Overcoming Mike Fright, or Getting Started on the Local Repeater

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The biggest problem most new hams face is that they are afraid to dive in to the pool, so to speak. It's natural to have some concern about this when you combine the need to figure out the technical challenges of radio operation, and at the same time facing a bunch of people you don't know (yet!). I'll help you a bit by giving you some sample dialog to get you started, but by all means get in touch with me or another experienced ham if you need help. Turns out we all love to help newcomers!

First, the Technical Stuff!

Before you get started, you have previously set your HT (walkie talkie) to the frequency of the repeater you'd like to try. You also check to make sure you've programmed in the proper subaudible tone. Think of this tone as being the "key" to unlock the repeater. The reason we use these tones is to allow many repeaters over a geographical area to share some of the same frequencies. By requiring one of 64 different subaudible tones, you can make sure that you're activating the right repeater, and not another one 50 miles away. Subaudible tones start at about 250 Hertz (or cycles per second) and go down to about 67 Hertz. That puts them below the normal range of human speech on the radio, which ranges from 300 to 3000 Hertz. Most radios are set to roll off the lower frequencies enough so that the "hum" from the tone is not bothersome.

By using these tones, a repeater in Morgan Hill can share the same frequency with another one in Novato, and the users of each repeater (by agreement through a local coordination council known as NAARC) know to use 100 Hertz for Morgan Hill, and 162.2 Hertz for Napa. Every police and fire department use this same system to keep their radio channels "private". Subaudible tones are often referred to as "PL" tones because Motorola trademarked this term many years ago, and hams often say "PL" because it certainly has fewer syllables than "subaudible"! In Motorola's world, "PL" stands for "Private Line". GE calls the same thing "Channel Guard" or CG, but that's only for trivia buffs.

On to conversing! If you don't hear anyone talking on the repeater, don't just start talking yet! The first rule is WAIT! Give yourself 1 to 2 minutes of just listening. The reason for this is that there may be an emergency in progress, and you might disrupt things. Or, there might be a net in operation, and you just happened along during a ten-second pause.

Nothing heard? Good! Now just press your mike button, and WAIT again about one heartbeat before you begin talking. This gives the repeater a chance to fully turn all of its circuits on. Now say something like, "KJ6XYZ (your call here, of course) monitoring!" And release your mike button. Instead of "monitoring", you might instead say "listening". Doesn't matter much.

What you should expect to hear is some sound of life from the repeater. They all differ somewhat. Some will immediately begin sending their callsign in morse code. Don't worry, there's no test for what it means! Others may ID themselves in an electronic or even a recorded human voice. The repeater may go on to tell you other things. Just listen and note what it says.

You may hear nothing more than a single "beep!". That's fine, too. On some repeaters, you may hear nothing more than a silent carrier, followed by the repeater transmitter dropping out after a second or two. This is also normal, although more and more rare these days. Just like you, a repeater is required by the FCC to identify itself every 10 minutes while it's in use, so you may expect some type of voice or morse code identification from it at some point.

What you DON"T want to hear is absolutely nothing when you let go of your mike button. It's a bit hard to describe with the printed word, but you'll get used to knowing whether you just keyed up a repeater, or just spoke into what we might call "dead air". If you suspect that you didn't actually activate the repeater, chances are you have one of three things wrong:

1. Wrong frequency. Maybe there's no repeater on this channel, even though a book or the Internet says one is here. They can be off the air, or the info could be old or wrong.

2. Wrong frequency split. Your modern radio will try to "guess" what the proper "split" should be, but it isn't always 100% correct. You should get familiar with how to override this split (also called "shift" by some radios) when it's wrong. Each radio programs a bit differently, but they all have a way to allow the user to decide what the right split should be.

Split? Remember that repeaters listen on one radio channel, and then retransmit what they hear on another--that's how they can do this simultaneously. It just wouldn't work if they transmitted on their own listening frequency. The poor repeater would be jamming itself to death. So, splits were devised, and then quickly standardized so that we could all be able to take a good guess at what the split likely should be.

On 2 meters (144 to 148 MHz) the standard split is 600 kiloHertz (abbreviated "kHz"). Repeater information is almost always published with the REPEATER TRANSMIT frequency shown. That's your receive frequency! Notes about the proper split are then simply given as either "+" or "-", meaning of course +600 or -600 kHz. That is where you'll find the repeater's RECEIVE or listening frequency--where it hears you when you transmit. In ham shorthand, you might be told, "That machine is on 146.64, and the input is minus 600." That means, of course, that your walkie talkie or radio should display "146.640 MHz", and you should not be surprised to see that your radio has correctly guessed by showing you a little "-" or minus sign somewhere on its display. Most radios will also show you your own transmit frequency (the repeater's listening or "input" frequency) when you key your mike or transmit button just to make sure--in this example, it should show "146.040" if you look at it while you're transmitting. Sorry for the long-winded explanation, but this "split" thing can get new folks very confused in a hurry!

3. Either you are transmitting the wrong subaudible (or PL) tone, or you are not actually transmitting any tone at all. This is the third most common reason you might not be activating a repeater. This is usually a Simple Matter of Programming--"SMOP" as engineers like to joke. The reason it's a joke is because, for many people, there is nothing simple about programming anything. Remember the joke about everyone's VCR flashing "12:00" all of the time because the general public found it too difficult to program the proper time? Strictly speaking, this is not programming--you can tell the difference easily. Are you getting paid to do this? No? Then you're not a professional programmer! Glad I cleared that up for you!

Anyway, I double-dog guarantee you that you will have to dig into your radio's manual to figure this one out. And...if you bring me your radio to program, I'll have to dig into your manual, too! That's right, they're all a bit different! Surprise! Some are even downright difficult to program! I can help you guess, or you may get lucky and find that I have the same radio you do, but lacking that, we'll need your manual.

Many folks buy or make up their own little "cheat sheet" to carry around with them. It could just be a sticky note with a few lines of the secret incantation on it. Consider doing something like this, because I guarantee that you'll be looking for the same info again and again...until you memorize it. As I explained a page or three ago, the PL tone is the repeater's "key". Without it, you'll never talk to another soul--at least on repeaters! Simplex? Yeah, definitely don't use PL there--it's an open party line, so to speak.

But repeaters need you to put the proper key into their ignition to get them going. Occasionally, out in the boondocks (or Nevada, whichever comes first) you'll find a repeater or two that do not need PL tones. They are called "carrier access" machines. They happily repeat any radio transmission that appears on their receive channel. Good for them! Around here in the crowded Bay Area, EVERY SINGLE REPEATER IS REQUIRED TO HAVE ITS OWN PL TONE "KEY", so please get used to it--you'll be happier that way. You should check your manual for what little icon, letter, or word is displayed when you are transmitting a PL tone. Some radios have a "T" on the display, for example. What does yours show? Find out, or ask me and I'll help you figure it out.

4. There's a fourth reason? Well, yes there is. Sorry. The fourth reason is that you may not be in range of the repeater you're trying to access! This can happen even though the repeater's signal seems to come in loud and clear on your little walkie talkie. It seems logical then, since you hear it so well, that you should be able to "talk" to the repeater equally well. Alas, such is not always the case.

Let's do some simple math. Your HT, walkie, or handie talkie (call it what you like) puts out, what, about 5 watts? Hey, did you check that you're not on low power? There'll be some little symbol on your display (mine says "L" on any transmit power lower than 5 watts) that should give you a clue. Sometimes, high power (5 watts) is the default and therefore NOTHING is displayed. If so, life is good. You ought to double-check, though.

You checked? Good, so you're putting out 5 watts, not 50 milliwatts. Now hold your HT out in front of you at arm's length, scowl at your rubber duck antenna, and repeat after me, "This antenna is the worst antenna ever devised by man or beast!". It's ok to repeat that phrase again, and with more conviction, because it is very, very true!

Rubber duck antennas have no gain. That is, they do nothing good to your measly 5 watts. They actually guarantee you LESS than 5 watts going out into the air. Duck antennas were designed for one thing only--they are small and convenient. That's all there is good to say about them. Everything else is downhill from there.

Lab tests have shown that the average rubber duck antenna is good for MINUS six decibels of gain! Three decibels, when we're talking about power, is a doubling or halving of that power. Six decibels is quadrupling it. So your friend, Mister Duck, just took your 5 watts and turned it into (half of 5, then half again) 1.25 watts! What? Yes, it's true!

Now getting back to your local repeater (it is local, isn't it?). You may be surprised to know that the average repeater transmits somewhere between 20 and 150 watts. No wonder it sounds nice and strong in your receiver. Oh, and it's not putting 150 watts into a rubber duck antenna. I can guarantee you that. It's likely to be using an antenna that's anywhere from 10 to 20 feet tall, and might be sporting a gain of POSITIVE 6 to 9 decibels! That could mean that your HT receiver is hearing a repeater with effective power of as much as 1200 watts! No wonder it's so strong. So now you're going to transmit, what, a bit over 1 measly watt back to it?? Kind of an unfair game here, isn't it? So, short of selling the house and moving the family to a nearby mountain top (nearby the repeater, I might add), what's a body to do?

Several suggestions--(1) Give up on using that particular repeater from your particular location, or (2) Get a better antenna than the rubber duck--in fact, put a good antenna on your roof if you can, or (3) Move outside the building you're in--better yet, go climb up on its roof, or (4) Buy a power amplifier for your HT, or go buy a base station-type radio with 50 watts output, or (5) some or all of these suggestions in combination!

Seriously though, you may want to keep this comparison of your pipsqueak radio and "big mister repeater" in mind as you try different machines around you. Repeaters are generally meant to sound loud and clear to you, but you most often will not be as loud and clear going in the opposite direction. That's just how it is.

OK, so are we successful in getting the repeater to hear us after all of this? Yes? Excellent! You've now mastered (to some degree) the technical stuff. Let's move quickly on to the soft, squishy human stuff.

Now the Non-Technical Stuff:

The best way to get someone to talk to you is to either sound like someone interesting, or you have to "ambush" someone already talking on the repeater. We'll talk about ambushing in a moment.

First, are you interesting? I don't know, but I CAN tell you that you can easily make yourself sound UNinteresting by: mumbling, talking way too softly, speaking in a language other than English (at least while your in my country, mein herr!), giving only a garbled piece of your call, or, well, you get the general idea! You should use your "good" speaking voice, and sound a bit cheerful and self-assured--even if you're not. Nobody wants to engage in a conversation with a depressed-sounding, mumbly person, unless they're a close friend that overlooks their faults.

Now, there are lots of ways to sound interesting to fellow hams, but here are just a few: be a child, or possibly be female. That' s about it. Sorry if you're male--you'll just have to be well-spoken. Children are quite rare in the ham world, with women coming in second place in rarity. Hams are overwhelmingly male and middle-aged. Someone who does not share those two characteristics has an advantage in getting a conversation started.

Just dive in and try it out. Say that you're listening or monitoring the repeater, give your call, and wait for the fish to approach the hook. If nobody answers you back...welcome to the Bay Area! There are lots and lots of ham repeaters here, jammed on every available channel (with a waiting list, too!), and most often you'll find that you were actually heard by nobody at all when you gave your call out!

It happens. Lots of repeaters, fewer people. Strange situation, especially because it costs a few pennies to put up a repeater, and banks don't give out loans for such enterprises. If you call at 3 AM, or 3 PM, you are much less likely to find someone to talk to. If you call during drive times, you'll more likely find people in their cars with nothing to do but talk on the radio--and they do!

So, choose your time, and choose your repeater. Some may only have one person using them on a given day--and that person can't really talk to himself. Others are really, really busy. So, part of your job is to find out which repeaters to try, and hopefully it's one that is close enough to you. I've handed out some lists of suggested local repeaters already, so I won't repeat myself here.

Rather than just saying you're monitoring, don't be shy about asking a question to get the ball rolling. Everyone loves to help, and asking a question will very likely get a response--if anyone else is listening on the repeater. Ask "Could someone tell me where this repeater is located?" or something similar.

Ambushing: This actually results in a virtual 101% likelihood that you'll talk to someone. The way it works is simple: Listen for people talking on a repeater, and wait until they are done. By then, you've either written down or memorized their calls, and then you call one of them within a few seconds after they've completed their contact (unless they say they're turning the radio off).

Let's say W6ABC and KJ6BCD have been chatting. During the conversation, they talked about a new fishing reel one of them wants to buy. The conversation might go like this (I'll be calling them, so we'll use my call):

5 seconds after they've finished:

You: "W6ABC from K7DAA"
Him: "Uh, K7BAA was it? This is W6ABC, the name is Paul. Don't think we've met."
You: "Hi Paul, the call is K7 Delta Alpha Alpha, and the name is Dave. Yeah, you're my first contact on this machine. I heard you guys talking about the Wonderflash 3000 reel, and was just wondering if you could give me some advice on my next reel." (you might be tempted to say "over" at the end of each transmission, but most of the time that's unnecessary. You'll both hear the repeater "beep" right after each of you lets up on your mike buttons.)
Him: (Now quite interested)"Sure, Dave, I can try. What reel have you got in mind?

" (at this point, the conversation takes off for 10 minutes or so on boring stuff like fishing reels! Eventually, every good conversation must come to an end...)

Him: Well Dave, it's been good to meet you, but I'm destinated (dumb word, but we use it to mean we've gotten to where we wanted to go!) and so I'm going to say seventy-threes for now. Welcome to the repeater, and maybe we can chat again. I'm usually on about this time of day. Back to you for a final, and then I'm going in the house. K7, uh sorry, forgot the rest. This is W6ABC. See you later."
You: "OK Paul, 73 and nice to meet you! Yeah, I'll try and stop by the machine about this time some evening and let you know how my new reel works out. Thanks for the advice! W6ABC from K7DAA. G'nite!"
Him: "G'nite Dave. W6ABC, and I'll be QRT." (see my list of "Q" signals on my web site)

Now that wasn't so bad, was it? But what if you don't like to talk about fishing reels? I know I don't! Back up the conversation to the top again, and let's take a slightly different approach:

5 seconds after they've finished:

You: "W6ABC, this is K7DAA"
Him: "K7DAA from W6ABC. Go ahead."
You: "Hi! Name is Dave, and I just stopped by the repeater and was wondering where it was located. It sure has great sounding audio!"
Him: "Good evening Dave. Name here is Paul, and thanks for the compliment. Yeah, I'm the one that maintains the repeater. It's a Whizzbang 3000, and it's located on Mount Zeebo, just north of the Whoville water tower. It's in a great spot, and it looks down over the whole valley!"
You: "Ah, that explains the great coverage! Yeah, I live down in the valley, and I can look straight up at the water tower from my house!"
Him: "Hey, good deal, Dave. By the way, we have a club that meets every Saturday morning at 6 AM at the Waffle House. New guy gets to buy waffles for everyone so we'd sure like to meet you!!"
You: "Gee Paul, sounds like fun, but I work swing shift. Maybe in a few months they'll move my hours and I can come join you! In the mean time, do you guys have a net I could check in on?"
Him: "Sure! We meet on this machine every Tuesday at 8 PM. Just local people, and we chat informally for about an hour or so. You're welcome to join in!"
You: blah, blah, blah, etc. etc.

My point, like Dale Carnegie's, is to find something interesting to talk with a stranger about. Memorize their name, use it several times, be interested in what they are interested in.. One of my very best friends on the Palo Alto repeater is a sky diver about my age. He's offered to take me tandem jumping with him, at no cost to me (my wife made me promise not to!).

I've never met him in person (yet), but we often talk about sky diving. I ask questions, and he tells me all about it. It's very interesting, actually! He recently set some kind of record by jumping with a 2 meter walkie talkie, making contacts with all of us all over the Bay Area from 10,000 feet! Made the newspapers, too.

The point is, of course, that you can and should USE your new license by getting "on the air" and talking! I can't overemphasize this point enough. You must train yourself to use and be comfortable with your ham radio, and comfortable with talking to people on it, BEFORE THE EMERGENCY happens! That way you will be ready to pass important information, you will have greater confidence in using repeaters, and you will know how to communicate clearly!


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