s next?

I know those weeks when I first was licensed were pretty exciting times. I couldn’t wait to buy that radio, get on the air, and make lots of contacts. I thought I was pretty hot stuff. It didn’t take long for me to realize how little I actually knew. Last week I posed the question on our Facebook page: “what is the one thing you wish they told you when you were studying for your license”, and received a flood of comments that brought back memories of the challenges I had just starting out. So here are the three things I wish I knew when I started out in the grand adventure that is amateur radio.

Join a club, find an elmer

[pq]Amateur radio is a hobby were you learn by doing, and the best and fastest route to competency is by getting involved with a club.[/pq] I know many people have love/hate relationships with clubs, some are filled with politics and it sometimes can be difficult to break into a group of people that have been doing the same thing for years and years. When I was starting out, the first thing I did was attend a local club meeting. I didn’t know anyone and the politics were over my head, but I had a radio and a willingness to use it. So I signed up to help provide communications for a trail race. The race was poorly organized and even the experienced hams had no idea what we were doing, but participating was enough to create the bond and become welcome into the group.

Clubs are also your gateway to finding an elmer. Elmers are nothing more than mentors: a person that will answer your questions, get you going in the right direction, and pique your curiosity. Having someone that will give you advice and answer your questions, no matter how seemingly stupid, is invaluable. Why struggle in programming that radio alone when you can struggle together with someone that has done it before.

Finding that elmer isn’t always an easy process, but here’s some tips on how to sift through the amateur radio community to find someone that is willing and able to help.


  1. Listen on the local repeater for that person that has a warm, friendly attitude. There’s all sorts of people that populate the local repeaters, but a potential elmer are those that are patient, welcoming, and willing. If your ‘BS meter’ rises when a person is talking, then they are most likely not the best elmer material.
  2. Go to a club meeting and look for the hams that kind of hang around chatting. Those are the ones that are more likely to help you out.
  3. Who were the three people that signed your VE forms. If they’re putting in the time to run a testing session, most likely they will offer advice to a new ham.
  4. Find someone that has been recognized for their achievements. Peer recognition is probably the best way to find true ‘elmer material.’

Buy that first radio

There are an overwhelming number of choices in radios. Handheld, mobile, or all-mode all band, how do you pick one. This could be a topic for later discussion, but most new hams starting out with a Technician license often pick an inexpensive dual band handheld radio. The big three manufacturers have great entry portables in the $100-$200 price range, but many new hams opt to purchase one of the Chinese portables that are flooding the market for as little as $30. These are good starter radios, but their non-intuitive interface and hit and miss quality may not make them the best choice for someone starting out. Here’s why: there is nothing more frustrating for someone starting out than to be unable to make a contact on the repeater due to a difficult to program radio.

Here’s where elmers fit into situation. Get some personal recommendations on radios by talking to local club members, or ham radio shop if one is in your community. If you’re shopping online, search and download the user manual for a few models to see if operation makes sense to you. Programming software is becoming available that makes even the Chinese radios more user friendly. If you already have the radio, bring it and a copy of the manual to a club meeting, and you’ll soon be on the air.

Make that first contact

You’ve got your license, you have the radio, now it’s time to make the first contact. What do you say? If it’s the local repeater, the easiest way to start out is to press the transmit button and say “[callsign] listening.” I like to monitor while I’m in the car, so I’ll announce that I am mobile with a “[callsign] mobile.” Sometimes you’ll get a response, sometimes not. It’s a lot like fishing.

Listen before transmitting. Listen a lot. If you are on a local repeater, have it on in the background and monitor. You’ll soon get the feeling of who’s on the air and when the activity periods are. Morning and evening drive time is a great time to monitor, and in the evening, especially before or after a local club net. If the repeater has a net, participate in it. You’ll soon get the hang of talking on the air.

What do we talk about? Great question, how about the weather, where you live, that you are just starting out in ham radio, other interests, family, work, etc. Dale Carnegie teaches a process called the Conversation Stack that is useful is keeping a conversation going when you meet someone new. If you have trouble talking to people, I recommend the Conversation Stack visual mnemonic. It really works.

Finally, keep the transmissions brief- you don’t have to be long winded, allow an appropriate amount of time (1-3 seconds) in case another stations wishes to jump in, and wait approximately one second after you key the mic before you start speaking. This allows the repeater system enough time to activate without cutting off the start of your transmission.

There is always something “more”

I can’t say it any better than Facebook user Anne D:

That there would always be something “more” – Got my Tech ticket in May 2011, caught the HF bug at Field Day, successfully passed the General test in October of that year, bought an HF rig, put up a wire, joined a DX club, joined a YL club, check in regularly with 3 nets, got my Amateur Extra and VE credentials earlier this year – would like to learn CW and try digital modes, learn to solder, build my own antennas, try QRP – there’s always something new that catches my interest – and always more to learn – best hobby EVER!

Don’t let your lack of knowledge be a limitation. Ask questions, explore, and get involved. Amateur Radio is a great activity, and one that is always on the forefront of technology. Hams truly are a sharing bunch. We were all new once, and if we seem a little crusty, please give us a gentle reminder of what it’s like to be just starting out.