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Mizzou Amateur Radio Club returns to the airwaves

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Members of the Mizzou Amateur Radio Club set up a radio for use on Francis Quadrangle during a recent meeting. The club recently had a rebirth after its heyday in the mid-20th century. Photo courtesy of Mizzou Amateur Radio Club.

Before long-distance telephone calls and then video messaging made instant, worldwide communication as simple as pushing a few buttons, there was amateur radio.

And though technology has replaced what was once an innovative communication breakthough, amateur radio hasn’t gone anywhere, continuing on in popularity with a large number of hobbyists and enthusiasts. A group of such enthusiasts at the University of Missouri recently revived the dormant Amateur Radio Club to spread their love of medium across campus.

Amateur radio, also called ham radio, is the use of a set of radio frequency spectra for non-commercial communication, including self-training, fellowship and emergencies, among other possibilities.

The Mizzou Amateur Radio Club existed throughout the mid-20th century before sputtering out as the hobby became less popular among college students. Other attempts to bring it back hadn’t caught on until this most recent effort. The revival began in earnest last spring, said club president and graduate art student Phil Gresham, who spearheaded the effort alongside fellow students Jon Cole and Justin Yesis.

Dale Musser, associate teaching professor and director of the Information Technology program in the MU College of Engineering, earned the required operator’s license from the Federal Communications Commission when he was 12. He eventually used his skills to talk from his home in Pennsylvania to his older brother who was stationed in Guam with the U.S. Air Force.

When the group decided to become an official student organization, Musser assumed the role of club trustee and facilitated completion of many of the requirements for the group’s formation, including purchasing equipment, handling the FCC license application and securing its very fitting call sign: WØZOU.

“Normally, amateur radio operators are licensed and have their own call signs, and that’s all that’s necessary,” said Musser, whose personal call sign is WØCOM. “But it’s also possible to get a call sign for a club. … I then applied for a vanity license, meaning you can pick from available call signs. It turned out that WØZOU was available, which I thought was pretty cool.”

The club began with a radio setup in Lafferre Hall before being displaced by the current renovations. Musser said they secured a spot in the Academic Support Center on campus, which could become a long-term home.

In the interim, the club operated a special event station from Engineering Building North for the Southeastern Conference Championship football game between Mizzou and Alabama. During the game, they talked with several other schools, as well as operators across the U.S. and operators Spain and Italy.

“We made 103 contacts,” Gresham said. “It always strikes me, the old saying, ‘Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ That always comes back to mind when I hear back from [places such as Italy].”

Variety is a big part of the amateur radio experience. Some operators prefer to purchase equipment, sometimes brand new and sometimes vintage. Then they only need a power source and somewhere to plant their antenna, and they’re operational. The more engineering-minded operators often tinker with the electronics, building or altering radios of their own.

“I can buy a computer and plug it into my DSL connection, and I can talk around the world. But I had nothing to do with making that happen,” Musser said. “This kind of communication involves making it happen and understanding the technical issues: learning about antennas and learning about radio propagation across the ionosphere. I can actually assemble the equipment and assemble the antennas and make that happen, which still can bring about that sense of wonder.”

And, despite the proliferation and ease of technology, there’s still some awe attached to amateur radio operation. Occasionally, astronauts on the International Space Station will hop on and talk with other operators. And more advanced operators can bounce signals off of satellites and even the moon, stretching ham radio’s reach beyond planetary bounds.

“There’s a lot of electronics and physics you can really explore through amateur radio, but then also, there’s just sort of the magical art of being able to throw a wire into a tree, turn on a microphone and talk to somebody halfway around the world,” Gresham said.

Beyond the magic and scientific interests, there remains a practical and necessary basis for continuing to train licensed operators, especially during natural disasters.

“That’s still part of the hobby, to develop the skills and assemble the ability that in emergency situations, they can aid people when the other infrastructure no longer works,” Musser said. “This is something you definitely don’t want to have go away.”

Currently, the club has 10 members and is working with two-medium- to high- frequency transceivers. They’ll be working on getting set up in the ASC this summer, and they’re open to new members. For more information about the club, visit their Facebook page.

“It’s some of the most friendly people you’ll ever talk to out there,” Gresham said. “There’s kind of an unspoken code to it that everyone is friendly, inviting and accepting of everybody.”

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