Dozens of men and women in customized ball caps and insulating flannels rummaged through bins full of wires and rotor cables early Saturday morning. From a table in the corner a soft voice rang out, beckoning patrons to examine her wares.
Anna Montesano, 15, picked up a walkie-talkie and excitedly radioed her soon-to-be stepdad, informing him when people stopped at their booth. Despite the gloomy day, Montesano was all smiles as she chatted about getting her radio license and discussed her passion for the art of amateur radio. She was a ham through and through.
By the end of the two-day event, hundreds had walked through the Strawberry Festival Ground’s Expo Hall for the 43rd annual Tampa Bay Hamfest, a gathering of amateur radio enthusiasts, otherwise known as “hams.”
Montesano and her stepfather were selling products to get their house remodeled. Leaning in conspiratorially, she whispered she was getting half of the profit of their sales, which she intended to use to buy Christmas gifts.
“He’s going to be my new dad, my mom is marrying him,” Montesano said. “I grew up around radio and I really like it. I’m getting my license, too.”
Amateur radio uses radio frequency spectrums to exchange messages. Though it can be traced back to the late 19th century, the craft is receiving a resuscitation as more and more people apply for radio licenses.
According to the National Association for Amateur Radio, the number of licensees in the United States has steadily inclined since 2008. Then there were 663,564 licensees. In 2015, there were 735,405.
Bill Williams, president of the Florida Gulf Coast Amateur Radio Council, said there are more licensed radio operators now than ever before. He said the increase is directly related to a response to natural disasters.
“A lot of people get their license and then don’t use it frequently,” Williams said. “But when there’s an emergency they come out of the woodwork to help.”
The technology used by hams is not reliant on a formal structure to operate. To him, the flexibility of the craft is part of its appeal. Williams went to Katrina following the destructive hurricane and used his radio to help local law enforcement coordinate missions throughout the stretch of land 50 miles from the coast that was completely without power.
“There must’ve been 200 law enforcement there and they couldn’t talk to each other, let alone the public,” Williams said. “I went to Haiti, too, and it was the same thing. But luckily we don’t need towers or running stations. We just set up shop and go.”
He said interest, though increasing, still falls upon an age-defined trend. When children are young and active in organizations like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts they become extremely fascinated with the craft and obtain their license.
Then, as they get more involved in high school or college activities and start families some drift away. Once they reach middle age, however, many return to renew their license, as invested as they were at age 12.
“Hams are diverse and unique people,” Williams said. “It’s like herding cats sometimes trying to get them to do what you need them to do. But at their core, they all care. We were helping out at an MS walk in St. Petersburg and a woman came up to us and said she couldn’t find her son. We immediately called the stations around the walk. We found him in four minutes.”
Williams gestured at the hall full of hams of all ages and backgrounds. With a smile he stared and said the event never failed to draw a crowd, which he attributed to both the growing interest and the fact that vendors sold unique items like record players, movies and a variety of electronics.
Outside, as attendees trickled out into the drizzle, two men shook each other’s hands and clapped one another on the back before parting ways.
“Drive safe,” one turned and said. “I’ll see you on the air.”