From the basement of his Labadie home, Mike Shye was talking with a man from Tennessee last week — not by telephone, cellphone, email or any of the modern forms of communication that might come to mind.
He was using his own licensed radio station, K0AYF.
Shye is what is known as a ham — an amateur radio operator. He’s one of many in the Franklin County area.
In fact, there are over 50 who belong to the local Zero Beaters Amateur Radio Club (ARC).
“We like talking with people. That’s mainly what we do,” said Shye.
“We all have a love of radio, so we like to talk to others about it. Some have built their own equipment, their own antennas . . .
“There’s also a social aspect to it, a lot of friendships are made.”
Shye said he is what hams call a “rag chewer,” someone who likes to get on and talk with others about their equipment, their location, the weather there . . .
A few years ago, Shye made a trip to New Hampshire to meet and stay with some hams he’d been talking to on the radio most nights for some years.
“We were instant friends,” he remarked.
To non-ham folks, the idea of communicating with people by radio may seem a bit odd or unnecessarily complicated, Shye admits. But like any hobby, people like to get together with others and talk about it.
“Seventy-five percent of the conversation is about the technical equipment —your station, antenna, how much power you’re running . . . hams are known for changing their equipment often,” said Shye.
“But a lot is about weather — how it’s been lately, maybe some geographical things, your occupation or former occupation, since a lot of us are retired . . . A lot of us are from technical backgrounds.”
There are other things that drive hams to tune in, though.
Shye’s friend Jim Glasscock, Union, is what they call a “DX (or distance) chaser.” He likes to get on his station, W0FF, and seek out hams operating across the United States and other countries all over the world.
“There are 3,076 counties in the United States, and I’ve talked to someone in every one of them,” said Glasscock, noting he’s also visited every county over a 15-year span many years ago.
He’s collected “QSL cards” from ham stations all over the world — Malta, Tanzania, Libya, Malawi, Jamaica . . . These post card-sized cards feature images and all of the pertinent information for that ham.
“There’s no place in the world that I haven’t talked to,” said Glasscock, “places that used to be countries, but are now deleted.”
He’s even talked to a ham in North Korea, the country Glasscock says is currently the hardest to communicate with.
In the world of ham radio, like everywhere, English is a universal language, so Glasscock is able to communicate with hams in other countries through traditional conversation. He said 95 percent of the ham stations he’s contacted speak English.
For those that didn’t, he used “Q signals” derived from Morse Code to ask questions — QRA for “What is your name?” and QTH for “What is your location?”
Shye and Glasscock are both members of the Zero Beaters ARC. Shye is currently the club president.
Members range in age from 15 years old on up and come from all walks of life. The youngest member whose ever been in the club was an eighth-grader.
There are currently 35 active members who live all over Franklin County.
The Zero Beaters was formed in the early 1960s, originally meeting in members’ homes, said Shye. Sometime around 1962, the club was given the use of the old bank building on Highway 94 in Dutzow by Walter Voelkerding, then-bank president.
Voelkerding also contributed funds for the purchase of equipment for a club station there. The club applied for a club station license and was assigned the callsign WAØFYA. Les Maune, KØPHD, one of the club’s founding members, is trustee of the club station license.
The old bank building has been in use by the club for monthly meetings ever since. The Zero Beaters meet there the first Wednesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Meetings run until about 8:30 or 9 p.m.
Newcomers are always welcome, said Shye, noting you don’t have to call ahead. Just show up.
An amateur radio license is not a requirement to be a member of Zero Beaters, Shye added.
At meetings, members discuss club activities, projects, property and equipment maintenance and expenditures.
In addition to the regular meetings, members of the Zero Beaters often gather at the Dutzow station for informal meetings on many Wednesday nights. Members and visitors alike are welcome.
The Zero Beaters ARC has an ARRL VEC volunteer exam group which conducts exam sessions each month with the exception of June, July and August. The exam is held during the club’s Hamfest, a gathering of ham radio operators with commercial vendors and more, held every July.
While being a ham is largely about fun, there’s a serious side to this hobby, too. Hams play an important role in severe weather warnings, said Shye.
“All of our members are certified storm spotters,” he noted. “The majority of storms are along the (Interstate) 44 corridor, and as soon as they come up . . . the Weather Bureau is calling us . . . they want to know what we can see where we are.
“The tornado that hit Sunset Hills a while back, we were tracking it all the way up.
“Radar is great, but when you have an eyewitness account — ‘I have golf-ball sized hail in Union’ — that’s fact.”
In emergencies, especially power outages, hams can still communicate with their portable radios and antennas, said Shye.
Pointing to a radio encased in a cube-shaped metal box with a handle, he remarked, “I can be on the air with that in five minutes.
“If a tornado came through and blew down all of the power, I have my battery, radio, antenna . . . ”
When the EF-5 tornado hit Joplin in May 2011, wiping out much of the town and its communication systems, emergency responders called in hams to help.
“There was an influx of hams,” said Shye, noting one of the Zero Beaters went down to help. “They walked in with their emergency radios and were ready to go.”
To help prepare for those kinds of emergency situations, hams around the country have a set national emergency practice time — Field Day is held the third weekend of June every year.
It’s a 24-hour practice session that begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday and continues to 11 a.m. Sunday.
“We see how many contacts we can make in as many bands as we can get on,” said Shye, noting that antennas have to be put up within that time frame too.
“You have to start from nothing and build your station right then. It’s like a contest.”
The Zero Beaters hold their Field Day practice at the old Indian Prairie Schoolhouse located between Union and St. Clair. They set up an emergency communications trailer.
“It’s a great way to sharpen your skills,” Glasscock remarked.
For more information on ham radio operators or the Zero Beaters ARC, people can visit www.zerobeaters.org or show up to one of the monthly meetings on the first Wednesday.