Static On The Airwaves: Understanding The Drop In U.S. Amateur Radio Operators

Static On The Airwaves: Understanding The Drop In U.S. Amateur RAdio Operators

Since it’s the New Year, I will take a moment to address something beyond APRS. It’s something I have had several ‘discussions’ with other hams about over the past couple of years, but these have never been constructive. For some reason, this issue isn’t being discussed at all by the ham-related media. 

The issue is simply this: the number of licensed amateurs in the U.S. is dropping rapidly. It’s been dropping for two years now, at an unprecedented rate. If anything, it’s become worse over time.

Examining The Numbers

From the end of 2020 to the end of 2021, the national number of licensed hams increased by 7242. The previous year (2019), those figures increased by 7830. I could go on, but suffice to say that we haven’t had an actual decrease in the number of licensed amateurs in the U.S. since 2007 (a mere drop of 226 licenses) — until recently. 

 We ended 2022 with 10.4k fewer licensed hams than we started the year with. 

 We ended 2023 with 14.6k fewer licensed hams than we started the year with. 

The vast majority of those losses occurred in the Technician Class. In 2023, the number of Techs dropped by 13.1k licenses. In 2022, the number of Techs dropped by 8.7k licenses. In other words, the problem is getting worse over time. This is weird, because I was told over a year ago that this was just a short-term thing.

Now, some of you are nodding knowingly at the idiot writing this, and saying “They upgraded, dummy!”. Sure, some did. First, let’s look at the drop of total licenses. If multiple thousands of Techs upgraded to General, the total number of licensed hams wouldn’t have dropped, would it? But, more to the point, we can see from the figures that the General Class only increased by a mere 418 licenses in 2023 — not by 13,000. The number of Extra Class licenses only increased by 684 licenses in 2023. So… that figure of 13.1k Techs represents licensed hams that are no longer licensed, and not Technicians who upgraded.

In 2022, the number of General Class licenses only went up by 327. And the number of hams holding an Extra Class license only went up by 684. But we lost 8.7k Techs that year. Are you starting to see the problem? 

Well, allow me to lay it out: The hobby is losing massive numbers of Techs, and only a relative few are upgrading. Whatever number of new Techs we are gaining is being greatly offset by the number of Techs allowing their licenses to expire

How Does Minnesota Fare?

In Minnesota, we closed out 2023 with 1229 fewer licensed hams than we started the year with. In keeping with the national pattern, 778 of that number were Technicians — or 63% of the loss. Unlike the national pattern, we also lost 107 General Class hams over the last year. And the number of Extra Class licenses in Minnesota declined by 44 over the past year. I’ve been tracking the Minnesota license numbers since 2018. We’ve been remarkably stable at 12.5k or even 12.6k into 2021. Suddenly, though, we lost 1200+ licensed hams in the state. Nothing to worry about though, right? It’s just a short-term thing, eh? Then why have we lost 120 since April? It took a year for us to gain that many in 2021, and we only gained 16 in 2020. Nothing about this is “normal churn”.

Practically all states have seen declines in the total number of licensed amateurs. Just in the last seven months, Florida has lost 356, Ohio lost 178, and Texas lost 269. But that’s nothing compared to California, which lost 2054. And that trend is accelerating. For example, since the end of 2019, Texas has lost about 350 licensed amateurs, but 269 of that loss happened over the past seven months. 

The usual glib explanations I’ve heard from the instant experts are inane and predictable. It’s just a short-term thing. It’s COVID. It’s the FCC’s screwy database. Some even welcome this development, saying the hobby is too crowded already. Mostly, though, they just pretend that I said something else, and attack that.

Why Is This Happening In Amateur Radio?

 The usual glib answers from the Old Guard and senior hams are predictable. It’s too easy to get a license, so nobody wants to be a ham anymore. It’s all of those Dumb Techs who are too lazy to upgrade to General, and who never discover the joys of HF phone operation. It’s those damned Baofengs, or EchoLink, or DMR. It’s the lack of FCC enforcement. It’s the new fees to renew your license. 

The weird thing is that GMRS licenses are increasing steadily. It’s the same fee as an amateur license. There’s no upgrade possible. There’s no exam. The privileges are dramatically less compelling than an amateur Technician license. But the number of GMRS licenses is going up, while the number of Techs (and hams in general) is going down. So, it doesn’t seem that the problem is a declining interest in two-way radio, or fees. 

Personally, I think the major cause of the decline in amateur licenses is simple: death. I’ve been saying for years that a substantial portion of licensed amateurs actually reside in the cemetery, but their 10-year license term hasn’t expired yet. Those big increases in Technician Class licenses we saw from 2010 to 2014 were largely retirees, and they’ve moved on to their final rest. For years, I’ve been pointing out that we lose six Techs for every ten we gain. It’s just that we’ve seen such a big increase in new hams from 2010 to 2021 during COVID, that these declines have been obscured. Now that the surge of new entrants has substantially slowed, we can see the wreckage left by an elderly demographic. And, as the ARRL’s marketing study showed, roughly half of new amateur licensees never even get on the air. How likely are these people to renew their licenses after ten years? 

One of the data points I look to to support my death premise is the decline in obsolete license Classes: Novice and Advanced. Nobody has got a new Novice or Advanced license in over 20 years. But the number of Advanced licenses drops by about 1000 each year (now over 2000). Why wouldn’t they be renewed? If they upgraded to Extra, why didn’t the number of Extra Class licenses go up accordingly? I would say that it’s hard to renew a license after you die. 

 What’s The solution? 

 Ah, yes. It’s the last desperate gasp from the amateur group-think. You aren’t supposed to talk about problems unless you have a solution, and you can’t have a solution because people smarter than you would have already come up with it. The simple fact is that the number of licensed hams is declining at a scale we haven’t seen before. When the numbers were increasing, we constantly heard from long-time hams that what they were doing “worked”. But, when we continued doing the same thing, and those numbers dropped, they went on the attack. 

It’s easy to say, “Recruit new hams”. We’ve been doing that, but obviously, we aren’t retaining them. Simply dismissing thousands upon thousands of previous recruits as “dumb” or “lazy” doesn’t address the issue. If people spend ten years in the hobby, but aren’t finding a compelling reason to remain, that points to an issue with the hobby itself. 

More and more, the hobby has (to the non-ham public, at least) become defined by EmComm and HF operation. It may be time to reconsider that marketing strategy. Or you can pretend that what I’m “really saying” is that HF operation and EmComm are “bad” and “stupid”, and anyone engaging in those aspects of the hobby is a “bad guy”.

There may be solutions to turn this situation around. But we’ve gone so far off the deep end with our group-think that no one will be able to discuss the matter until the loss has become irreversible.

To me, the roots of the problem are social, cultural, and one of marketing. Again, it’s how we ‘discuss’ things in this hobby. The technological context that amateur radio exists in has changed radically since the 1970’s. It will continue to change. Your ability to distort those statements simply doesn’t change that truth. Your ability to point to anomalies, and extrapolate ridiculous conclusions from them, changes nothing in the real world. It does, however, manage to deprive hams of the conversations needed to address the current problem. 

This blog was syndicated with permission from Todd Dugdale, KD0TLS of Plymouth, MN.

Editor’s note: Minnesota Ham Radio was founded to make a difference on this very problem in the state of Minnesota. Our goal is to better inform and engage amateur radio operators across the state using up-to-date technology. The more reputable information we can disseminate the easier it is for new hams to engage and become engrossed in the hobby.

Similar Posts