Like most people in 2020, Bill Eichenlaub is staying closer to home, but still wanting to stay in contact with friends. No problem for him, because his hobby as a ham radio operator seems like it was designed for a pandemic.

“We are getting a lot more radio time than we were before COVID-19,” Eichenlaub said. “The last few months have been pretty busy. It’s like fishing in a full pond. We put out a call, and the response has been pretty good.”

Eichenlaub is in a radio group that meets every morning, Monday through Saturday. It’s somewhat like a group of friends that meets at a local cafe for coffee and a visit, but because it is on radio, it works a little differently.

“It’s formalized,” he said. “You have to go in order. If you are sitting around drinking coffee, if you want to say something, you just blurt it, but you can’t do that on the radio, because only one person can talk at a time.”

Virginia Oliver, left, and Susanne Kendall work with handheld ham radio units. Photo courtesy of Bill Eichenlaub
Virginia Oliver, left, and Susanne Kendall work with handheld ham radio units. Photo courtesy of Bill Eichenlaub

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Elmers and licenses

Procedures are part of the ham radio world, and Eichenlaub said most people learn them by taking a class, getting a license, and then working with experienced operators called “Elmers,” who serve as mentors for those learning about radio work.

Ham radio operators can take tests and apply for three levels of federal licenses. The lowest level would allow a newcomer to use a limited number of the radio frequencies assigned to ham operators, and according to Eichenlaub, would allow that person to receive and transmit about as far as the Twin Cities.

Newcomers are not allowed to transmit until they receive a license, which is why the “Elmers” or mentors are so important. An operator with a new license has not been allowed to actually use the radio equipment, so a guiding hand makes the process much easier.

Along with the license, each operator receives a call sign, a series of letters and numbers unique to that person. Call signs are stored in a database on the website QRZ.com so operators can look up who they are talking to and learn something about them. The site also has a wealth of information about the ham radio world.

As operators learn more and get higher levels of licenses, their access to radio frequencies and the distance they can transmit increases.

Eichenlaub, a member of the Hiawatha Valley Amateur Radio Club, has taught classes in Red Wing. He said the club is always looking for new members, especially younger members who can learn and carry on the traditions of the hobby. New members often need equipment and Eichenlaub said veteran members often share used equipment, after they have upgraded their own, to help people get started.

George Peak proudly displays his ham radio call sign on his hat.  Photo courtesy of Bill Eichenlaub
George Peak proudly displays his ham radio call sign on his hat. Photo courtesy of Bill Eichenlaub

Morse Code

In previous years, some knowledge of Morse Code was required to earn a ham operator’s license. That requirement was removed, and Eichenlaub said it had an interesting effect.

“Since the requirement went away, more and more people are learning it. It’s like with kids,” said Eichenlaub, a retired teacher. “If they have to do something, they don’t want to do it, but if they don’t have to do it, then that is what they want to do.”

Morse Code happens to be one of Eichenlaub’s favorite parts of the ham radio world. He frequently talks to people from around the world using the code, and said it is actually getting easier for people to learn to use it to communicate, because many of the “super speed guys” have passed away or stopped using Morse Code.

“The average speed now has come down to a really reasonable level,” he said. “If you figure that 10 words per minute is a starter speed, the average now is probably 17-18 words per minute, which is doable for a lot of people.”

Contests and postcards

Eichenlaub said many people enjoy turning their radio use into a contest. He said some people try to see how many countries they can contact within a time limit, and he said one day each year, there is a contest in Minnesota to see who can contact the most counties.

He was inspired to learn about ham radio from an uncle who was involved. Eichenlaub was fascinated by his uncle’s radio equipment, but another thing caught his eye, as well.

“He had about a million of these little postcards from all over the world,” Eichenlaub said. “Now, when I get somebody on a Morse Code contact, if the person talks to me, I send a card, and most of the time, I get one back. It can be done electronically, but I sure like to get real postcards.”

Each person illustrates the postcard with something significant. Eichenlaub added a Red Wing connection to the cards he sends by including a photo of the repainted mural in the downtown area.

Adam Johnson, left, and Bill Eichenlaub work together during a field day in Red Wing. Photo courtesy of Bill Eichenlaub
Adam Johnson, left, and Bill Eichenlaub work together during a field day in Red Wing. Photo courtesy of Bill Eichenlaub

Emergency assistance

There is also the very functional side of ham radio during an emergency. The local radio club has a setup in the emergency operations center in town and can go there to assist with communications during a natural disaster or other emergency.

“If we have an emergency and the internet goes down, all I need is a car battery and I can be on the air,” Eichenlaub said. “When I go camping, I throw an antenna up in a tree, and I’m on the air. I don’t need power or the internet.”

Ham operators sometimes plan special events where they get together to talk, practice radio skills, and have fun. At one of these events a few years ago, Eichenlaub had talked to a group driving through Canada to Alaska. Not long after the visit, the group came across a car wreck. Since they had just talked to Eichenlaub, they called back and asked for help. He called the Canadian Mounties to get help for the accident victims.

“Those are moments you live for,” Eichenlaub said. “In the radio world, if you hear a distress call and you get to answer it, that’s like hitting a home run.”