Missing in Action

My recent assertion that you can get a feel for how many US licensees are “active” radio operators by looking at the number of ARRL members went completely unchallenged, and now I’d like to pick at that scab a little more.

This derived from some notion that with over 700,000 amateur radio licenses currently in the FCC database, and ARRL membership being just 154,000, we should conclude that Newington is somehow doing it all wrong.


I’m claiming the number of active radio amateurs in these United States is about 150,000 — based on data collected during the Centennial QSO Party last year.

After extracting from my log those high point value contacts that I doubtless chased, I’m left with over 500 contacts that were purely random. Seldom does ARRL membership come up during the course of a typical QSO, but because of the centennial event, we had a chance to upload our logs for credit. And as it turned out, an extraordinary number of those random contacts were with other ARRL members.

In case you’re wondering, it was over ninety percent in my log.

The point here being that if I turn on my radio this morning and called CQ, I’m fully persuaded that nine out of ten replies from stations in the United States will be with other ARRL members. That informs me that the number of “active” radio amateurs in the US is roughly equal to the number of ARRL members, about 150,000, or just one in five licensees. There, I said it again.

That begs the question, where are the other half million (and change) licensees and why aren’t they active too?

There are many answers to that question, one of which is the criteria used to determine “active” when it comes to a hobby. I recently read the results from over 40 local radio clubs who asked their members to define an “active” radio amateur and the results were even less encouraging. When you apply the filter of ‘at least one hour on the air per week’, the number replying in the affirmative falls to just one in six.

Numbers and statistics like these can be fun to sift, sort and pivot in endless ways, and can be used to make almost any point. What I choose to take from it is that we have become fairly proficient at attracting attention to our avocation. The licensing process has become much more streamlined and convenient, we’ve implemented processes that can successfully crank out new licensees in single day sessions.

We’ve gotten pretty good at all that. What eludes us, in scary large numbers, is the ability to retain that attention post-licensing. An awful lot of energy is being expended to get them in the front door, but they’re climbing out the windows at nearly an equal rate. It’s a big problem, and we need to address it with the same vigor that we now put into filling the FCC database with future MIA’s.

How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm? I don’t have a simple answer but I’m certain of this, if you look at the current number of ham radio licensees and are impressed by how large a number it has become, you aren’t paying attention.

Getting them licensed is only step one. Getting them to regularly practice the radio art, however you choose to define it, is an area that needs a whole lot of attention.

Author: Jeff Davis