What is the Radio Hobby? One Perspective

The Geloso G.215-AN

I have recently been re-exploring the hobby of photography, which is a lateral move from studying astronomy (my main interest being astrophotography). At one time in my life I was a semi-professional photographer, having studied photojournalism in college and dabbling in nature and street photography (as it is now named). And no, I was never a paparazzo!

Following a link from an article on today’s SWLing Blog I landed on an Italian radio/audio company’s archive, the company being Geloso.  The above image is an audio amplifier and it caused me to think about radios (and related equipment) in much the same way I have been currently thinking about photography. Allow me to explain.

I spent about a decade in photography back in the days of film, black and white and color. (This was back in the days when the earth was cooling and dinosaurs roamed the earth!) Film cameras are to modern-day DSLRs much like IBM PCs are to modern day Intel Pentium i7 computers — that is to say, technology has really changed! Seeing what modern cameras can do within the camera is rather astounding, and certainly far beyond what we could even dream of in the 70s. The same is true in radios, of course, with radios from the 40s and 50s in comparison to today’s rigs.

And yet, just like film cameras of old being used today producing incredible photographs, radios from the past can still produce incredible sound if maintained well and their operation understood. And yes, I am getting to my main point, but in an intentionally somewhat circuitous route!

As I have been learning about these modern cameras and watching copious videos on YouTube, I have heard a recurring theme come up. Back in my early days I, like many folks today, always believed the next lens or camera would take me over the top and allow me to produce incredible shots. Oh, I might not have stated it that way, but it certainly was present in recesses of my brain. Now mind you, I was producing good photographs, but I was always looking for those shots worthy of a portfolio, and thereby sometimes missing out on great shots right in front of me.

Having just recently  purchased a DSLR camera kit with two lenses, before I had even taken a handful of shots with it, I was starting to think, “What will I need to add to this setup to make it really good? Oops, old habits die hard! Today’s cameras (and optics) from the top 4 or 5 DSLR makers are all head-and-shoulders above what we had access to when I was in photography years ago. There is no reason to look for the absolute best optics unless you have literally thousands of dollars to spend for what are at best, modest improvements under specific shooting conditions. The talent is not in the camera or the lens, but rather in the person behind the camera.

The same holds true for radios today, whether receivers or transmitters. Sure, you can spend thousands of dollars on the top of the line receivers or transceivers, and under certain circumstances, such a purchase may be the right thing. But for most of us, which radio you use does not matter nearly so much as the skill of the operator using the radio. Both the camera and the radio are tools, nothing more. A skillful radio operator can pull signals out of the mud or work stations at the farthest reaches of the globe with a 1940s radio that has gorgeous audio with little to no filtering, or they can use a modern DSP-equipped, roofing filter-loaded rig to hear stations so close together a cat’s whisker could fit between them on the frequency dial. In both cases, it is the radio operator who makes the difference by understanding their rig and knowing how to get the best from it.

Now if you are the type of radio hobbyist who really enjoys playing with the newest radio to hit the market and can afford it, wonderful! You help the rest of us have options when we do decide it is time for a new rig. But if you are the type person who believes you can’t really enjoy radio without having that “other” radio with the slightly better specs derived from precise laboratory conditions with nothing to interfere with signal reception, you may just be missing out on what you have right in front of you.

Believe me, I am not one to judge because people in glass houses should not throw stones! I have simply been surprised at myself as these old instincts have arisen in me, when I thought I had put to rest such things! In the radio world I have resisted the siren call of enticing marketing for the latest whiz-bang radios, at least in these more recent years (!) and now must use that same resistance in my photography. In radio I have learned to get the best out of my gear, and the results are very satisfying. Here’s to hoping I can do the same behind the camera!

Robert Gulley, AK3Q, is the author of this post and a regular contributor to the SWLing Post.       Robert also blogs at All Things Radio.

7 thoughts on “What is the Radio Hobby? One Perspective

  1. RonF

    “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” (GAS) – a.k.a. “Compulsive Tool Acquisition Syndrome”, “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome” (amongst musicians), or simply “Pokemon Fever” (‘Gotta catch ’em all’).

    You keep seeing the same thing across hobbies – photography, music, woodworking, electronics, etc, etc. It’s particularly prevalent in hobbies that suddenly acquire an influx of new-found members – newbies think they need to buy the best of the best of everything to be ‘proper’ [photographers/musicians/woorkworkers/engineers/etc], hoping it’ll make them instant experts like all the old-timers who’ve been doing it for years.

    Then the old-timers, who would normally be content performing wizardry with their minimal amount of battered old gear, don’t want to be upstaged by all the newbies with top-of-the-line gear – so start upgrading too & get hooked. And then get annoyed at all the newbies asking questions about gear they shelled out big bikkies for & don’t know how to use, or even know if they need for their particular branch of the hobby…

    Personally – as someone who spent most of my hobby & working life getting by with (a) minimal gear, and (b) thinking about what it tells me and how it might be lying – I’m happy to sit back, wait for the inevitable crash, and buy lots of barely-used second-hand gear at knock-down prices 😉

    Reply
    1. Roger Fitzharris

      After more than 30-years of on and off use, I decided to sell my Magnavox World Receiver D2999/17 in January 2017. After reading numerous reviews, and reviewers’ comments, I selected the Tecsun PL-880 for its replacement, The primary reason I upgraded was I wanted something better suited to SSB reception, and the PL-880 certainly fit the bill. And I have since deemed it a worthy successor.
      However, I still find myself reading reviews, and reviewers’ comments, about other SW radio receivers such as: the Tecsun S-8800, the Sangean ATS-909X, and the C. Crane Skywave SSB – even though my Tecsun PL-880 is more than adequate. That is, “good enough.” Why? Is it because I still yearn for
      the “perfect” receiver. Yet we all know, or at least we should, that the ‘perfect” is the enemy of the ‘good enough.’
      I was somewhat able to satisfy this inexplicable craving by finally opting to purchase a Tecsun PL-380. I was able to justify this purchase because the PL-380 complemented the radio I already had (the PL-880) – it did not compete with it.
      More importantly though, this most recent purchase satisfied (at least for the time being) that inexplicable (let’s face you can only listen to one radio at a time) craving for another SW radio. So, my recommendation is: you go through the selection process, make your best choice, and stick with it.
      One final thought: you should always ask yourself, before making any additional purchases, Where? When? and Why?
      • Where will you put it?
      • When (and How often) will you use it?
      • Why do you even want to buy it?
      Obviously, this is “easier said than done.”

      Reply
  2. Thomas

    Robert, I think your thoughtful post speaks to a lot of us.

    I am, of course, first and foremost a hopeless radio geek. I’m also fascinating with photography, astronomy, travel/EDC gear, solar power and mountain biking. Don’t get me started about aviation (seriously, don’t get me started–I can’t afford it!).

    Mountain biking is an interesting pursuit and a case in point. When you first get started, you invest a chunk of money for the most affordable, sturdy, lightweight bike with the best components you can manage. It’ll set you back several hundred dollars. You get that bike and it either changes your world or you quickly realize mountain biking isn’t your gig and post that barely used bike on Craigslist.

    For those like me, who fall in love with heading outdoors and absolutely wearing oneself out on single track trails, it’s an expensive pursuit. You see, if you’re doing proper mountain biking, you’re subjecting your gear to harsh conditions: water, mud, grit, tree roots, sand, rocks, bears (yes, I have), etc., etc.. You must constantly keep your chain and components as clean and lubricated as you can. Regardless of the price of your bike, you will be taking it to the shop for frequent tune ups, or investing in gear and know-how to tune it up yourself. If you have a compact car, you’ll also want a $500-800 bike rack system to transport your bike. A typical newbie can easily invest $1700, especially if they need a custom (Thule) bike rack.

    You’re always admiring the next bike that is lighter, stronger, with better suspension and that costs maybe twice more than your current bike!

    As a university student, I mountain biked almost daily. When I entered the corporate world after school, there was a hiatus of about 17 years before I dusted off my old bike, upgraded a couple of components and hit the trails once again.

    My old bike (a 1991 Fuji Suncrest) was a wonderful companion. It was very much old school: rigid frame (no suspension) and simple static shifters. I finally saved up a few hundred dollars to upgrade to a new bike. When I walked into the first local mountain bike dealer, they about laughed their heads off when they saw the bike I had put hundreds of miles on only in the past year or so.

    I asked what bike would be the best incremental upgrade from my Fuji. They suggested a bike that had been deeply discounted and was currently one of their least expensive bikes with “decent” components. The bike was beautiful–I asked how much. “Only $2,200.”

    Right. I knew that I could snag another Fuji for about $800 that was a massive upgrade from my current ride.

    They told me this sale bike was the least expensive unit I’d want to take to the trails. I pointed to myself and replied, “You see, the bike is not the weak link here. The rider is.”

    I ended up buying another Fuji and eventually trading it on an REI brand bike with brilliant components–it’s the one I ride today.

    I am coming around to a point…

    Thing is, mountain biking–like photography, radio, astronomy, etc.–can be an incredibly deep and expensive rabbit hole. If you let it.

    We have to remember, though that sometimes *we* are the weak link and pricier gear will not have a dramatic improvement on our enjoyment.

    Building our skill set is a much better and more affordable investment!

    -Thomas

    Reply
  3. rtc

    This is not an excuse for GAS or Obsessive Compulsion Syndrome but frankly
    some of us “olde timers” have noticed that some things in the radio hobby are
    no longer available or even made.
    A good example is the little Tecsun AM Loop antenna.They used to be all over
    Ebay,Amazon and other firms but now about the only place is Anna’s in Hong
    Kong.
    Another example is Longwave converters…one went on Ebay recently for
    $343 dollars…the only “good” one available new now is Chuck Olsen’s 14 buck
    Jackson Harbor Press kit,and last week he said the crystals for it are no longer made.
    The younger generation is not taking up the radio hobby as we did;many are not
    even aware radio exists.
    Sad but true,so if you’re thinking about some piece of equipment or accessory better
    “get while the getting’s good”.

    Reply
  4. Jake Brodsky

    The amateur radio hobby was built around the notion of seeing what’s possible, instead of ensuring that something will work reliably.

    As a result we have many enthusiasts with radio licenses that would allow them to use 1500 watts on the air, and what do they do? They run transmitters with power measured in milliwatts to see if they can still communicate!

    That’s where I like to go with my Shortwave Listening. Some like to take their gear camping. Some like to see what they can do with a limited antenna. I even knew people who would swear that they heard some fantastic DX on 160 meters using the dial stop of a rotary dial telephone (in the 1960s).

    The point is that this isn’t just a hobby of listening to the same thing day after day, but discovering ephemeral signals when conditions are just right. It’s the discovery of the possible, not the routine of ensuring that things are reliable.

    Reply
  5. TomL

    Nice thoughts! Perhaps all is summed up in the phrase, “Passion or Pasttime?” A Passion might mean that one feels a need to own a little of everything, like Jay Allen and his MW radios. If a Passion wanes, one may tend to disuse or rid oneself of owning and maintaining so much and create a complimentary set of equipment to still enjoy the hobby. Like in photography, hard to get paid for listening to radio, and harder to justify holding onto things that are redundant. Perhaps this can be graphed on a chart like a bell curve? But some people never peak and keep their passion for something all their lives.

    Reply
  6. Keith Perron

    Just over two years ago I threw out every single radio I had except for one a Sangean ATS909X. Most of my time now involved television and film production, which had a far larger audience. The only hobbies I’ve really kept going over the years are trains. My train layout started more than 20 years ago and was only 3×6. It now takes up two rooms and I have been expanding by taking a second house to expand it further. And collecting and restoring motorcycles and cars.

    Reply

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