On The Air: ARRL’s excellent magazine for newcomers…only available behind their paywall

Cover of the new “On The Air” e-magazine from the ARRL

Today, the ARRL released their new electronic magazine for ham radio newcomers: On The Air.

The ARRL describes On The Air‘s mission:

“On the Air magazine is the newest ARRL member benefit to help new licensees and beginner-to-intermediate radio communicators navigate the world of amateur radio. Delivered six times a year, the magazine will present articles, how-to’s, and tips for selecting equipment, building projects, getting involved in emergency communication as well as spotlighting the experiences of people using radio to serve their communities, and those using it for enjoyment.”

I checked out On The Air and was quite pleased with the scope of the magazine. The first issue covers topics such as: understanding the ionosphere, choosing your first radio, building simple antennas, and much more. I love the fact that the articles are written with newcomers in mind, too; less technical jargon and more explanations.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching a ham radio class to a group of high school students. Most of the students have now acquired their Technician licenses, and we’re even plotting a General class course for the fall.

Last month, I shared some copies of QST (the ARRL monthly member magazine) with my students. While they enjoyed looking through the pages of QST, many told me they simply didn’t understand the articles yet…There’s just not a lot inside a QST issue to grab the attention of a fifteen or sixteen year old who’s just gotten her ticket. Understandable.

Then, I learned about On The Air from a friend with the ARRL.  I was so glad to hear that the League was finally making a bi-monthly magazine aimed squarely at newcomers! I was also pleased it was an e-publication, because it will be that much easier to share with my class and propagate to prospective students.

But today, I discovered, to my dismay, that other than the premier issue, On The Air is for ARRL members only. Here’s a screen grab from the website:

But…”for members only”––?

Alas, in limiting access, the ARRL has essentially insured that most of their target audience won’t ever have the opportunity to read On The Air, and thus they’ve crippled the best ARRL recruitment tool I’ve ever seen. 

What a shame.

I’ve contacted my ARRL representative and asked that they reconsider the decision to hide this brilliant magazine behind a membership paywall. I’m pretty sure that ad revenue and membership fees could readily cover the cost of publishing this electronic edition. After all, On The Air could lead to a lot more ARRL members! And, indeed, I hope it will.

If you feel as I do, please contact your ARRL Section manager. It may be that those making the decisions are, in this case, a little out of touch with the future of amateur radio.

Update – To be clear about this post: I’m not implying anything bad about the ARRL here, I just think it’s a lost opportunity if they keep future editions of On The Air behind the member pay wall. I imagine that ad revenue alone could more than support this niche publication if they simply release it as a free PDF. The real benefit, though, could be an increase in ARRL membership as On The Air readers get a taste of what the League could offer! In other words: this is an opportunity!

What do you think? Should On The Air be free to anyone interested in amateur radio, or for members only? Please comment!

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20 thoughts on “On The Air: ARRL’s excellent magazine for newcomers…only available behind their paywall

  1. Ted E Davis

    I totally agree!
    Adding new ARRL members and helping new and prospective hams to get started is critical to keeping ham radio alive.
    Asking a newbie to pay first to get help is a turn-off. Information and enthusiasm is so needed both before and after getting a license. Hope to see more young faces along with the old gray heads (such as myself) at the meetups.

  2. Rob Lindsay

    The podcast “On the Air” is free and will be a great resource, while exploring the possibility of joining ARRL. New Hams can also use the free trial membership with ARRL and download all previous digital editions of these magazine during that free trial.

  3. Ron Beaver

    I totally agree with you. I read ‘On the Air and enjoyed the articles. ARRL has enough money to support this magazine.

    I remember years ago there was a magazine called Ham Horizons which was a beginners magazine and was very enjoyable. By the way, I’m a old timer. 51 yrs as a ham even longer as a SWL. 73s, Ron WB4OQL

  4. R. Rogers

    It should not be available to members only. I agree with comments in the article about QST articles being too technical and that On the Air would be a good recruitment tool for ARRL and amateur radio in general.

      1. Duane Cook

        Please don’t misinterpret the Wayne Green statement. It was meant as a compliment. Tnx for the link and doing what the ARRL should have done. de NL7X

  5. Dan Srebnick

    The ARRL is a membership organization. It also does an incredible amount of outreach to recruit and retain new radio amateurs. As a member and donor to the league, I don’t see a problem. Non-members can sign up for a 90 day guest account. I think that is a generous offer.


    1. Thomas Post author

      I agree and I really hope no one reads this as a slam on the ARRL. In fact, I just renewed my membership today!

      I just think it could be an interesting opportunity. Consider this: could ad revenue support the publication of the magazine? If so, the real benefit could be an *increase* in ARRL membership as “On The Air” readers get a taste of what the League could offer them! In other words: I think this could be a real opportunity to convert even more of those new ham numbers into members!

      If it costs $10K per issue to produce and they’re only getting $1K of ad revenue, then it’s certainly a no-go. If those numbers are even close, I bet more advertisers would join in knowing the publication would be in front of a lot more eager eyes! I think it might be worth the experiment! The only loss would be the shortfall if there’s a net loss between ad revenue and publication.


  6. Michael Black

    QST isn’t aimed at beginners?

    The first issue of QST I got was April 1971. I was an “associate member” because I didn’t have a license, and except for some sales at radio stores, the only way tp get. QST was by membership.

    Yes, that first issue was amazing, and I understood little, though at least I had already been lured by the hobby. The cover had someone in Antarctica, he got the trip after doing endless phone patches. There was an article on a digital audio filter. An antenna tuner that looked so slick that I thought it was commercially made. I can’t remember the other artickes. It was still black and white, with some Jeeves cartoons, more like it had been than what it became. Of course, much of the stuff was related to “business” , all the contest stuff and public service stuff and news about the ARRL and the reports from all the sections. The latter were at the back, where the endless ads were.

    But it was aimed at everyone. Lots of construction articles, both simple and complicated. Equipment reviews that often had snippets of schematics. It didn’t seem to aim towards the beginner, it just made sure the beginner was included. Since it was the ARRL’s only periodical, everything went in there. So a decade earlier it ran articles about esoteric things like parametric amplifiers and under the noise reception (useful for moonbounce). 2M FM was taking off, and there were articles about that, but it wasn’t just about operating, construction articles for various methods of receiving (a few months after my first issue they showed how to turn an AM broadcast radio into a 2M FM receiver) and simole solid state 2M FM transmitters.

    Yiu could ignore the technical stuff, but at least it was there in every issue.

    A lot has changed in 49 years, not for the better. QST got slick, losing the connection to the past. Licensing got simpler, and there was a shift from the Novice license as entry (and HF, often via building that first one tube transmitter) to going on 2M FM as entry, complete with a store bought radio. At least when I did VHF when licensed in 1972 it was an attempt at DX, AM on six meters and waiting for the band to open. Eventually the licenses really simplified, to bring in more newcomers at any cost. And that happened long enough ago that new people shifted into the power circles. It was like a regenerative receiver, bringing in older hams who then changed tge hobby into their image of it. Technical articles were shifted out if QST, no sense scaring people. So yiu have to buy a special magazine for the technical stuff. Fir a long time you had to pay a lremium if yiu weren’t a member, though I by chance noticed that no longer applies to QEX. It’s not much of a magazine a few articles and the tone seems academic. It’s not like decades ago when I’d spend endless time with every issue of QST (and Ham Radio and 73 and sometimes CQ, aside from a bunch of hobby electronic magazines).

    So intent on the beginner, the hobby has lost track. The license test in Canafa in 1972 was “difficult” but it wasn’t an impediment at age 12. I was busy reading anything I couid get, learning about electronics and radio, and the world in general. The simplification seems aimed at older people, who are less inclined to learn and have less time to soak it up. I’m not sure it makes it easier for the young. It has shifted focus, away from the technical and tradition. Since 1990 the simplified entry level license in Canada doesn’t allow for the building of transmitters. Which oddly makes entry harder, needing to buy a commercially built transmitter rather than build a simole transmitter. The focus becomes “talking on the air” contrasted with my early.impression, buikding equioment to see how well it worked. People worry about competing with cellphones and the internet, but end up creating something that isn’t far from it.

    It’s been a long time since I saw anything about han radio in the local paper. The hobby electronuc magazines were also a way to get the message out, and they are mostly gone, certainly not on most newsstands. Even when there are local hamfests, you need to know about ham radio to know about them, when they are a means to reach out to the public.

    Technical hobbies were never common, though I gather Sputnik caused a spike. But there was infrastructure, so those who were interested could find their way in. That’s missing now, a beginner’s magazine is for someone already lured, you need to be out there long before.

  7. Joe Patti KD2QBK

    Well, the current CEO of ARRL said the organization is a “business,” and should be run that way. That’s different from being a “non-profit membership-driven advocacy association,” the way the association started (and arguably still should be).

    The only way they’ll get the message if people cancel or do not renew their memberships. After all, you don’t need it to be a ham. If they want to be a business, treat them as though they are and don’t partake of their “product.” That’s the only language businesses understand. Complaints mean nothing to a business. A hit to the pocketbook do.

  8. Paul Evans

    It goes to show just out of touch the ARRL is with reality. 6 or 7 years ago I joined and found QST to be such rubbish, full of adverts and useless articles, that I would have cancelled straight away. Now the beginners mag requires membership! Good grief, don’t they have the imagination to have a PayPal Donate button alongside it being free?

    It’s worrying that their pipeline to the FCC seems to have weakened (or the FCC has finally got aggressive). Large swathes of our microwave allocations are going to disappear around the corner for spectrum auctions for 5G and ARRL seems powerless to stop it. It’s ironic that the contents page of ‘On the Air’ is filled with commercial towers, although at first glance I think if I were 14 years old again I might be thinking ‘this is a very expensive hobby!’

    Other FCC things are coming, yet the ARRL has made little comment. Stay tuned.

  9. Rob

    Of course I agree that the newcomer mag should be free (and ad-supported as you suggest), or at least some free resources to get people going. Alternately, start free and change if that seems like a good idea, or some free issues, some not (that’s how many articles are on the ARRL website).
    But my main reason for commenting is about QST itself.
    As background, I’ve been involved with radio for 40 years, starting around 15 years old, but I just recently got my amateur radio license (barely studied- [except for the 40 years of playing radio!], 100%, etc.) and have read a lot of QST articles getting myself up to speed in my knowledge gaps in items pertaining specifically to amateur radio. My city library has a full set going back decades. I must say that the older QST’s seem far more technical, thorough, better researched and documented than the newer ones. If fact, the few issues reviewed it 2019 seemed really dumbed down, and in my opinion, almost a waste of time reading. Anyone reading this is free to disagree and set me straight, but that’s what I’ve observed.
    Good news- many smaller libraries have back issues, no reason to spend money to absorb the decent (older) content.
    Just my $0.02.

  10. Chuck Urmson

    I wish I could say that I’m surprised.

    About five or so years ago I noticed that the ARRL seemed to suddenly change from an organization that provided a wonderful service to amateurs that obviously had to make a profit as well to becoming a full-blooded profit-maximising corporation that didn’t want to leave any money on the table.

    I was a fully paid up overseas member of the ARRL for many (20+?) years until they decided to charge me $35 postage (untracked) to send my annual publications DVD that costs $25!

  11. Marc

    Thomas: I had the exact reaction! I think it’s a cool idea and magazine but what are they thinking?
    Irony here is the ARRL new membership ads in the magazine. In a magazine that is only…wait for it…viewable if you’re already a member of the ARRL! It’s not like I can share this magazine with a non-member.

    By the way, I just sent my section manager my thoughts about this and also copied the main ARRL email address [email protected]


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