Rant from Riverton: Does ARRL have what it takes to "Dare to Imagine"?
Background: In the January, 2020 issue of QST, outgoing CEO Howard E. Michael, WB2ITX wrote a editorial, titled "Dare to Imagine". In response to his soliciation for comments, here's what I had to say:
I had the pleasure of reading your column in the January QST in regards to the direction of the ARRL.
Just so you know, I am a primary regulatory advocate for the Low Power FM (LPFM) broadcast service and I also deal with what you could call "spectrum access for non-corporate purposes", which includes the Amateur Radio Service. I am a published writer who's op-ed and feature articles have appeared in publications such as Radio World in the past. I am very active in the FCC rulemaking process. On amateur radio items, I will usually file under my name or I may file under my entity name REC Networks. I was also the one who recently filed a Petition for Rulemaking to create an amateur band in a portion of the 40 MHz federal spectrum as an opportunity to harmonize the USA with the activity in ITU Region 1. Also, as a dual US-Irish citizen, I also participated in the IRTS bandplan related to the recent ComReg allocation of a large amount of VHF low-band spectrum to the amateur service in EI.
In my ham-life, I was originally licensed in 1987 and after a long ride as an advanced, I got my extra ticket in 2015. In the early days, I was very active in Southern California and used the 220 MHz band exclusively (even thought I was only a Novice for a very short time)... I was an ARRL member early in my ham-life and then I let my membership lapse. I think that the reasons at the time was the fact that it seemed like the club scene at the time was mainly a bunch of old men, and the younger folk were mainly in the VHF/UHF scene. My decision at the time to let my membership lapse was also on the ARRL's handling of the loss of 220~222 MHz with the FCC. At the time, the ARRL did not care about much above 54 MHz unless it involved satellites. Even though I had a general and advanced ticket for much of that lapse time, I was not very involved in HF and I did not feel that the ARRL was a right fit.
Over the years, there were things that took place at the ARRL, including homophobia. The ARRL still looked like a bunch a white old men.
A few years ago, I decided to let the ARRL of the past go and I renewed my membership after a near 20 year lapse. While the culture at ARRL still lacks much diversity, it has improved over time. When Ria, N2RJ ran for Hudson Division Director, I used my position as an industry public figure to endorse her candidacy, something that in the 35 year history of my organization REC Networks had never done (and especially more since I didn't live in Hudson Division). I know there have been other YLs in board positions at the League but overall, the YLs are a minority. In modern QST, YL representation seems to be limited to the image of a female high school student discovering amateur radio for publicity purposes.
When you look at the bigger picture, American culture has definitely played a role in the demographics of the amateur radio service. Homophobia and transphobia does still exist in the service (not necessarily at the ARRL level, but the ARS in general). In addition, because of the political divide in our nation that has been much more divided by the current administration, the HF bands can be very hostile to those who don't have a "god and guns" point of view. We also live in a country that does not have an education system that inspires children to become "makers". Instead, we teach our kids how to take tests (so the administrators could justify their high salaries while teachers starve..) America is a "what's in it for me?" culture. We are also a lazy culture who expect instant gratification. The internet and smartphones do not help ham radio's cause where it comes to this.
I am not sure what the ratio of JARL's membership numbers compared to the MIC's count of hams in Japan is but I am sure it is a bit higher. In Japan, children are encouraged to work together and discover science and technology. I do believe there is a higher YL involvement in the hobby than here in the USA. One local radio station in Japan even has a program called "CQ Ham Radio for Girls", which discusses women in amateur radio.
The problem with the ARRL is getting its priorities straight. The worst decision the FCC has recently made was the proposed "technician enhancement", but giving technician access to the HF bands, especially on phone. As I commented to the FCC on that proceeding, giving technician access to HF phone will do nothing to incentivize upgrades. Instead, it will establish new niches and cliques in the tech HF spectrum and bring a lot of hams who have not been appropriate tested on HF technique into the HF bands. When we had the 5-class license system, each class had their golden carrot (Novice->Tech: The coveted 2m band and more VHF spectrum, Tech->General: HF phone, General->Advanced: 2x2 calls, Advanced->Extra: 2x1/1x2 calls and the ability to be a VE). I was at this year's Delaware state convention and I asked my Division Director why the ARRL is trying to "lower the bar" with this proposal. I was given this huge speech of how "no one is buying radios" or techs are buying radios but are unable to use them. There is a valid reason to give technicians access to HF for digital modes as some may say that "FT8 is the new CW".. There is no reason why techs should not access a piece of digital spectrum on the HF bands and permitted those modes... but this does not give justification for HF phone.
Despite the faux pah that happened decades ago with the Lambda ARC, I am glad to see that ARRL is keeping standards in advertising in QST and that the magazine is not bombarded with ads for Franklin Mint, Consumer Cellular and Medicare supplement plans. One thing I did notice in this month's QST was that some articles referred to very very long URLs, some taking as much as 4 lines in the column. The print version of QST should have short URLs that would reside on an ARRL server and then redirect to the long URL. Not only will this be easier on the reader, you can also gauge how many people are reading the article.
Instead of luring in more potential members by making it much easier to get licensed and giving away the shop at the lower level (and still keeping the ratio of members to licenses about where it is at), the ARRL should be focused on developing quality operators and reaching out to non-traditional diverse groups including women and girls as well as people of color and the LGBT who are already interested in STEM or encouraging them to get into STEM subjects and how the use of radio spectrum can allow them to explore. This is why I am so surprised that the ARRL did not jump on board when I filed my 40 MHz petition. The reception I got from the general ham population was misogynistic statements because, REC Networks supports bringing more women and girls into STEM. My proposed 8 meter band was even labeled by some as "a band for girls". I supported 40 MHz for digital modes, especially in light of the fantastic translatlantic 6-meter FT8 contacts we were seeing at times. 40 MHz would serve as a good "middle" band between 10 and 6 and for serious experimenters would be a new challenge. I am still surprised that the ARRL did not pounce on my cue like a cat on a toy mouse filled with catnip led there by a laser light to support the petition, especially with the service about to lose spectrum at 3 GHz., we need to keep spectrum and work on opportunities where hams and the NTIA can share federal segments. This is also what I mean by diversity... just because the ARRL did not come up with the idea, they take a neutral position. The ARRL would have never thought to do this and for me to get it through the ARRL bureaucracy, especially with the incompetence of my Division Director, it would never get seriously considered by the board. So, some of us have to set the boat in the water and see which way the tides turn. Trust me, I can come to bat for amateur radio. It's nothing for me to get some time for an ex parte with someone in WTB like I would with the Media Bureau at the FCC to discuss a pending rulemaking.
One other thing I noticed when thumbing through this latest version of QST was the websites for the various divisions. A few of them were subdomains on the arrl.org domain. Others were domain names for those divisions, one was the ham's personal page and one was a Facebook page. This tells me that the internet is an afterthought in the ARRL field organization. Every division should be on the arrl.org domain for their websites and there should be some consistency.
In this age of "OK, boomer", I do feel that the ARRL is still very much an "aging" organization, still stuck in many of its old ways and very resistant to change in ways that would improve the quality of life for amateurs and make those who are not white, male, Christian, NRA members feel welcome. Instead, this is a rich-man's hobby with few opportunities for those who are more disadvantaged. I do feel that when some prospective licensees see the prices for the Flex radios, they are scared away and then others are ridiculed for purchasing an inexpensive radio. Others have the attitude, "why do I need ham radio when I can talk around the world on the internet". For me, it was always the challenge.. getting through the pile-up, even with only 100w and a vertical. It was the ability to tinker with modes that would otherwise be off limits otherwise. Mine was fast scan ATV. Fortunately, Southern California had a strong ATV scene (and still does). Now, that I am in Eastern Maryland, the VHF bands resemble a duck pond.
Anyway, enough rambling from me. I just wanted to let you know how I feel.
Thank you for reading.
Michelle Bradley, CBT