My friend Steve, N8GNJ and the editor of the Zero Retries Newsletter has been pitching ideas lately about how to grow the amateur service. It’s admirable and ambitious, but I generally avoid this issue because a) I have no viable solution to offer, and b) I don’t believe anyone else has one either. When it comes to growing the amateur radio service, I’m a fatalist. I believe ham radio will shrink until it’s gone. Given that, looking for solutions are a waste of my time.

I am willing, however, to discuss what I think are key questions that deserve more consideration, and one seriously fatal flaw in every single proposal I’ve seen when it comes to the matter of growing the amateur radio service.

I would love to be proven wrong about this and will be happy to eat these words before shuffling off this mortal coil – as unlikely as that seems.

According to the FCC (through Friday, 23-Feb-2024), there are 753,757 US licensees. I think it generous to speculate that perhaps 1/3rd that number are alive and active, assuming you define “active” as having transmitted on some amateur band once in the last 90 days.

This doesn’t really mean much given that these are just easily manipulated overall numbers. The longer term impact for the amateur service isn’t directly the gross number of licensees, rather, it’s the age of those who remain active. In the beginning, most radio experimenters were younger. If you need a modern analog to see it that way, consider the early pioneers of the internet. These were mostly young people with an insatiable desire to figure out how things work.

Ditto the pioneers of radio.

When the ball got rolling we were a much younger horde of enthusiasts who attracted enough adherents to not only grow the service, but to create sufficient momentum for it to continue for more than a century. We could argue endlessly about the date when not enough new hams were entering the hobby to replenish the supply of those who were aging out, but there is little doubt that we have moved solidly into that zone. It’s simple math. If 10,000 hams exit the hobby each year then 10,000 new hams must be added just to maintain the status quo.

More if the goal is growth.

What’s more, the large number of hams that entered the hobby during the 1950’s and 1960’s are assuming room temperature in large slugs. Instead of a trickle of hams dropping out each year, the next five years will see a much larger number dropout, perhaps as many as a 150,000 fewer US licensees by the end of this decade.

As I stare into that abyss a few questions come to mind…

Question 1. What is the magic number that, if we fall below, will encourage the US government to end amateur licensing? (Is there such a number?)

Okay, that’s two questions, but they seem very related. We worry that at some point there will be so few hams that the government will take us off the air. This sentiment is reflected every time you hear or read someone say “we’ve got to use our frequencies or we will lose them” despite the fact that’s never been part of our “deal” with Uncle Sam. You can look all day in the rule book for something like, “the amateur radio service shall only be viable as long as 250,000 licensees remain active” or such nonsense. It’s an old wives tale meant to invoke needless fear. The FCC doesn’t have an army of field agents with receivers and spreadsheets keeping track of which allocations we use and which we do not.

But let’s consider the question seriously and without malarky.

Question 2. Perhaps an even better question, and one that could doom us faster than the government, how low can we go before the large equipment manufacturers and dealers quit the hobby?

Let’s face it, if there’s insufficient profit to be made, businesses will drop out. Quickly. It does no good to speculate who might be first, but when one big one goes the rest will likely follow suit. I know, I know, there’s a ham named Sven in Frankfurt and 500 others just like him around the planet who still own a soldering station and know how to home-brew equipment, but that’s not going to be sufficient to keep this train a-rolling. Sorry.

Question 3. This one is equally critical, but seldom mentioned in ham radio doomsday scenarios. How many hams are required globally to make radio communication viable?

Have you ever considered that the entire planet is divided into many time zones? When you come home from work in the evening, eat your supper, walk your dog, and finally settle into your radio room, it might be 9pm. The only reason two-way radio works now is that there are a million or more hams currently on the planet, and some percentage of them are in front of their equipment at the same time. You need a lot of others to be doing this at the same time, and near the same frequency as propagation won’t favor them all at the same time. Talk about your proverbial needle in a haystack… or hours of fruitless CQing without a reply.

The reason I pose these questions is they are meant to conclude in numbers. Hard numbers, not flowery speeches about how great ham radio is as a hobby. The lack of hard numbers will doom any attempt at formulating a plan for growth.

Seriously Fatal Flaw. Math and numbers seem to be a fatal flaw in every single attempt to grow our hobby. I don’t believe I have ever seen a campaign for growth that included hard numbers. I’m talking about a goal. For instance, the ARRL has a vested interest in the amateur radio service growing and thriving and they spend considerable resources in this effort. But do you ever recall seeing a headline from HQ that proclaims something like this:

New ARRL Growth Campaign Will Add 50,000 New Licensees By Year End

You haven’t. Because putting an actual number into print takes guts and a commitment. Post a goal, set a deadline, then move your ass to get it done. It’s easy to spill gallons of ink (or bits) writing flowery words about all the ways we are “poised for growth” without ever making it happen. Everyone wishes it would happen. Everyone wants it to happen. I don’t question the motives of anyone who wants to grow the hobby. I do question the character of those who claim they want to do that, but are unwilling to commit to a specific goal.

I get it. No one wants to put a hard number out there for fear of missing the mark. But I fail to see how you can even plan for something without a goal. A specific goal. It’s like announcing you’re going to build a new house with no idea how large it will be or how many bedrooms and bathrooms it will include, or how much you expect it to cost. That’s not planning, that’s day-dreaming.

If the ARRL (or your local radio club) were actually serious about growing the service, they would announce a goal then use that to back into the math to arrive at what it will cost to achieve. I was probably a project manager for too many years, but I don’t know of any other way to achieve ambitious results without study, planning, goal making, then execution. Do you?

This is why I have no confidence that someone or something is going to “save” amateur radio. I don’t believe in miracles and it feels a lot like everyone with a chit in this game is expecting one to show up any minute now.