HAM Radio 101

Amateur Radio and Morse Code in Popular Culture (Part 5)

In this fifth installment of Amateur Radio and Morse Code in Popular Culture, OnAllBands visits the highest grossing movie of 1996; a would-be electrical engineer turned stand-up comedian; and a British detective drama with the titular character’s name embedded in Morse code in its theme song.

Independence Day: We’re not sure how this slipped by us at OnAllBands, but thanks to an alert reader we’re rectifying this oversight today by noting that Morse code plays a key role in Independence Day—a science fiction action film that, to date, has grossed upwards of $800 million, ranking it in the top-100 highest grossing films of all time.

After a squadron of alien saucers destroys major U.S. cities, the clock is ticking on another major extraterrestrial attack that promises further worldwide devastation. A plan to disable the invaders’ shields and mount a counter-offensive is Earth’s last hope, made possible when the U.S. military contacts fighter pilots around the globe through Morse code transmissions. Watch the clip here. Spoiler alert: Humankind triumphs and a sequel follows. It’s also cool to note that Morse code messages, delivered in drumbeats as S-O-S and D-I-E, can be heard in the movie’s Grammy-winning score by David Arnold.

While ID4, as it is popularly known, may be pure Hollywood hokum, those who know Morse code understand that this old-school communication mode still has serious applications in today’s world. That’s why you’ll find everything you need to get started in CW at DXEngineering.com, including keysiambic paddlesVibroplex Original Bug Keysmemory keyersDX Engineering Paddle Pads, and even pocket-size Morse code tutors.

Garry Shandling, WA7BKG, KD6OY, KQ6KA: I recently picked up the biography It’s Garry Shandling’s Book at a library book sale, and knowing that Shandling was an avid ham, leafed through its pages to see if there was anything about the legendary comedian’s time behind a microphone logging QSOs rather than mocking his hair on late-night TV.

The book, edited by close friend Judd Apatow after Shandling’s death in March 2016, features two full spreads showing color and black-and-white photos of a younger short-haired and later long-haired Shandling at his station in Tucson, Arizona; his QSL cards (he was a member of the ARRL and Rag Chewer’s Club); his Military Affiliate Radio Station (MARS) license; a photo of him high on an antenna tower; and a note from 2009 reflecting on how his ham radio shack was his means of escape from complicated family issues.

The text from his cousin Mike Shandling reads, “Garry was really into ham radio, and I think he started at twelve or thirteen, and that was what he did in his spare time. All his friends were ham radio guys, and he had people all around the world that were his ham radio friends…He had all the best equipment and latest equipment and was always letting us sit with him for hours and hours, just talking on the ham radio.”

Apatow compiled Shandling’s letters, journal entries, photos, essays, scripts, jokes, and other ephemera, along with insights from friends and family, to craft an intimate and often moving portrait of the ham and electrical engineering major who would go on to create It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show

Inspector Morse: This popular British crime drama—ranked #42 on the list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programs by the British Film Institute—ran from 1987-2000 and featured Morse code transmissions in both its theme song and, ingeniously, in its incidental music written by Australian composer Barrington Pheloung. The theme song’s motif is based on M-O-R-S-E in Morse code. Pheloung has said that from time to time he would incorporate the Morse-spelled name of the episode’s killer in the music or the name of another character as a red herring. Listen to the hauntingly beautiful Inspector Morse theme here.

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