Recently I attended the Hamfest (ham radio festival) in Fairbanks, Alaska. It took place a few days ago on the first Saturday in October. It was a rather small, but spirited group of folks from the local club and some (like me) who are not members. It was held in a local mall, so there was also a few folks who were just passing by that would take a look at the tables before moving on to whatever had brought them to the mall.
I think this is really a neat way to get a few people together that share a common hobby, and it probably sparks a little bit of interest from the general public as they pass by. I also am sure that this was a lot of work for the organizers as well, so I tip my hat to them and made an effort to stop by Saturday to see the event.
While I was there, I noted that there were several tables out front, and two or three inside the venue. Also inside, towards the back of the storefront, was an area with about 20 chairs and a projector and screen performing zoom presentations with live speakers and online guests. The schedule was posted before hand, and they had an interesting line up.
However, I couldn’t help but wonder why there were only about 15 or 20 people there. When I’ve gone to the club meetings, there are generally 30 to 40 people present, so I felt this was a bit of a poor showing. Perhaps, since I was only there about an hour, others had come and gone throughout the day, and I just didn’t see them.
Most of the sales tables looked bare, but I was told that the “good stuff” sold long before I got there. It was about 1:30 pm when I arrived, and the event was slated from 10 am until 3 pm. So it is possible that I just “missed it”. But I couldn’t help but wonder if it is something else.
Again, this is just my opinion, and I want to reiterate that the person who organized and set this up did some really great stuff. I am not trying to be critical, but hope to point out an observation that maybe could help the hamfest and local club really grow: it seem really geared towards not just an older crowd, but also an older mindset.
Everything for sale on the tables was really good old school gear. But that is part of the problem. If you’ve read this blog, you know I used both a TS-520 and a TS-820s tube driven radio to do digital comms, and so I’m no stranger to old equipment. But I don’t believe there was a transceiver on the for sale tables that was made after the year 2000. Everything that was on the tables was for voice comms, or CW Morse code, both of which are really good and valid means of communication. However, there was nothing with a USB plug, or a waterfall display, or touch screen, or any other modern piece of equipment present. There were no (to my knowledge) digital modems, satellite assemblies, microwave equipment, or the like. Just older, well used (and probably really hearty) radios.
I will note that the organizers don’t control what used equipment is brought to the event. Certainly this comment is not against the organizers or MC of the event. It’s not really a comment against anyone at all. It’s just an observation…. Either this local club only does voice and CW, or at least they are not willing to sell any digital comms capable units.
I then took a look at the presentation, and it was really great that they had a zoom setup with a guest speaker presenting a class, that was really good. I did note, though that only one of the six (? I think there were six ?) presentations covered anything digital, and one was about operating your radio remotely through the internet. Nothing wrong with that, but with a vast world of new digital modes that are quickly outpacing voice and CW comms, it would seem like there would be a presentation about using some of them. Again, not knocking anybody, just an observation.
Also, I took some time to talk to the folks that were there. They were super friendly, which was a huge plus. One even made a special effort to talk to my two year old son who went with me. He did good too, he even got a high five from my son, which is hard to do when he meets new people. Regarding the hobby, though, both here and last year at the hamfest, any attempt I made to bring up digital comms, either JS8Call, FT8, Winlink, Ardop, etc., was a very, very short conversation. Any conversation that focused on CW would go on for 20 plus minutes until I would have to politely end the conversation. Nothing wrong with that either, just an observation.
I also noticed that people passing by would look “at” the hamfest, but very few ventured “into” the hamfest. There didn’t seem to be anything to lure them in deeper, they quickly saw a few tables with interesting old equipment, run, by and large, by a crowd whose average age was probably around 50 years old, and moved on. I felt like I was the youngest person there, and I am getting close to 40. Nothing wrong with older folks, I’m becoming one myself!
All that said, my overall conclusion was this: the entire setup seemed to be an older mindset that interests those who have such a mindset. There didn’t seem to be anything appealing to the modern era or younger crowd. In theory, if it continues that way, all the current members will eventually pass away (hopefully not for many, many years), and the hamfest will become a thing of the past.
So, how do we fix it?
- Modernize. Have some newer equipment on display, even if there is not some for sale. Having more modern equipment out might look more appealing to people passing by. You can always point any interested parties to online stores where they too could get some of this modern tech.
- Run a station. It may not have been as feasible in this location, but if the club would support having one or two operators available, and do some VHF/UHF with local repeaters, maybe even some Winlink. Have a second station for HF, try some FT8 or JS8, or even some whisper. With a dual screen setup, one facing the crowd, and using a program with a map, people might find it fascinating when you use that little transceiver and message someone in Japan or Canada, or even farther! Kids love this kind of stuff and I would bet it would have been really appealing at this mall location.
- The presentations looked really good overall, I would just recommend mixing in some modern kinds of digital comms. If it is something the group doesn’t do well, then maybe they can learn something new.
- Reach out to preppers. Preppers are a subculture all of their own, but they really thrive on radio gear and self contained non internet comms. Having a display relating to “being ready for disaster” or adding a prepper class in the presentation lineup would be helpful.
- Have a “door greeter” who can help people passing by feel like they are welcome to step in and learn what this is all about. Never know, might get a few new club members that way.
That’s just some thoughts. Of course, if they did these things, you would need at least 3 extra people working at the festival, but who knows, it might make it seem just a little bit more inviting.
Linux – keep it simple.