The American Radio Relay League catches a hard time from the amateur radio community. Sometimes it’s deserved, sometimes it’s a matter of personal opinion, but it seems to always be a controversial topic. The fact that a national non-profit organization that was established to support a hobby is controversial speaks volumes about how large they are and the breadth of their mission. I can’t sell you a membership, but I can tell you why I support them.
The League has a paid staff in Newington, in addition to a very large all-volunteer field staff. And because many of these positions are regionally-elected and the elected are able to make further appointments, it can be a surprisingly political — and at times, divisive — organization with goals and ideas that vary by region.
I do feel that the team in Newington moves slowly and can do a better job of allocating their funds better shaping their public-facing message for the era we’re in, but that’s part of the deal. I’m not a huge emergency communications advocate — I do a few events here and there where I feel valued in my position as a radio operator — but the ARRL spends a lot of their focus and money in this portion of the hobby while neglecting some others. I think they generally do try good things for the hobby but the internal politics and the structure of the League will keep the good ole’ boys and their stale marketing approaches in place.
With that said, the number one reason I attribute to my ARRL membership is their influence in Washington. We see spectrum being auctioned off regularly or rules being changed. Amateur radio as we know it today is always under threat and I think it’s only a matter of time where under-utilized spectrum like the 902 MHz band is taken away from us and sold to the highest bidder. It’s good to have an organized lobby with a decent treasury on our side and I feel good knowing that a lot of my membership goes to this cause. The FCC listens to the ARRL and I want to ensure my voice is being heard. Even if they do use it to support frivolous legislation I disagree with, I think their lobbying efforts bring value to my membership.
Many do complain about the membership rates, but since I found value in being a member and I’m in the younger demographic, I found it worthwhile to become a lifetime member before rates went up again. I essentially pre-paid for 25 years of membership at the current rate, after that I’m breaking even. Unless you plan on dropping dead within 25 years, it’s a good buy.
The QST magazine, while I don’t read it as often as I used to, is a nice benefit. Their archives are a trove of information and a lot can be learned from their more technical articles. I also think they are fairly even-handed when picking letters to the editor for publishing, so it’s interesting to see what radio operators have to say about past QST articles or general practices in the hobby.
The ARRL also sponsors many contests. While I don’t have a contesting station set up right now, I do enjoy it and I hope to participate more outside of Field Day — another event that the ARRL coordinates. I really don’t think I could ask for a better organization to coordinate these events.
Aside from Google, the ARRL website sends the most prospective local hams to my club’s website through their club locator. It’s a good way for local residents to connect with their local clubs (assuming they have a decent online presence and returns e-mails) to reach out for help with getting started. But, that’s about where their club support ends — I think they can do a better job in this arena.
Likewise, they do a good job of organizing and encouraging testing, but their VEC (the division that coordinates the licensing exams), is sorely in need of updating. I went for my general exam through a different VEC (W5YI) in a small rural eastern Iowa town and the test was computerized — it was a fantastic experience. Similarly, the ARRL VEC is slow at getting the licenses to the FCC — I’ve heard other VECs like CAVEC has uploaded applications to the FCC promptly and callsigns were given in a matter of hours. The ARRL needs to stop relying on paper and mail and start understanding the value of going paperless.
I really also think testing should be free — if the ARRL wants to encourage youth to join the hobby, bolster their membership, and encourage a diverse group of intelligent operators to drive innovation, this is a great way to do it. The Missouri S&T amateur radio club recently announced free testing at all of their club meetings starting this fall, and I think it’s a great step for them to take.
While the scholarships the ARRL awards aren’t particularly large, they are numerous. I think encouraging students to study in STEM fields is absolutely important today and I appreciate that the League contributes these scholarships to many deserving students to help support their studies in STEM.
Even though I listed a lot of the reasons why the ARRL is controversial, it doesn’t equate to the ARRL being a poor investment. Despite its internal politics and other flaws, the ARRL generally does good things and I often feel grateful to them when I catch them doing really good things in the right way. For better or for worse, they are the national organization that supports our hobby and that’s why I’m willing to support them.