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hamradioscanning2 Ham Radio 101: Getting Started Without a License

There’s plenty of fun to be had with ham radio even if you don’t have a license. You can get a handheld radio to listen in on what’s going on while you are out and about or get a base station/desktop radio. You can listen to activities on local repeaters. Repeaters allow ham radio operators to talk locally, they send a signal to a repeater and it transmits the signal to other radios in the area. You can listen in to their conversations or to Nets, regular ham meet us on repeaters that discuss a certain topic. A larger desktop radio with a longer antenna will also be able to receive amateur HF communications sent directly from ham radios around the world, you can listen to conversations from places like Germany, Kazakhstan, or Japan.

1. Local repeaters can be found by location at this website, tune the frequency of your radio to the output. Even though the repeater is on, it might not be in use meaning that you might not hear anything. You can program several frequencies into your radio, then tune the radio to the different frequencies until you catch a conversation.

2. You can find a schedule of nets and their frequencies on the ARRL website which lists all nets registered with the ARRL. If you have a handheld, select “local nets” and select 2m or 70 cm for the frequency. You will find nets discussing topics ranging from emergency safety (ARES, RACES) to women in ham radio (YL).

3. If your radio can receive HF (high frequency) communications, you can tune around to different stations to listen in. Or you can check DX clusters online which spot operators from rare locations and post their frequency. The call signs of operators from rare locations are listed under “dx”. You can mouse-over the call sign to see where the operator is located.

When you are listening in on ham radio, chances are you will hear a lot codes such as 73, cq, qsl, these are abbreviations that were originally used in Morse code and are now used when speaking. You can find a list of them here.

Most ham radios can tune in to frequencies that aren’t on the ham bands. At the airport you can listen to air traffic control. In the subway, you can listen to the local transit station and hear what is going on behind the scenes. A lot of handheld radios are waterproof so at the beach you can listen to lifeguard stations or the coast guard. You can listen to Nascar raceways and speedways, zoos, police stations, fire stations, short wave radio, subway and public transportation radios, space shuttle reentry, weather, etc.. All you need is a radio and a guide to the frequencies to tune in to.

1. Local fire department, police department, transit, school safety, sanitation, hospitals, zoos, parks and lifeguards. When you listen to the police stations, you will notice that they use a lot of codes, “we have a 11-24 on Greene and Fort St.”. You can learn what those codes mean here.

2. Airport frequencies
Type in the airport code (i.e. JFK) and learn the frequencies for control tower, approaching flights, departing flights, pre-taxi clearance, etc.

3. Nascar raceways and speedways
Free list of frequencies
List of frequencies that you must pay for

4. Local weather

5. Space shuttle frequencies are only transmitted locally. But you can find retransmissions on your local frequencies toward the bottom on the page.

A handheld radio is a really fun thing to bring out with friends to a bar or party. There’s always something interesting happening on the radio sure to spur conversation and help you meet new friends. Just program some frequencies into your radio and you will be all set to go. I’ve found that the police and fire station radios are most exciting to listen to. You can bring earphones and a splitter if you are going to a quieter place like a coffee shop where you might disturb the other patrons.


Fashion + Technology
Diana was a contestant on Project Runway season 2, graduated from RISD, and currently lives in New York City.

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