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Connecting Across Cultural Lines With Ham Radio

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Amateur radio is a kind of non-commercial broadcasting.  Also known as ham radio, the people who do it are known as hams. It's a popular hobby; there are more than 2 million ham radio clubs around the world, and more than a dozen here in southwest Ohio.

Community Voices producer Charlene Edwards, a rookie ham, says every operator has a call sign they use to identify themselves and she has this story about the colorblind quality of ham radio broadcasting.

Hams can convey a great deal of information in their own Hamspeak. 5-9 for example, means someone has a good radio signal, and 73 is a sign-off that means “Best Regards”. When needed, hams broadcast for emergencies, natural disasters and community events.

Robert Moore, also known as Bob Moore, Jr and K8EJM has been a ham since 1956.  I visited Bob’s ham shack, a room dedicated to amateur radio. Bob is comfortable among these black boxes with numbers, buttons and silver dials. He sits down at the mic and begins to make contact with hams in Florida, Italy and Germany before engaging in a lengthier conversation with someone in the Dominican Republic.

On a wall is a bookshelf with technical manuals, on another is his radio, amplifier, and an oscillator for use in high speed Morse Code. There is a world map on which Bob has marked all the countries where he has made contacts. These contacts the world over are testaments to the appeal of this hobby and the fraternity it creates despite politics or current events.

In this country though, mirroring America’s history, wireless radio has had a racially segregated past. Local amateur operator, Cliff Peoples, call sign KE8QR, knows this history.

"In the 40s and the 50s, the country still being very segregated and black amateurs were on the air, they still could not integrate into the system as far as amateur radio goes because white amateur operators would not talk to black operators," says Peoples.  "Blacks organized their own groups of amateur operators and the first black organization in this area was formed by 11 gentleman from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. Hence, it was called OMIK."

In addition to using radio technology to find a safe haven, Bob Moore indicates that black amateurs used it as a passport.

"There were people who traveled around the country, they needed safe places to stay. So the amateur radio organization had a network of places for travelers to stay especially when they were in the South."

I asked Bob how black amateurs were able to participate in the hobby before OMIK was founded.

One of the advantages to operating CW was that nobody knew what color you were. You can’t be discriminated against if you're sending code because nobody knows.

"Most black people I guess, on radio would probably sound like they were black. So they operated code, CW, on radio," he said.  "And one of the advantages to operating CW was that nobody knew what color you were.  You can’t be discriminated against if you’re sending code because nobody knows. And at the time that we’re talking about there weren’t that many black amateurs anyway. A lot of us did operate C.W. Every afternoon I’d run home, I think I was in probably 7th or 8th grade and this lady lived on a farm down in Kentucky and so I had my little telegraph key and I’d talk to her for probably 2 hours. And uh I’m sure that she did not know that I was black, I was just some little kid she’d talk to every afternoon and that went on for a long time and it was really fun. I’m not saying that she probably wouldn’t have talked to me but the fact is is that I didn’t have to worry about being rejected because nobody actually saw me."

By the 1970s, Bob did face discrimination at different clubs around Ohio.

"There was mentality that existed and the attitude of amateurs was like society as a whole. The adults or the older people were still you know, hung up in, you know, we didn’t belong or shouldn’t be there. But I still have to say that I was treated pretty well because there was only one of me I mean, they didn’t have to worry about competition. First of all, they knew I was only going to be able to do so much and so nobody was concerned about me taking anything away from anybody. And they also knew too, you know, I took the test and I worked hard to get my license and I tried to be a nice guy. You know, I figured that I had time, I was young and that things would get better and as far as I’m concerned they did get better, in amateur radio and the world in general."

Although the hams I visited can remember the darker history of the hobby, today, they’re all committed to its purpose and each other.

For more information on OMIK, visit their web site at www.omikradio.org