Amateur (ham) Radio has a problem. The number of active hams has been on a steady decline for at least 20 years. The ARRL knows it but continues to claim that the number of new hams - those who have passed their Technican exam - either rises or holds steady year-to-year so the picture is rosy, in an odd sort of way. No, what Amateur Radio has is a participation problem. The ARRL knows this and puts programs in-place to attract and retain new hams, things like satellites, digital modes, Moon bounce, Summits On the Air, EMCOMM and more. It's all good stuff - there's nothing really bad in Amateur Radio. But it just isn't working. The retention rate, based on my purely anecdotal evidence, can't be more than 20% at the most.
We've all heard the stories of why the millennial and post-millennials are not interested in ham radio - the internet, smartphones, the lack of immediate gratification, the perception that it's for old fuddy-duddies. There's a bit of truth in all of this; in the world of ubiquitous internet connectivity, instantaneous communications modes like Twitter and Snapchat, the 'there's an app for that' mentality and an always-on 24 hour news cycle very few kids today see the relevance of ham radio. Plus when a 16 year-old walks into a ham radio club meeting and sees that everyone else there is collecting Social Security you begin to understand their point.
This is why I think we're targeting the wrong group. The ARRL and other organizations shout that we've got to "get 'em while they're young". Why? It's impossible to compete for the post-millennial's attention and two decades of trying have shown it really doesn't work. Instead I say "get 'em when they're ready".
My feeling is that most kids today do not have the requisite maturity and life experience to understand just why Amateur Radio is important. We've spent too much time emphasizing the 'doing' and not enough time explaining the 'why'. Of course its fun to talk with another ham via an Amateur Radio satellite, but why is ham radio communication via satellite important? We recruit thousands of hams every year to support charity events like fundraising walks or bike rides, but we don't spend much time talking about why it's important we support them. Most clubs hold weekly nets, but we never stop to really discuss why it's important to participate.
Amateur Radio is all about communicating, and in many instances the why comes when the ham radio operator can put it all in perspective. The why is the 9/11 attacks taking out a single point of communications failure atop the World Trade Center, crippling regional communications for months. The why is Hurricane Katrina wiping southern Mississippi and much of Louisiana off the map as ham radio operators crouched on hospital rooftops trying desperately to reach out for assistance in a region without power or communications. The why is the captain of the replica sailing ship HMS Bounty, sinking in the raging ocean waters caused by Super Storm Sandy, contacting the Coast Guard using Winlink on an Amateur Radio frequency to report her last position, this after all other communications systems on the boat had failed. The why is Puerto Rico, flattened by Hurricane Irma and almost entirely dependent on Amateur Radio communications for health and welfare traffic for months after the storm.
To understand the why you must first have the life experience necessary to understand the impacts of each of these events to put them in perspective and understand the role Amateur Radio played. A post-millennial 16 or 17 year old does not have the necessary life experience.
But the Florida homeowner who's ridden out three hurricanes in one season does have the experience and perspective to understand why the ability to communicate is important. So does the Soldier who spent a year in Afghanistan running tactical communications nets supporting military convoys. So does the firefighter who relied on his Motorola handheld to call for assistance while fighting a wildfire. It's precisely these individuals Amateur Radio should be targeting, people who are old enough to understand the importance of communication and have the experience and perspective that allows them to intuitively understand why Amateur Radio is important.
Reaching out to kids is important if for no other reason than let them know that Amateur Radio exists and it's there for them if they have the interest. However, I feel the real target market needs to be generation-x crowd, those born in the 1970's and 80's. These folks have been around the block a few times and are better able to grasp the relevance of Amateur Radio in the real world. The good thing about this age demographic is that it's self-replenishing. Everybody grows older, gains life experience and is better able to put things in perspective. We need to adjust our aim to specifically target the 30 - 50 year old crowd. If we do I'm sure our recruiting and retention rates will improve. We certainly can't do any worse than we have in trying to keep the millennials on-board.