What is amateur radio?

Amateur radio, or ‘ham radio’ as it is sometimes referred to is a fascinating hobby which is shared by around 3 million people around the world.  Amateur radio operators communicate with each other by radio transmission communication, including voice, digital techniques, Morse code, pictures and video signals.  Amateur radio could possibly be described as the original social media platform.

Why is the hobby called ham radio?  Well, there are various theories.  One is that the term ‘ham operator’ was commonly applied by 19th century landline telegraphers to an operator with poor or ‘ham fisted’ skills.

Amateur radio operators come from all walks of life and comprise both male and female, of all ages, and a variety of nationalities.

Some famous amateur radio operators over the years have been:

  • entrepreneur, businessman, aviator and political activist, Dick Smith
  • comedian & actor Tim Allen
  • late Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Ghandi
  • first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin
  • former King of Jordan, King Hussein bin Talal
  • Founder of SONY corporation, Masaru Ibuka
  • Eagles band member, Joe Walsh
  • Singer, songwriter & guitarist, Chet Atkins
  • Singer & songwriter, Jim Croce
  • TV journalist, Walter Cronkite
  • inventor the microwave oven, Percy L. Spencer.
  • actor, Marlon Brando
  • astronaut, Andy Thomas

Is amateur radio like CB?  The answer is definitely no.  Firstly, you need to be licenced.  I’ll talk about that a little bit later.  CB operators are allocated a small section of the radio spectrum and have ‘channels’.  Amateur radio operators are allocated large portions of the radio spectrum and use a VFO knob to tune across the bands (just like you would tune across the AM or FM bands on your stereo.  Amateur radio operators are also permitted to use higher power.

Amateur radio is an extremely diverse hobby, and there are various special interest areas within the hobby, which makes it rather unique.  Some of those activities include:

  • Contesting
  • Fox hunting’ where amateurs use radio direction finding techniques to locate a hidden radio transmitter
  • Summits on the Air where amateurs make contact with other amateurs whilst on the top of mountains
  • Technical experimentation
  • Chasing Awards
  • High altitude ballooning
  • ‘DX peditions’ where amateurs venture to exotic and remote locations
  • satellite communications – amateurs make contact with each other via satellites
  • operating portable from parks and nature areas
  • Slow Scan television, which involves the transmission of still photos or images
  • Moonbounce – communicating with other amateurs by bouncing signals off the moon

What do you talk about I am often asked?  Some amateur radio contacts include a good chat with someone on the other side of Australia or across the world.  Other contacts may be with a good friend that you have made through the hobby over the years.  While other contacts are a quick exchange of name, location, signal report, and what equipment you are using.  It’s a little bit like going to a party.  You find somebody interesting to talk with, and you may be there for hours.


And the other question I am asked is why talk on the radio when there is Skype, Facebook, Twitter and all the latest modern forms of communication?   Well it is a little like fishing.  Many fishermen/women spend tens of thousands of dollars on boats and fishing gear, and travel considerable distances to get to a fishing spot.  Why do all that when you can go to the local supermarket and buy some already filletted fish.  The fishermen/women will tell you its all about the thrill of the catch.  Amateur radio is the same.  You throw out a call on air and you never know who is going to come back to you.  It might be an amateur in your local neighbourhood, an amateur in Paris, or it could even be an astronaut on the International Space Station.


Amateur operators are required to be licenced, and need to pass certain examinations to be able to lawfully operate on air.  In Australia, there are three amateur radio operator levels:

  • Foundation
  • Standard
  • Advanced


Don’t be put off.  Getting your licence is not as hard as you might think.  In 2005, a change was made in Australia with regards to the licencing system.  The compulsory component of Morse Code was removed, and this has resulted in thousands of new amateurs joining the hobby in Australia.  To obtain your Foundation licence, you simply need to attend a 2 day workshop, which is conducted by various amateur radio clubs across Australia.

Here is a sample Foundation theory assessment paper……


More information on how to get your amateur radio licence in Australia can be found on the website of the Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA) at……


Does it cost a lot of money to get into the hobby?

The cost for a Foundation licence assessment, which includes the written and practical tests, is $70.00.  Or if you are under the age of 18, the cost is $35.00. Your amateur radio licence is issued by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and this costs $76.00 for an initial licence and a renewal fee of $51.00 per year following that.

And once you have got your licence, amateur radio is like another other hobby.  You can get on air for a few hundred dollars, or if your wallet or purse allows, there are plenty of expensive options.


Here is a great video from the Radio Society of Great Britain, explaining all about the hobby of amateur radio……

And here are some other great videos…..


qsl.net, 2016, <http://www.qsl.net/w5www/famous.html&gt;, viewed 30th September 2016

Wikipedia, 2016, <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology_of_ham_radio&gt;, viewed 30th September 2016

Wireless Institute of Australia, 2016, <http://www.wia.org.au/discover/introduction/about/&gt;, viewed 30th September 2016