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Ohio Ham Radio Operators Catch the Coronavirus Wave

Video conferencing may have come into prominence during the coronavirus pandemic as part of the effort to stay connected. But instead of the virtual online spaces, some central Ohioans are instead taking to the airwaves.

Mark Erbaugh, secretary for the Madison County, Ohio, Amateur Radio Club
Mark Erbaugh, who is the secretary for the Madison County, Ohio, Amateur Radio Club, sits at his ham radio.
(TNS) — Facetime, Zoom, Google Meets — and ham radio.

Video conferencing may have come into prominence during the coronavirus pandemic as part of the effort to stay connected. But in contrast to the virtual online spaces where many convene, some central Ohioans are instead taking to the airwaves.

The Madison County Amateur Radio Club has expanded its weekly "nets" — a channel for multiple radios to use for communication — to almost every night, giving its members a space to entertain, educate and converse with each other. The radio club, made up of about 60 licensed amateur radio operators in Madison County and central Ohio, first expanded its "nets" in late March following Gov. Mike DeWine's initial stay-at-home order.

"For me, it's important to have contact with the outside world, and I assume it's the same for other people," said Mark Erbaugh, the club's secretary who spearheaded the expanded programming.

Erbaugh, 65, who lives in London, west of Columbus, especially saw the importance of the increased radio nets when it became apparent that the club's monthly in-person gatherings would be postponed indefinitely.

Prior to the stay-at-home order, the club's weekly "nets" drew about a dozen or so members who checked in to mostly discuss topics related to amateur radio operating. Now, the near-nightly offering — lovingly called "the Cabin Fever Nets" — draws upward of 20 listeners tuning in for over-the-air moderated discussions on a variety of topics.

Each ham operator transmits from their home station, with the club's repeater system permitting hams with even low-power handheld radios to reach a distance of 30 to 45 miles from the transmitter site.

Many of the discussion topics have been about radio: the use of ham radio software, meteor scatter communication, storage battery technology and antenna law in Ohio. But more frequently, the presentations — which can last an hour or more — veer into topics that run the gamut, from astronomy to model railroads to 3D printing.

One week, 78-year-old Nick Pittner was particularly excited to listen to a presentation on the history of chess.

Any of the club's members can volunteer to prepare and host a presentation on a topic of his or her choice. Those who tune in also will be able to ask questions and contribute their own thoughts.

Pittner, a club member for 26 years, said there is an emphasis on presentations on topics that appeal to the members' variety of ages and educational backgrounds.

"It's a broad spectrum of backgrounds and interests, so we try to make it interesting to as many as we can," said Pittner, of West Jefferson. "All of these things broaden your horizons."

Of course, the socialization aspect of ham radio is hardly its most pressing function.

Ohio is home to 27,955 licensed amateur radio operators, according to Scott Yonally, the manager of the Ohio section of the American Radio Relay League.

Because they can operate without the internet or even an electric power grid, amateur radio operators are essential during emergencies in establishing communication when either the normal lines of communication are overloaded or are non-existent. Many operators also assist the National Weather Service with severe weather observations throughout the state.

"Amateur radio has traditionally been in the background doing the work that needs to be done silently for our communities," Yonally said.

Still, in times of isolation, like now, it can serve as a vital link to keep people in touch with others.

"I really felt it was important that we try to stay connected," Erbaugh said. "I think we've bonded as a group; we've really learned about each other."


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