Amateur Radio Association of Newton County

(Ginnie Lange Images)

Wayne Williams looks on while Mike Swiader (seated), President of the Amateur Radio Association of Newton County operates one of the two radios purchased with grant money secured from the Jasper Newton Foundation.

MOROCCO — “The radio craze will die out in time.”

Those words were wrong when Thomas Edison spoke them in 1922, and they are just as wrong today. For most residents of Newton County, the night air is still and silent, with nothing but the distant howl of the semis to disrupt the eerie stillness of rural life. But don’t be fooled: for residents like Mike Swiader, that air is buzzing with conversation, a conversation that might begin in Newton County, ring out through the mountains of Denver, Colorado, and reach the ears of astronauts on the International Space Station.

Swiader is the President of the Amateur Radio Association of Newton County, Indiana, and for 50 years, he has been engaged in conversations that pass silently through the night air. Under the right conditions, and with the right equipment, a HAM radio operator can communicate with anyone in the world, and yes, even the brave few beyond this world. The 2-year-old Radio Association is, for many in Newton County, the gateway to these miracles of science and communication. From bouncing signals off of the moon to communicating with the world using an antenna made only from coat hangers, the radio craze can sound like anything from science fiction to science fantasy. For the magicians of the Radio Association, these marvels are routine.

So what exactly does the Radio Association do for the community?

“We’re the eyes and ears of everybody,” says Swiader. Take the Pun’kin Vine 5K in July, for example. The Radio Association was present and ever-vigilant, watching for runners in distress, carrying water to those in need, and pointing eyes and ears in every direction in case even one runner fell or suffered heatstroke. How did they communicate? By radio, naturally.

That is far from the only service the Radio Association provides, however. Posted in not just Newton County but four of the counties that surround it are what Swiader calls his storm spotters, not to be confused with storm chasers. No, these spotters are more akin to the fire watchers out California way: they watch for and warn of disaster. They’re trained to recognize wall clouds, funnels, and green skies — all the bad omens of a vicious storm on the prowl. In all likelihood, they’ll know of a coming storm before it even creeps past the Illinois border. Then, they’ll blast warning bells in every direction over the radio to get out and get out now.

But was this invisible shield always here?

As it turns out, no. “There was a black hole here. If something happens here, there was nothing,” says Swiader, and it was this black hole that led him to create the Amateur Radio Association. There were a lot of HAMs here, but no activity. “I sent out 350 letters to all the HAM radio guys in five counties,” and evidently, they were well-received. Now, the Radio Association is a burgeoning asset to the community.

Swiader was no stranger to providing community service from behind a HAM’s microphone. In 2004, Hurricane Charlie ripped through his Florida community, and with the electric grid crippled by the wind and the rain, the HAMs (powered by batteries, generators, and solar panels) were the only source of communication with important groups like the Red Cross, as well as the local fire department and police. That community went for three weeks without power, and it’s fair to say that without the radios, they would have been forced to go without medical and food supplies vital to their survival. Indeed, during those storm-ridden days, there was a HAM operator in every public building, shadowing every public official.

If tragedy struck, and a tornado was to hit a community in Newton County, the Radio Association would respond immediately, contacting the Head Communications Center for food items and other key supplies. Even without power, they would be able to access email and other important online services, ensuring that the disaster-stricken community was not cut off from the outside world, and left to fend for themselves. In a very real sense, the Radio Association is a resilient network that, no matter the circumstance, would be able to call out for help if Newton County ever found itself in dire straits. When it comes to communication, the club is Newton County’s single most valued asset.

Swiader has grand designs for his organization’s future in the community, as well.

“We’re trying to get our own building right now,” he says, which might also function as an ancillary emergency operations center (EOC) in times of crisis. In Florida, the town’s primary EOC was wiped out by the hurricane, leaving relief efforts in disarray. With a back-up in place, Newton County would be safeguarded against the same.

The Amateur Radio Association also hopes to play a greater role among the community’s younger residents. The club already offers storm spotter classes and other HAM radio courses, but hopes to extend these programs to North Newton Jr./Sr. High School in the future. Swiader also hinted that radio programs may be in the club’s sights, as well as slow-scan and fast-scan television (also known as amateur television or HAM TV).

How might the average citizen explore HAM radio today? Those interested will be pleased to know that the hobby can be relatively inexpensive. A “handy talkie”, or portable HAM radio, might only run for fifty dollars and can perform just about every function that a high-end HAM can. After that, a simple proficiency exam is the only step required to become a licensed radio operator. From there, the club can assist with the usage of specialized antennas that can, yes, communicate even with the International Space Station. Not only that, but amateur radio can easily lead to high-paying jobs in the commercial sector, ranging from aircraft communications to public service.

The radio craze, then, is far from dying out. In fact, today it functions as one of Newton County’s (and America’s) most valuable community services. Rest assured that should disaster strike, the eyes and ears of Newton County are watching, listening, and ready to serve.

Those interested in the Amateur Radio Association of Newton County may contact Mike Swiader at 815-409-5070, or by email at ka9e@usa.com. The club’s mailing address is PO Box 215, Lake Village, IN 46349. The club meets on the first Monday of every month, at 7 PM in the Morocco Public Library.