BAR HARBOR — Jeff Hanscom still gets giddy when he hears someone on the other end of the line.
Hanscom, a Bar Harbor resident and an engineering technician at Mount Desert Island Hospital, first began experimenting with ham radios 40 years ago. As a 15-year-old boy, he was simply fascinated by the idea of being able to transmit a message that could instantly be received and heard anywhere on the globe.
“It was like magic to me,” Hanscom said. “It was just the excitement of being able to take a simple radio signal, send out a signal and be able to contact somebody who’s hundreds or thousands of miles away from you.”
Now 56, Hanscom is still just as passionate about the hobby as he was back in 1980 — and he’s just one of many Downeast residents who can be found over the airwaves these days by fellow ham radio enthusiasts the world over.
“Ham” radio operators use amateur radio stations to communicate with one another via two-way transmissions. Rather than broadcasting for commercial purposes, these operators take to the airwaves for personal enjoyment, testing, experimentation, competition, energy contact or any other purpose of their choosing.
To be able to operate over the airwaves, ham radio operators must pass an exam to become licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. They are then assigned a call sign composed of several letters and numbers that provide them with unique identities over the airwaves.
Chuck Liebow, a licensed captain who drives the Beal & Bunker mailboat between Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles, has been a licensed ham radio operator for three years. He has setups, or “shacks,” as ham radio aficionados call them, in his Trenton home, on the vessel Sea Queen and even in his 2012 Hyundai Elantra via an antenna attached near the car’s rear.
When captaining the mailboat, Liebow uses a portable QCX receiver with a 40-meter band that’s strong enough to make contact with ham radio users up and down the Eastern Seaboard. At home, he has a much larger, more sophisticated setup that can reach as far as Australia, Alaska and Hawaii.
“When I’m out there on the water, I need something for my fingers to do,” Liebow said. “I put a ham stick on the antenna, run a wire in and see who I can contact. … Between that and what I’ve got at home, there’s probably nowhere in the world where I couldn’t find a friend.”
After making contact with one another, Hancock Radio operators exchange small cards or slips of paper with each person’s call sign. The cards, which are known as QSL cards, contain the time and date of contact as well as the frequency and mode of communication used.
Liebow, whose call sign is AC1BS, has an entire binder full of QSL cards he’s received from operators all over the world. Hanscom, KA1DBE, recently became a member of the DX Century Club after establishing contact with users in 100 different countries.
“You’ve got all sorts of competitions to try and get cards for every state or every country and everything like that,” Hanscom said. “People are courteous enough to send them most of the time, and it’s fun to see how many different places you can get.”
Ham radio messages can be transmitted via voice, text, imaging or even Morse code. Although the FCC no longer requires operators to be proficient in Morse code, that form of communication is still relatively popular in the amateur radio community.
“The beauty of Morse code is that the community is so gracious,” Liebow said. “If you can only do five words per minute, they will slow down to your speed so you can understand. I’m not too bad at sending it, but I’m not very good at hearing it, so that’s very helpful.”
The hobby can be as cheap or expensive as an operator likes. Liebow’s QCX kit cost just $49, but the costs can rise to hundreds and even thousands of dollars for those who buy high-end rigs or spend time maintaining multiple shacks.
“The sky’s the limit in terms of where you want to go in terms of expense,” Liebow said. “You can build an antenna yourself using a simple wire, or you can go into the towers yourself and spend $4,000-5,000. It’s whatever you want to make it.”
Many local ham radio operators are members of the Ellsworth Amateur Wireless Association, where Hanscom is president and Liebow is vice president. The organization has approximately 60 members, including Andrew Sankey, executive director for the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, as well as former Ellsworth Police Department Detective Dotty Small and her husband, Richard.
Even far away from Downeast Maine, though, the preferred language of communication amongst ham radios is English — and as long as conversations steer clear of “religion, politics and sex,” Hanscom said, there’s almost no subject too taboo.
“I think one of the best parts is just connecting with people and just learning about them,” Hanscom said. “You have these conversations and learn about each other, and you find out that you have a lot in common and that you’re going through a lot of the same things in life.”