4A. Getting On the Air 

Speaking on the radio for the first time can be intimidating. It’s common to be nervous the first few times. That’s one reason many organizations that provide license training, including MDARC, also offer Get On The Air (GOTA) sessions.

GOTA classes typically follow the license training courses and provide information such as what type of radio to choose for your first one; operating procedures to use on the air; what you can do with your radio; and how to be safe while doing it. They usually follow that up with actual hands-on practice talking on your own radio with other class attendees. See our Class Details page for MDARC’s GOTA information, such as the location and schedule. Even if you didn’t attend our prior license course, don’t hesitate to sign up. Everyone is welcome at our GOTA classes.

We’ll discuss most of the topics mentioned above, and more, in the below paragraphs and on the referenced pages. If there’s anything we missed that you need to know, please send us a note at info@mdarc.org.

Your First Radio

Choosing your first radio is one of the more important decisions a new ham makes. If the one you get doesn’t fit your needs or is difficult to use, there’s a much greater likelihood that you’ll get frustrated and won’t stay active as a ham. So choose carefully. Be sure to read the next page in this series, “5. Choosing Your First Radio”.

You should also get a good understanding of some technical concepts, such as CTCSS, commonly called “PL”; and Decibels, as these concepts are discussed frequently in conversations among hams, on the air and off.

Operating Procedures

Once you have your radio, how do you use it? For the details of programming and using the controls of your particular radio, you’ll have to read its manual, and perhaps talk to an elmer that’s familiar with your model. Then, read over our Operating Procedures page for tips on what to do (and not do) when you’re on the air; general tips for taking care of your radio, and being safe while you use it.

When your radio is on, you’ll quickly find that hams use a lot of jargon. Some of that jargon consists of the Phonetic Alphabet, as hams spell out their call signs or other terms that may be hard to understand on the radio. So study that page and learn it well. And, especially if you’re interested in operating on the HF bands, get familiar with the Q-Signals and Prosigns that are used as abbreviations on the air. Some old timers also use a few of the Q Signals on the VHF and UHF bands; so it’s a good idea for all hams to learn the most popular ones. Of course, there will be a lot of other terms you’ll hear that will be new to you. Check our Glossary to find out what they mean.


Every ham is responsible for being fully aware of, and abiding by, all federal and local regulations that apply to us. So go to our multi-page Regulations section, download and study a copy of the FCC’s Part 97 rules. Then review the other pages in the section, such as the Amateur Radio Bands.


You want to absolutely be safe while operating as a ham. So read over the information in our Safety section, and follow its guidelines.

Where to Go, Frequency-Wise

When you’re ready to push that PTT switch, you’ll need to decide what channel or frequency to use. For many hams, that means selecting a repeater and calling someone or responding to someone else that’s calling.

To search for repeaters in your area, go to the Lists of Repeaters maintained by the Northern Amateur Relay Council of California (NARCC). Note that this database contains only repeaters whose owners have chosen to be included and are within NARCC’s area of responsibility (most of northern California, from the general Bakersfield area north). But that’s most repeaters in the area, over a thousand.

Many of the Clubs in Northern California and Western Nevada have repeaters, so you can also go to the web sites of some of those clubs for details on the repeaters they operate. An especially good idea if you’re thinking of becoming a member of one or more of the clubs. See this page for the links.

Practice, Practice . . .

Ultimately, the only real way to learn to use your radio is to just do it. Get on the air. Of course, you don’t need to jump into the deep end by yourself. There’s a couple of good, structured ways to have support while getting experience.

The first is Nets. Nets are structured on-the-air meetings of hams, often but not always with a common interest. That common interest could be anything; from technical discussions of the radio science, to being associated with a particular club, to just being in commute traffic. Nets usually have a “net control” that’s in charge of running the net. Northern California has nets occurring pretty much every evening, and some during the day. Look over our Nets on MDARC Systems and Nets on Other Systems pages for lists of nets we’re aware of.

Don’t try to participate in the net the first time you tune it up. Just listen. Get familiar with how the net functions, what is expected of participants and when, etc. Most nets follow the same script each time, but each net has a different script, so you’ll need to get familiar with each net separately. When you’re ready to check in, wait until the net control asks for guest check-ins, then follow the instructions he/she gave for checking in. Often, all that’s needed is your call sign, sometimes with your first name and perhaps your city. No long speeches required.

A second way to get experience is with Public Service Events. There absolutely is no better way to really learn about being a ham and using your radio than to participate in public service events. These are structured nets, with a net control, but more free flowing than the short rigid ones described above. And you’re listening to and transmitting real information about the event, not just your call sign.

Not only that, but you’re providing a major service by helping a charity raise funds with a run/walk; getting a parade from its start to its finish safely and in good order; keeping bike riders safe as the race up Mt. Diablo; making sure a horse and rider doesn’t get lost on the trail; or any number of other essential services that only good communications can provide.

At each event, you’ll be given a specific assignment within a small group of hams supporting the event. If you’re nervous about being on your own, ask the net control to pair you up with an experienced ham for your first event or two. And don’t worry about not being wanted because you’re a new ham. You will be welcomed. Seriously, please consider getting involved in Public Service Events. It’s good for you and good for the community.