Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
In addition to his ham radio, Dave Cisco enjoys purchasing and restoring old radios, seen left, and has a workshop with various parts and works in progress.
Some hobbies require a certain location. Fishing needs a lake, skiing needs a slope, and for amateur radio, you need a mountain.
That’s why Dave Cisco, Ken Harden and Bill Davidson each bought a home in Bluff Park. They’re all amateur radio operators, often known as hams, and the high elevation gives them a better radio signal to talk across the city or across the world.
“I regard it as either a dense neighborhood of hams or a neighborhood of dense hams,” joked Davidson, who is the president of the Birmingham Amateur Radio Club (BARC).
Ham radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast on certain airwaves under a unique call sign. Amateur radio often plays a role in disaster situations, enabling emergency personnel and humanitarian groups to communicate without telephones, electricity or Internet. However, many hams use their equipment to talk with other operators around the world.
Many of the hams started young and have been on the air since Morse code was a requirement to get a ham license. Cisco was an eighth-grade student when he was introduced to “the best thing I ever did.” Harden started at 16, when his family moved and he met another operator who helped him get started.
“It being a rural area of Mississippi and I really didn’t have any friends, and here was the whole world that I could talk to. It was just really intriguing,” Harden said.
After a break to raise his children, Harden returned to the radio last year, 50 years since he began.
Davidson, who has been a ham since 1969, pointed out that amateur radio still has an attraction for people today, from children to seniors. Plus, operators no longer have to learn Morse.
“There are actually more ham radio operators now in the U.S. than there were before cellphones because it’s a different way of communicating. It’s an independent way, you know, you do this yourself,” Davidson said.
All three men have antennas in their backyards and Cisco, in addition to his active equipment, keeps shelves of historic radios, parts and projects in the basement of his home, including a clock from 1833 that he is restoring. He also keeps photo albums with thousands of QSL cards, which are sent between hams to officially acknowledge they made contact. Each card is different, containing the call sign and picture or design that the ham wants to represent himself or his country.
Cisco has talked to someone in every country that currently exists, as well as a few that are no longer around, and he has the plaque on his wall to prove it. Some of those conversations were a brief hello and goodbye; others led to repeat conversations and a friendship between two people who have never seen each other’s faces. He has weekly radio conversations with four of his former marching bandmates from Shades Valley High School.
“It has been especially wonderful to me since I retired because it keeps me busy,” Cisco said, looking through a book of QSL cards. “They are to me a real collection because they’re people I talked to.”
“He’s spent a lot of hours down there on his radio,” Cisco’s wife, Celeste, agreed.
Harden has 120 confirmed contacts around the world, though his unofficial count is over 190. When he started as a 16-year-old, Harden had to write down each contact in a logbook. Now, his computer tracks each call and can show him a map with dots scattered across the globe.
“There’s just a great feeling of accomplishment. Without cellphones, without long-distance undersea cables or anything, I can send a signal from here to the other side of the world and actually talk to someone,” Harden said. “It’s given me the drive and the desire to, of course, stay active.”
It can also be a learning experience.
“You learn a lot of geography. I didn’t remember from high school there was even a country called Andorra,” Harden said.
Every ham is looking for something different from the hobby. Cisco divides his interests between on-air conversations and the historic side of radio. Harden looks for fellow operators who want to talk for a while about their personal interests and life in their city or country.
Davidson enjoys competing to make contacts in rare locations, such as when hams make “DXpeditions” to set up and communicate from remote islands or territories.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt… not so much the conversation itself,” Davidson said.
However, all hams know that their license comes with an element of community service. When bad weather strikes, Birmingham’s amateur operators are watching, reporting and ready to take their mobile equipment into the field if needed.
“We are the eyes and the ears all over the county,” Harden said. “Generally when there’s bad weather all the hams are up listening.”
Cisco has provided emergency communications after floods and tornadoes, and the antenna behind his house can act as a repeater to strengthen radio signals coming from the valleys on either side of Bluff Park. Ham radio has been essential after natural disasters in many areas, including the Tuscaloosa tornado in 2011, and most operators participate in annual “field days” to test and improve their emergency situation response.
Though ham radio is solely built around the voices of the operators, Davidson said sometimes hams really want to “have an eyeball” on the people they’ve been talking to. On March 4 and 5, local amateur operators will gather at the Zamora Shrine Temple in Irondale for Hamfest, the BARC’s annual convention.
This year’s Hamfest is focused on emergency communication improvement, but the convention also offers the chance to buy and sell radios and parts, learn something new and match a face with a call sign. After all, the whole point of ham radio is making connections with other people.
“It actually brings the world closer together when you can comfortably talk to each other,” Cisco said.
To learn more about amateur radio and the Birmingham Hamfest, visit w4cue.com.