The “Growing” Ham Radio Hobby – Or Is It?

The American Radio Relay League, the main organization representing the US Amateur Radio community, likes to put out predictable press releases trumpeting the hobby’s growth. Back in October, they did it again:

As the third quarter of 2011 came to a close, ARRL VEC Manager Maria Somma, AB1FM, began calculating the number of licensed Amateur Radio operators in the US, as well as the number of new licensees. “At the end of September, I saw that the number of hams in the US was high,” she said. “When I started comparing that number with other years, I found that it was an all-time high.” For the first time, there are more than 700,000 radio amateurs in the US.

Somma said these high numbers mean that hams are upgrading and renewing in larger numbers and staying interested in hobby: “These are compelling statistics and I am thrilled to see the highest number of amateur radio licensees ever!”

Is that really what those numbers mean? Just a glance at the historical data in this press release told me that the ham radio population’s increase wasn’t happening at a smooth rate. In addition, the US population has also grown over the years, so the raw number of amateur radio licensees could keep going up even if relative interest in the hobby were stagnant or declining.

When I started playing with the numbers to figure those things out, the League’s rosy picture started to fade. This graph tells the story pretty well:

Ham Radio in Decline

Ham Radio in Decline

The US population has grown at a reasonably steady rate over the past forty years, averaging somewhere around 10%. Ham radio, however, has been on a roller-coaster ride, from a 50% increase in the 1971-1981 period to a meagre 2.5% rise from 2001-2011. Indeed, the past ten years marked the first period when the ham population grew more slowly than the total population. As a result, the number of hams per 1 million Americans went from 1,402 in 1971 up to a high of 2,427 in 2001. Then, for the first time, it declined.

If we consider that 1991 was the year the US Federal Communications Commission lifted the Morse code requirement for the entry-level amateur radio license, the picture looks even worse. That lift in the 1991-2001 period likely represents the influx of people who’d always wanted to be hams, but were put off by the difficulty of passing the Morse test. Having absorbed all of that extra demand, we went back to a drop that was probably already underway (1981-1991 was almost flat). The data show the opposite of what the ARRL wants to believe.

That’s not a reason to avoid the activity, of course. I love tinkering with radios and electronics, and have no intention of quitting. But let’s stop pretending it’s the hot new thing.