I grew up as the internet grew up. And so, I grew up in chatrooms. I was there for the glory years of Yahoo! Chats, AOL IM, and even the Boston.com HTML-based chat that required you to hit “Refresh” to keep up with the conversation. They were debauched and freewheeling days, when everyone was no one and your parents didn’t want you “doing e-mail.” The late 20th Century. Your beloved 1990s. In that brave time bridging the sepia-toned stick-and-hoop epoch of The Old Days and today’s morass of hollow, befiltered self-made superstars and truth having no meaning, before comments sections, before the Ice Bucket Challenge and the Harlem Shake, before Instagram and YouTube and your grandmother getting on Facebook, chatrooms were where Reagan babies came into our own.
This online promise of a true Global Village, a free exchange of ideas, a harmonious and multicultural world shrunk in a manner not seen since the Boeing 707 took flight, was completely wasted on us little shitheads. The excitement of talking to a stranger from Saginaw or Saskatoon or São Paulo and calling them whatever hilarious slur for homosexuality was popular that week, all while making your parents believe you were doing your homework, was all too alluring. Napster came along and we all became tacit criminals. Then once we grew up and figured out how to monetize our digital skulduggery, Bob was your uncle. We’re why the internet sucks.
Youthful I, while enjoying the bounties of the nascent Information Age, also kept a flame burning for a more venerable mode of communication: radio. Before our house had the internet and even long after, I kept a stable of radio receivers at hand in my room that could tune AM, FM, shortwave, amateur communications, police, NOAA Weather Radio, you name it. I didn’t have the attention span to get my operator’s license, but the listening was thrilling. I spent many a winter’s night at the green glow of a veteran Drake, the fifty foot wire antenna I put up stretching into the black woods of the backyard, listening for faint signals from London, Moscow, Bucharest, Beijing, Havana, on and on. I eavesdrop on ham radio operators. Mailing in my detailed reception reports would garner QSL postcards from stations around the world. Even my mom thought I was a total Melvin.
Fast forward twenty years, and the coronavirus pandemic has thrown everything deep into the bulrushes of gaga googoo crazyland Bizarro world. I’m furloughed from my job and there are no gigs, but I’m on the dole and cranking out instrument restorations, new music, and session work, and have even reestablished a relationship with my former employer, Ken Rich. In the spirit of why-the-hell-not, I also get back into my dormant radio hobby. I dust off my National NC-125, my Tivoli Model One, my Radio Shack DX-402 (aka Sangean ATS-505), and my Ten-Tec 1253 regenerative receiver that I built up from a kit in 2010. Knowing the shortwave bands aren’t nearly what they used to be in terms of active stations reaching the United States, I decide to invest in another stout receiver, the C. Crane CCRadio 3, to explore the AM broadcast band more. I even build a tunable AM loop antenna from scrap wood (thanks to Dave Schmarder at makearadio.com for his plans). In addition to AM, FM, and Weather Radio, the CCRadio receives a band I never listened or gave much thought to: the 2-meter VHF amateur band. So called because its 144-148 MHz FM frequencies are approximately two meters in wavelength, it’s touted as a vital channel of information and two-way communications during emergencies and natural disasters when public utilities may be on the blink. But this band is something very, very different when there are no earthquakes, hurricanes or haboobs happening.
The 2-meter ham band is the dread zombie of the worst of the chatrooms of old. It is the last frontier, a lawless alkaline badlands, a hornet’s nest dripping with ribaldry and scorn, whimsy and intrigue. The dignified and by-the-book behavior of radio amateurs I’m used to from my childhood is gone out the window. Compared to the shortwave frequencies that can travel around the globe, VHF is a line-of-sight signal. You’re looking at maybe 50 miles of range under normal circumstances. Given that, and the fact that there are about seventeen people left who even participate in amateur radio anymore, the denizens of the band are insulated. The tentacles of callout culture don’t reach this benthos. You’ve got cliques and factions reminiscent of high school. Pirates broadcasting music and programming from cars so as not to get caught by the triangulations of the FCC and their civilian toadies. Everyone seeming to know everyone else and their sleazy business. Homegrown rap music that sounds like it was made on a Speak & Spell and put on MySpace in 2004. Grudges held since the Carter administration, smack talking I haven’t heard since summer camp half-court basketball, soap operaesque Gordian knots of back stories. And racism. Plenty of racism. But beyond that, everything is tinged with a certain element of the bizarre. Take, for example, this conversation I copied the other night:
The hams are talking about someone named Steve, a regular subject of the Southland-area 2 meter community’s ire. But what the hell is with that screaming sound in between transmissions? It’s Steve jamming a sound clip onto the frequency to get everyone all riled up. Here’s a more in-depth treatise on Steve, with more screaming:
Here’s some more naughty-mouthed chicanery:
In another inexplicable turn, one night I found a frequency where someone was spinning a nice Django Reinhardt tune. Totally illegal, of course, but enjoyable. “Finally, a bit of class on the 2-meter band,” I thought. But then every thirty seconds or so, someone would break in and say the n-word. Nothing else, just the n-word. Then the music would continue.
I am morbidly fascinated by this fractious, depraved subculture that is bubbling just beneath the anodyne surface of society. My housemates and I will gather around the CCRadio and listen to 2-meter like they used to with Little Orphan Annie or The Shadow. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Chatrooms may have come and gone, but the hams have always been there. Always will be, too. The racism is vile, certainly, but since no one is making any money off of this and there’s nothing to boycott, and no one knows I’m there when I’m listening to it, I don’t feel bad for participating as an academic observer. I have heard about the lonesome loser, and I want to know who he is. They’re not all losers, of course—there are plenty of wholesome conversations about Yagi antennas and the wife. But who cares about that? Who is Steve? How did he get to be such a piece of shit? Who hates Django Reinhardt so much? Who is producing the fully-fledged radio programs for a frequency band that’s strictly allocated for two-way communications? And when the chips and the power lines are down, are these the heroes we want standing sentry? Tune in and decide for yourself. You may not be able to turn away.