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May 02. 2013 10:53PM

Amateur radio enthusiasts will make waves in Deerfield

DEERFIELD - Enthusiasts describe amateur radio as "the first social network," connecting strangers, and sometimes eventual friends across borders and oceans.

This weekend, those strangers and friends will come together at the Deerfield Fairgrounds to celebrate the waves that brought them there for the 13th New England Amateur Radio Festival.

Sometimes called the "Woodstock of Amateur Radio," NEAR-Fest features a massive outdoor electronic flea market, technical seminars and presentations on everything from antenna fundamentals to the restoration of World War II-era code machines, commercial vendors, forums, exhibits, displays, even licensing exams.

The event draws "hams," as amateur radio operators are called, from across North America and Europe, eager to discover antique radio parts, see state-of-the-art gear and connect in person with old friends from the airwaves.

"It is a very broad brush. It's like amateur radio itself, in that there are all kinds of things to do with it, so there are all kinds of interests represented here," said Warren Elly, longtime ham and media and public relations director for the festival. "The fairgrounds lends itself to that, because there's so much space and buildings."

"Also, New England is a very major area for the hobby. Always has been, largely for the (Route) 128 technology corridor that goes back decades."

To many hams, however, NEAR-Fest is not simply a trade fair, and hamming is more than a hobby. Both are, rather, a way to connect.

"Amateur radio is a social network in every sense of the word," said Elly.

"Amateur radio operators, back when radio was being invented, the first guys were hams, were experimenters. Many of the advances of radio propagation were developed by hams. Fundamentally though, it was also communication. People were sharing information, were socializing over the airwaves just after the turn of the century."

According to Elly, this is an experience most hams, himself included, still know first-hand.

"Those of us who have been hamming for some time, wherever we travel, we have friends," he said. "I started hamming when I was in high school in 1966. There are seven or eight friends here that I spoke (with) when I was growing up in Connecticut. I was talking to friends all over New England. People who became friends for life. People I've known for forty-five, fifty years. We've followed each other through life, and this is where we meet. We meet at Deerfield every year."

This year, however, the festival is also turning its eye to the next generation, or what it hopes will become the next generation, of hams, letting all guests under 18 years old in free of charge.

"We've all noticed that the average age of the amateur radio operator increases every year," according to the mission statement for the festival. "The number of hams is declining every year. We rarely see any young people at our events because there are so many activities competing for their time. It is also a hard fact of life that if we don't attract new blood to our hobby it's going to slowly wither and die of old age."

By tradition, NEAR-Fest donates any profits after expenses to "benevolent projects."

This year the festival will make a contribution to The One Fund - Boston, a fund to benefit the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing established by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

"We feel this is most appropriate considering that amateur radio has played an integral part of the marathon for a very long time and is a major public service event that draws hundreds of volunteers from our community every year," reads a statement on their website.

"This year, it's especially poignant to everyone," said Elly. "Somewhere between two and three hundred hams have for decades supported the Boston Marathon. They're primary communications, coordinating the race."

In previous years, the non-profit donated an emergency radio station to the Town of Deerfield, built an amateur satellite station at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, and contributed to Shriners Hospitals.

NEAR-Fest will open its gates at the Deerfield Fairgrounds today at 9 a.m. The festival is set to end on Saturday at 3 p.m. General admission tickets for those over 18, which are good for both Friday and Saturday, cost $10.

bclogston@newstote.com

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