What’s the Frequency, Chris?
To the entire Ursinus community, he’s Chris Wilcox, a longtime emergency management coordinator whose passion for public safety protects our campus. But to many people around the world—often unseen, but always heard—he is known by another moniker: Whiskey Three Charlie Juliet Whiskey.
For the unfamiliar, those terms come from the military phonetic alphabet, a set of 26 words that are used to spell out letters to help ensure clarity and accuracy in communication. W3CJW is Wilcox’s radio call sign; it’s his identity.
He’s a ham radio operator who has an international reach, contacting people all over the country and the globe. In a world in which social media has broken down global boundaries allowing for instant communication, Wilcox’s amateur radio hobby is a throwback to connecting with people in the days long before cell phones and the Internet.
So, what, exactly, is ham radio? Quite simply, it’s a means by which hobbyists utilize radio frequencies to communicate with one another. Amateur radio is a thriving community and the 750,000 licensed “hams” in the United States can communicate with over 3 million operators around the world.
“Believe it or not, it’s a hobby that is still really popular today,” said Wilcox, who recently set up his ham radio operation for a demonstration in the Bears’ Den in Wismer Center—complete with a homemade antenna that reached high into the sky just outside the campus safety office.
“You can make contacts around the world with very simple items and simple equipment,” he said. “You gain a circle of friends.”
Prior to coming to Ursinus, Wilcox spent 18 years as a Montgomery County dispatcher, so when it comes to radio communication, he’s a natural. He traces his passion for the hobby back to his youth, when in the 1970s, “CB radio became all the craze,” he said.
“I had a CB radio. My father carried the license, and I was probably 12 or 14 years old. And since then, I always had a love for radio,” Wilcox said.
He sought an amateur radio license while working as a dispatcher, but couldn’t quite master Morse code, which was a requirement at the time.
“You had to have so many words per minute, and I just couldn’t get that part down,” he said. But after that requirement was removed from licensing, he decided to give it another shot—with the promise to one day learn Morse code. Now, he has earned the highest class of license, providing him with the widest range of amateur radio privileges.
On the day of this on-campus demonstration, Wilcox connected with ham radio operators in Nova Scotia and New Hampshire. And amateur radio enthusiasts have a variety of initiatives that are open to anyone who is involved in the pastime. Wilcox, for example, enjoys “Parks on the Air,” which facilitates ham radio communications across the state and national park systems.
He remembers that his first long distance contact—a DX, or “distance contact”—was one with a person in Poland using minimal equipment, including a fishing pole as an antenna. He also connected with someone in Ireland, and he was invited as a guest to his house.
“We still stay in contact through email,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly, the ability to create this communication infrastructure makes ham radio an invaluable messaging tool in times of emergency. Wilcox recalls a time when an amateur radio colleague helped a man get in touch with his family in Puerto Rico after the state was ravished by a hurricane, shutting down mainstream systems of communication. Ham radio was the only way that the man could quickly reach his family, and the operators have the technical expertise that allow for this kind of transmission of information when all other forms of communication fail.
“And it’s a really good feeling when you’re able to help somebody,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox hopes to bring more amateur radio to Ursinus. He set up a demonstration in 2019 at the college’s 150th anniversary celebration, 150 Fest, and recently participated in a “fox hunt”—an exercise where amateur radio hobbyists seek out hidden transmitters—with Ursinus students and Bill Mongan, an associate professor of mathematics, computer science, and statistics, who is also a ham operator. He hopes to one day start a ham radio club on campus.
“I think there would be some real interest in it,” he said. “It would be fun.”
Until then, he’s riding the waves communication, from one radio signal to the next.