curmudgeonThe Curmudgeon, having been licensed in the Amateur Radio Service for more than fifty years, has had a long-standing desire to attend the nation’s premiere annual ARS convention, the Dayton Hamvention.  However many small, niggling practical matters, such as employment, family, and funding have always created road blocks.  Now in full retirement and well along into pre-senility, the Curmudgeon finally found a way to make his first visit to “Dayton” this year. The following is a “trip report” about what this senior observer found there.  The liberty is taken, in this posting, of writing the narrative in the first person.

Overall, the event was about what I expected which means that it was a bit of a disappointment for me.  That is, a disappointment when it is compared against similar commercial events such as IWCE, NAB, APCO, etc. which do, of course, have the advantage of greater funding than does the Hamvention.

I guess it is the case here, as it is with most hobbies, that after one becomes a professional in the allied commercial fields, purely hobby activities begin to look a little “limited” by comparison.  Thus I took from Dayton the overall impression of its being a combination of a large consumer electronics show and a fraternity convocation.

I know that there were individuals attending Dayton who are responsible, knowledgeable, courteous, and skilled hams, but they tend to get diluted out by the mob.  In contrast, numbers of other hams were majestically parading around the venue wearing helmets with radiating VHF/UHF whips atop them (FCC RFE Rules, anyone?), and/or bright “Glo-Winky orange,” hunting-style vests boldly embroidered with their first names, call signs, and clubs.  And a surprisingly large number of attendees were piloting convention-rented motorized scooters through the narrow aisles.  Apparently the “health” of the ARS is not particularly good, within several different contexts.

Dayton Hamfest Exhibit Halls
Dayton Hamfest Exhibit Halls

The facilities, the Hara Arena complex, in general are pretty worn and tired, and even this was aggravated on Saturday by a break in the main sewer line to the facility.  That resulted in all the interior rest rooms being closed, with the only option for relief from multiple cups of coffee being a long hike in the warm, humid air out to the Port-a-Potties well distant in the parking lots!

In terms of industry and convention trends, I submit the following observations.  First, the event itself may have already begun a long-term decline over time.  Certainly the big manufacturers and retailers will always be there, and there will always be seminars such as “Bicycle mobiling through Kansas while simultaneously working a 40 meter CW contest!”

But the key indicator of the event’s success (or lack thereof) is the flea market in the surrounding parking lots.  This year’s sellers’ space occupancy seemed to be about 75% of capacity; there certainly were empty spots!  People who had attended the show in previous years commented that the current occupancy wasn’t up to past levels. Presumably on-line auctions, the national recession, and possibly a decreasing interest by today’s licensees in working with used/surplus electronics have removed some of the incentive for attending and selling.

Dayton Hamvention 2011 Parking Lot Fleamarket
Dayton Hamvention 2011 Parking Lot Fleamarket

Within the used ham gear in the flea market there was an abundance of Heathkit, Drake, and Collins gear.   I also saw quite a few Hammarlund tube receivers, of the kind after which I lusted fifty years ago as a new and impoverished ham.   But there were not many bargains to be had, as the on-line auctions quite likely serve to “normalize” the prices for used gear.  There were assorted electronic parts of various qualities and plenty of vendors of peripheral items as well (such as hats, knives, sunglasses, posters, buttons, photographic equipment, even one vendor of bed sheets and another of porn!).  And a good supply of uninteresting food was available for purchase both on site and off, for which meals an honest appraisal might be “they probably would sustain human life.”

Of note were the many huge commercial trucks and luxury motor homes parked both within the flea market and just outside in reserved parking.  Many such vehicles sported operating electrical generators, air conditioning, and attached crank-up triangular towers or tubular masts!  I even saw a converted ENG van.  While a few of these “self-propelled towers” had HF antennas atop, the majority had VHF/UHF vertical whips.  And, undoubtedly, most of the trucks/vans contained operational ham repeaters.  Yes, these days you can now “bring your empire with you!”  And the RF intermodulation products around the site were impressive.

Kenwood Display in Ham Arena
Kenwood Display in Ham Arena

The “big name” radio manufacturers all had large floor-space displays, and most of them had a “convention debut” product or two to show.  These generally were the ever more “creeping-featuritis” new products that are easily and eagerly anticipated.  (A few of the expensive new HF models will even shine your shoes while you operate in the contests!)  There was a “gold plated” European-made HF ham transceiver on display with a reported price tag of $18,000!  For about two-thirds that price you can get the new top-of-the-line Japanese HF contest transceiver, which is garish in appearance and just too reminiscent of a video game!  With this kind of top-end hardware, “one can become a Walter Mitty and command the Starship Enterprise in your own shack!”

One of the major new product developments, however, is the arrival of Chinese industry in the radio market.  Several Chinese manufacturers are cranking out low-end VHF/UHF hand-held transceivers, some of which will operate anywhere on their included bands (on both ham and adjacent commercial freqs).  On a selling price basis, these are undercutting the big Japanese manufacturers and the hams are buying!  The bottom end of the range is a functioning $40 dual-band walkie-talkie; a British friend has already bought one.  The top price for a market-competitive Chinese dual-bander is about $125, and this buys a radio with US support, FCC certification, and most of the other things that you might expect.

I attended a presentation given by a US consultant who permanently lives in Hong Kong and who works as a liaison between Chinese manufacturers and US importers.  He said that the lead Chinese outfit, Wouxon, is serious about penetrating the industry, has non-Chinese industry experts advising it, and is positioned to make a concerted run in the market.  They should be expanding out of hand-helds into VHF mobiles, and almost certainly then move into HF transceivers.

The major US ham retailers are now selling Wouxon products, which action means that the brand is “launched.”  The same consultant has contacts at the ICOM Company, which continues to manufacture in Japan.  ICOM feels that they can hold off the challenge from China, however, as Japanese manufacturers and workers are more efficient than are the Chinese and the wage rate for Chinese workers is beginning to rise.

ARRL Extravaganza at Dayton
ARRL Extravaganza at Dayton

The ARRL was there with a vast amount of floor space.  Their unstated theme seemed to be “a wealth of services that the ARRL, your Big Brother, can provide you, Jimmy Ham, to meet your every need and expectation.”  It reminded me of the kind of display that an outfit such as Fidelity Investments might put out to attract new investors: “Turn it all over to us, and just sit back and enjoy the ride!”

The RSGB (the Brits, of course) were there and I talked with those folks, with whom I have a tangential connection.  Good people, very friendly and helpful.  And also there was no sign of an official FCC presence at the convention, at least as far as I could tell.

Plenty of currently-unlicensed Dayton attendees were ready to sit for the (sold out) one-day ARS license “exam-cram” course.  Immediately following the class they then would launch their own Kamikaze-like attempts to creep past the 70% correct-answer passing level on the FCC written test.  After this big day presumably these new licensees were then equipped to take to the air using their shinny new Hamvention-purchased transceivers and ink-still-wet licenses.  The more capable ones will then begin to learn the fundamentals of radio technology, FCC Rules, and ARS operating practices all over again, this time in a more permanent manner.

Overall, I’m glad that I finally made it to Dayton and experienced the Hamvention for the first time.  I gathered some very useful information through contacts with various attendees and manufacturers, but I didn’t take any purchases home with me (too much electronics crap already on board there!).

With this trip completed, I now have both pictures and pleasant memories of the Hamvention and no particular desire to return in future years.  However if/when you attend Dayton, “Your own mileage may vary!”

What do you think?

“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF!”

The Old RF Curmudgeon

Since 1963, LBA has been providing RF equipment and engineering consulting services for radio and television broadcast and wireless communications.

About The Author

The Old RF Curmudgeon has been poking his beak into the RF world for very close to fifty years. With both commercial and amateur radio experience, close contacts in broadcast engineering, radio site management experience, lots of paper pushed into the FCC, an immense curiosity about “how things work,” and a “real gud college education,” the RF Curmudgeon has seen a lot of telecom evolution. And he remembers almost all of it, can relate historical items to “modern developments,” and has a sharp sense of “what’s proper….and what’s not!”

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