Decades ago, when war and calamity were not a thing of the past, amateur radios were the only mode of communication. While for some these radios might just be a device to help communicate in disaster situations, for people like Madhu Prasad, it’s a hobby. And it all started with his love for radios and his interest in connecting with people across the world. He says: “I start my day listening to the radio and it is a pleasure to connect with people where even cell phones cannot reach or exist.” Madhu, who works as National Public Affairs and CSR Manager, West Cluster at Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages, had the chance to connect with a group of interesting people including a solo sea traveler, astronauts Soviets in space stations and even the King of Thailand. He has communicated with people from over 140 countries and thinks it’s a whole different thing to connect with people through social media.
We talk to him to understand what intrigued him to become an amateur radio operator. Extracts:
Tell us how and when you first saw this device and what intrigued you?
I came across this device when I visited the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum (VITM) and I was 14 years old. There is a science club that organizes various activities for children and I was part of that too. Every year, the organizers of this science club organized a summer camp and I would have enough time to spend in the premises of VITM, to understand the concepts of Science. One day, I discovered this Amateur Ham Club which existed on the top floor of VITM. At the time, this club was run by a famous radio operator, RJ Marcus, who worked in the Indian Air Force. When I walked into the room, I saw these beautiful and amazing devices that generated different sounds. RJ Marcus was connecting and talking to several others from another country. I asked Marcus if I could enter the room and he said, “Enter only if you are serious”. I didn’t think twice and walked into the room. Since then there has been no turning back and at the age of 18 I got a license to operate a wireless radio and connect with people in various parts of the world. And I have been an amateur radio operator for over two decades now.
The reason we call ourselves Amateur Radio Operators is because this is not the usual conversation you hear on TV and on All India Radio. It’s purely scientific experimentation, a hobby and I call it the first form of social media for connecting with people. There are operators like us in every city and country.
What language do you speak when you connect via wireless radio with people from other countries?
There is a language called phonetics, although we can also communicate in ordinary language. We use different types of communication and Morse code is one of them. It is an efficient and fast way to communicate with people even if there are no appropriate signals. The reason behind using phonetics is that my way of pronouncing words may be different from how a Japanese or Russian would pronounce. Therefore, phonetics is a kind of code or language that facilitates communication with people. This language is universal throughout the world. There are also some codes called Q codes because some people may not know English completely. In such circumstances we use Q codes and these are universal again. Some people working in the military also use this language.
To obtain a license and become an amateur radio operator, you must pass the exams conducted by the Wireless Planning Commission (WPC). What exactly do you need to know to take these exams?
You must have reached the age of 12, be a resident of India and have good intentions. It is also necessary to have basic knowledge of electronics. There are two parts to these exams – basic electronics and wireless laws. Previously, there were three parts which included reviewing morse code, which means sending and receiving signals. You have to be able to listen, decode, write the message and also transmit it. Now, examining morse code is no longer a warrant but if you know it then you are an advanced operator.
Usually, radio amateurs or radios are of great help during wars and natural disasters. Have you been involved in rescuing or assisting people in such situations?
I took part in the Bhuj and Latur earthquakes in 1993. Basically the protocol is for the district administration to send us a message to help them establish communication with the people. The wireless device we have can be used when we carry our own batteries or generate energy using solar panels. Wherever it is needed, we transport our generators and we are able to establish that line of contact with them. There are our own associations of amateur radio operators. For example, Bangalore has a group called Bangalore Amateur Radio Operators and this data is with the district administration. Whenever disasters strike, the district administration calls us and we see that a group of radio operators come to these places to help those in need. Currently, the COVID War Room in Karnataka also has radio operators to get daily updates on the number of cases in various districts.
Your radio collection includes a radio used by the Germans during WWII. How did you get your hands on this one?
I have the valve radio from WWII and it’s amazing how the technology migrated from there. I have radios that have revolutionized wireless communication. Currently, I am in the 18th phase of this wireless technology. All these radios are in working order. You have to look for these radios all over the world. Unfortunately, India does not have any manufacturers of these wireless devices except Bharat Electronics Limited. BEL makes these devices for the military and they don’t give them to everyone. I am lucky to have with me systems manufactured by BEL which is a manpack used by the military borders.
Science and technology have been limited to computers, cell phones and modern technology. Are students still interested in using amateur radios?
Sadly, VITM shut down its amateur radio club a long time ago, but a new institute called the Indian Institute of Ham exists and RJ Marcus is still training young minds to be amateur radio operators. Of course a good number of people are coming now and the classes are held every weekend. Due to the COVID crisis, these courses are now online.