MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
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NORRIS: Have you ever been driving and noticed a house with what looks to be an enormous, homemade antenna? Well, it's likely the handiwork of an amateur radio operator, or ham. Hams spend their free time chatting with people all over the world without the help of the Internet. Sure, ham radio may seem quaint. The name itself is century-old telegraph slang. But as Matt Sepic of St. Louis Public Radio reports, amateur radio is thriving, even in the age of Web 2.0.
MATT SEPIC: With millions of us posting up-to-the-minute photos to Facebook, checking Twitter and snuggling up to our iPhones, it's easier than ever to stay in touch.
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SEPIC: So, you might assume a hobby where you make your own antennas and tap out Morse code messages would be as common today as, say, rotary phones. In fact, a few years ago, several blogs put ham radio alongside 35mm film and VHS tape on a list of things slated to disappear. But they were wrong.
New amateurs, like Helen Schlarman, are part of an upswing. With a compact two-way radio in her house, she�pushes the talk button, announces her personal call sign, and looks up a friend.
Ms. HELEN SCHLARMAN: W-0-S-J-S, W-0-A-K-I.
SEPIC: Fellow amateur Steve Schmitz answers from across town.
Mr. STEVE SCHMITZ: Hi, Helen, how are you doing? W-0-S-J-S.
Ms. SCHLARMAN: I'm doing just fine, Steve. How are you? And how is Wilma?
SEPIC: Many hams hang postcards from global contacts on their walls, the way hunters show off deer antlers, but Helen Schlarman's chats are mostly local. She's 89, and says the hobby is perfect for an outgoing person who's inside a lot.
Ms. SCHLARMAN: It's a different community. There is no stereotypes of age. It's just talking and sharing and enjoying.
SEPIC: Until recently, ham radio was declining as older operators died. But then the FCC phased out the Morse code test that many saw as a stumbling block to getting a license. Maria Somma, of the American Radio Relay League, says that sparked a lot of interest, especially last year.
Ms. MARIA SOMMA (American Radio Relay League): We had over 30,000 new amateurs coming into the radio service. And the trend seems to be going upward.
SEPIC: Somma says today, nearly 700,000 Americans have ham licenses a nearly 60 percent jump over a generation ago.
Allen Weiner of Gartner Research, who follows tech trends, says that's really not all that surprising. While it'll never have the sex appeal of the iPhone, Weiner, over a less-than-perfect Skype connection, says ham radio has a certain nerd appeal.
Mr. ALLEN WEINER (Gartner Research): If it creates its own experience, that's really what's key here. If it just emulates an experience that you can get online, it's not going to grow.
SEPIC: At a ham radio convention near St. Louis, the crowd swapping antenna parts and other equipment is mostly male, and mostly over 50. But the hobby has attracted 15-year-old Jonathan Dunn. He says Facebook and texting are fun, but making friends using a $200 radio that doesn't come with monthly fees is more rewarding.
Mr. JONATHAN DUNN: With ham radio, you can talk to new people of, you know, all kinds of ages, race. I mean, it's just amazing what a little radio can do, because no matter where you're at, most likely, if you have the right stuff and the right power, you can talk to anyone.
SEPIC: Even though amateur radio is often more about the medium than the message, Jonathan's father, Steve Dunn, says all that polite chitchat is still important, especially for a teenager.
Mr. STEVE DUNN: If young people have the opportunity to communicate with a wide range of people, that instills a certain amount of confidence in their ability to carry on the lost art of small talk.
SEPIC: Even the most die-hard hams concede theirs will never be a mainstream hobby. And with smart phones and the Internet, people are more plugged in than ever. But even so, there are those who still find great joy in communicating with 20th century technology.
For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis.