When he looks back over his many years, 83-year old Phil Richardson can't remember a time when radio wasn't a part of his life.

It started when his bootlegger uncle visited his parents on their southern Illinois family farm. Richardson, a young boy at the time, watched in amazement while his uncle strapped wires and other parts to a breadboard to construct a crude radio.

"I thought that was magic," Richardson said.

From that moment, he was hooked.

That was the 1930s, the Golden Age of American radio broadcasting, when for the first time people could follow the news of the world in real time, as it happened.

"I listened to the Hindenburg disaster direct," said Richardson, an Oro Valley resident.

The German airship crashed in a fiery blaze in a New Jersey field on May 6, 1937, while radio announcer Herbert Morrison of Chicago's WLS shrieked those now famous words: "Oh, the humanity!"

Later, while serving in the Army during World War II, Richardson worked as a radio operator, like the character Radar on the TV show "M.A.S.H.," he said.

In 1948, he got his first amateur radio operator's license. He's surfed the airwaves ever since as an amateur and later as general manager and sometime on-air personality at Tucson AM broadcasting institution KTKT.

Amateur radio operators, also known as ham operators, still use the nearly 100-year-old technology to communicate.

"Basically, amateur radio is a licensed radio service," said Allen Pitts of the American Radio Relay League. The group promotes amateur radio and represents operators' interests in state legislatures across the country.

A ham setup looks a lot like a CB radio that police officers or truck drivers use — a handset connected to a receiver/transmitter adorned with lights and dials.

Towering antennas adorning houses are telltale sign of a Ham enthusiast.

With a modest investment, hams can communicate to other radio jocks around the world. So, what do they talk about?

"The No.1 topic is the weather," Richardson said.

The next most popular discussion topic centers on the technology itself — just like gear heads talk about cars and technology guys talk about electronics.

"After a while, you get to know everything about these guys," Richardson said. He's been part of the same communications network for more than 50 years, a group of radio guys who flood the airwaves with talk early most mornings.

For hams, part of the excitement comes from knowing you can flip the switch on your radio and in seconds have a discussion with someone hundreds or even thousands of miles away, not tethered to cables and with nothing but air between the two.

That thrill of talking with people across the globe isn't dying with the Greatest Generation, either.

In the U.S. today, there are nearly 700,000 amateur radio operators. More than 100,000 of those earned their licenses in the last four years.

"We're far from dying," Pitts said.

Amateur radio also has a more practical and serious side. Because each operator can send and receive messages, hams have in the past played crucial roles in emergency communications.

"The fastest way to turn a crisis into a disaster is to lose communication," Pitts said.

Some recent examples of when hams heeded the call to action were September 11th and Hurricane Katrina.

When disaster strikes, often times communication breaks down. In the case of September 11th, much of New York City's radio communications were channeled through antennas atop the World Trade Center buildings. When the buildings collapsed, communications were severely limited.

"We had times where they put hams in the fire stations and we were the 9-1-1-system," Pitts said.

During a natural disaster, cell phone networks quickly get overrun, especially when landline circuits fill up or fail completely. E-mail and other computer-based communications also won't suffice during a catastrophic event.

During Katrina, power outages made modern communications nearly impossible. The incapacitated power grid all but silenced modern communications devices.

Not Ham radios, though. Hams can operate independent of regional power supplies. All an amateur radio operator needs to keep the lines of communication open is a gas-powered generator or a reliable set of batteries.

In fact, government agencies across the country, from the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency and most states, have standing agreements for amateur radio groups to provide communications assistance during emergencies.

Richardson himself has helped with emergency communications, and once even saved lives, all with his simple transceiver and antenna.

It was 1970. Richardson, already a seasoned ham, heard the faint beeps of someone tapping out an S.O.S.

"I couldn't believe it," he said.

After hearing the S.O.S. a few more times, Richardson sent a response. It turned out that the signal came from a disabled sailboat, adrift in the Pacific more than 400 miles off the coast of California.

Richardson notified the Coast Guard, which was able to rescue the boaters.

While he hasn't rescued anyone lately, Richardson still gets a thrill from flipping on the radio and not knowing where his frequency will be received.

"Just yesterday," he said, "I talked with the Royal Mounted Police in Ontario."

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