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Radio Ga-Ga

At Spur, One Man's Career in Ham Radio Reveals a Lifetime of Curious Connections

A Man, a Plan . . . : More than 70 years as a ham radio operator, Jerry Powell collected hundreds of "QSL" cards from around the world, like this one from Panama.

By J. Bowers | Posted 11/5/2003

Hello World: A Life in Ham Radio

the Spur Propaganda Gallery through Dec. 22

To the uninitiated, sitting in a dank basement with humming receiver components and antennae might seem even geekier than playing Everquest for 40 hours straight. But before there were online gaming communities, cellular phones, international relay chats, and instant messaging, ham radio was the best way for a civilian to reach out and touch the world. With a basic, often homemade setup consisting of a transceiver, a power source, an antenna, a speaker, and a microphone, amateur radiophiles everywhere transformed themselves into international communication hubs, using their know-how to establish contact with fellow hams in distant lands.

Once connected, a ham operating out of Baltimore might enjoy a "QSO," or contact, with Erik Biorck at Radio S21ZG in Bangladesh, or Darcy Bens at Radio VEGCK/A7 in Doha, Qatar. After exchanging station addresses and friendly conversation, both hams mail "QSLs" to each other--tangible verification that their "QSOs" occurred, complete with equipment specifications, time of contact, and other information, all printed and/or handwritten on a 3 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch card. Geeky? Sure. Interesting? More than you'd think.

Hello World, on display at Hampden's Spur Propaganda Gallery, plays host to hundreds of QSL cards. Sealed in plastic sandwich bags and neatly tacked to strips of wood along the gallery walls, the more than 300 QSL cards represent the personal collection of one Hackensack, N.J., ham--namely, Jerry Powell, call number WO2JW, or "Whiskey Two Oscar Juliet Whiskey," in the ham-favored International Telecommunication Union phonetic alphabet.

An avid follower of the news, Powell often used his radio to contact ham operators in international hot spots, amassing a QSL collection that includes communiqués from post-bomb Japan, Vietnam, Iran, Korea, and other locales where civilian contact was discouraged or restricted. By passing government-sanctioned licensing exams, amateur radio enthusiasts become part of an elite subculture, able to wirelessly transmit information around the world--an ability that carries weight even today, when a hurricane or other disaster can knock out phone and power lines in seconds.

Even though Powell, who held a license from 1928 until his "key went silent" in 2001, was just an average American hobbyist, his 67-year ham-radio career caught the attention of author/ham Danny Gregory and graphic designer/ham Paul Sahre. Gregory and Sahre used Powell's formidable QSL collection as the backbone for their book Hello World: A Life in Ham Radio (Princeton Architectural Press, 2003). Peppered with diagrams that look like they could have been plucked from a 1950s science textbook, Hello World is at once an educational text and a picture book of Powell's radio lifestyle.

It makes sense, then, that Spur's Hello World exhibit is best viewed as a companion piece to the eponymous book. Without the context of ham-radio culture, the colorful QSL cards lining the walls would never transcend their license plate/picture postcard/calling card hybrid appearance. But with a little help from Gregory and Sahre's impeccably researched, pleasantly lighthearted book, the full historical resonance of the ham-radio phenomenon turns Hello World into one of the year's most successful sociocultural exhibits.

Most of the ham operators in Powell's collection designed and printed their own QSL cards, using amateur typography, icon, layout, and paper-quality knowledge to identify and advertise their home stations. As a result, the cards' styles and subjects vary as wildly as their creators' nationalities. Some hams, like L.R. Goetz, operating as W9MHM out of Indianapolis, used QSL cards to advertise their businesses--a sly way to evade laws forbidding on-air commercial enterprise. Others, including Joseph H. Miller of PJ9AB, in the Netherlands Antilles, use their QSLs as a forum for Christian witnessing. Miller's card converts the name of his homemade station, Trans World Radio, into an acronym for "Telling the World of Redemption Through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ."

The bulk of Powell's collection consists of QSLs from hams who used the postcard-sized format as a way to display pictures of their families (often posed in front of the home ham station), or to offer insights about their locations. In 1959, Glenn E. Murphy, aka K4TLN out of Athens, Ala., sent Powell a photo collage QSL. In addition to depicting Murphy himself, hamming away in front of a homemade map that denounces everyone north of the Mason-Dixon line as "damn Yankees," K4TLN's QSL card shows his son Mack brandishing toy six-guns, his daughter Karen, and his wife, identified only as XYL--shorthand for "ex-young lady," a slang term used to refer to any male ham's wife. Of course, some XYLs ran their own stations, including Maude Phillips, of Alberta, Canada, whose 1944 QSL shows a sexy cartoon version of herself, sending out "CQ" calls on her transceiver while her boxer-shorted husband, Glen, mends his pants. The caption reads: "While Maude QSOs, the old man sews!!" Phillips added a second handwritten caption beneath her equipment specs, claiming that the cartoon "ab[ou]t covers the situation here!"

The concept behind Gregory and Sahre's book may seem unassuming at first, but the QSLs on display at Spur provide a fascinating gateway into ham-radio subculture. The cumulative effect of seeing Powell's collection all at once should intrigue any history or pop-culture buff. Even those who don't know a ham radio from a ham sandwich.

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