Will FCC Move Be the End of Morse Code?

The FCC will no longer require Morse Code for amateur radio licenses. The move seems to spell the end of using dots and dashes to spell out words over radio frequencies. But will the "Tom Sawyer" effect keep Morse Code alive?

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Though it's been a hundred years since the invention of voice broadcasting, that doesn't mean people have stopped using its predecessor, Morse code. But as of yesterday, the people most likely to use it, ham radio operators, are no longer required to know the code to get a license to broadcast. It may signal the end of an era, but some hams aren't looking back.

Matt Largey of member station KUT has more.

MATT LARGEY: While there was some debate about the change, for many amateur radio operators it's become kind of a joke.

Mr. JEFF SCHMIDT(ph) (Ham Radio Operator): Well, it's the end of ham radio as we know it. Again.

LARGEY: Jeff Schmidt is a ham radio operator near Austin. The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates amateur radio licenses, dropped the requirement, saying it was a barrier for people wanting to improve their skills. Apparently, this debate happens anytime amateur radio changes, whether it's licensing or technology.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Oh no, we can't use the spark gap transmitters anymore? This is the end of ham radio as we know it.

LARGEY: The roof of Schmidt's house is covered with antennae. In what he calls the operating position, lights blink and several transceivers line the desk as he listens to static from one of them, turning the dial.

(Soundbite of radio static)

LARGEY: There's a lot of what sounds like junk out there, at least to the untrained ear. But it doesn't take long to land on something that sounds familiar.

(Soundbite of Morse code)

LARGEY: To find someone floating around on the airwaves, you call out to them using the letters C and Q, as in seek you.

Mr. SCHMIDT: And that is in Morse code, and I'm going to do it by voice. Da-di-da-dit, da-da-di-da. Da-di-da-dit. Da-da-di-da.

LARGEY: It's kind of musical, almost.

Mr. SCHMIDT: It's very musical. That's a very good analogy to it, especially at the higher speeds. It's a beautiful rhythmical language.

(Soundbite of Morse code)

LARGEY: It may be beautiful, but if learning the code isn't required anymore, does it mean that fewer people are going to bother learning it? Alan Pitts(ph) is a ham radio operator in Connecticut and a member of the American Radio Relay League. He calls it the Tom Sawyer effect.

Mr. ALAN PITTS (American Radio Relay League): If you remember the Tom Sawyer story where he had to whitewash the fence, when it was a job, nobody wanted to do it. But Tom Sawyer's brilliance was turning into a fun thing to do. And then the next thing you know, every kid in the neighborhood was trying to whitewash the fence.

Ms. NANCY KOTT (International Morse Code Preservation Society) Let's face it, people are basically lazy and they want to do anything they don't have to do.

LARGEY: That's Nancy Kott, a ham radio operator in Michigan. She runs an organization dedicated to preserving the use of Morse code.

Ms. KOTT: The chances of them trying it on their own are slim to none. And as time goes on, our older operators will be passing away, and we won't have the new ones coming in to replace them.

LARGEY: But you don't even have to know Morse to use it these days. Back at Jeff Schmidt's house, he has a transceiver hooked up to his computer. He's found someone in Mason City, Iowa on the same channel where he out that C-Q.

(Soundbite of Morse code)

Mr. SCHMIDT: I'm -

(Soundbite of Morse code)

Mr. SCHMIDT: I'm going to say quite rusty.

LARGEY: He taps out the code to talk, and then waits for an answer. But instead of decoding the answer by ear, the computer listens and displays the letters on the monitor. He's got a good rhythm going, but then we're reminded why it might be a good idea to know Morse code, when the computer crashes.

Mr. SCHMIDT: Oh, great.

LARGEY: And with that, the conversation is over. A few years ago, Jeff Schmidt might have been able to keep up with the beeps coming through his speaker. But like the next generation of hams, he no longer needs to.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Largey in Austin, Texas.

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