HAM Radio 101

Amateur Radio and Morse Code in Popular Culture…Some of Our Favorite Examples

It’s always a surprise when ham radio appears in popular entertainment. It’s even more surprising when the details are not mishandled or misrepresented. Just for fun, OnAllBands compiled a few of our favorite references. This is by no means a comprehensive list—just a few examples, some familiar, some obscure—of how ham radio and Morse code find their way into movies, music, and TV shows. We’ll get to some other instances in a follow-up post.

  • Released in 1973, Steely Dan’s stellar second studio album, Countdown to Ecstasy, includes the standout track, “King of the World.” The lyrics paint a grim portrait of a post-apocalyptic western U.S. landscape where no marigolds dare to push through the scorched earth and the only means of communication is, you guessed it, ham radio. The song begins:

               Hello one and all; was it you I used to know?

               Can’t you hear me call on this old ham radio?

               All I’ve got to say, I’m alive and feeling fine

               Should you come my way you can share my poison wine

  • Spoiler alert: In the 2019 South Korean-made Academy Award-winning film Parasite, a wanted man hiding out in a basement employs flashing lights to send a message in Morse code in hopes of letting his son know he is alive.
  • Ham radio takes center stage in Frequency, a 2000 thriller starring Jim Caviezel as John Sullivan, an NYPD detective. Through fantastical circumstances you won’t find chronicled in any ARRL handbook, he logs the most unlikely of all QSOs by using his Heathkit radio to contact his father who died three decades ago. While on the air, he alerts his father about the mistakes that led to his death in a fire. Heeding his son’s warning, the father, played by Dennis Quaid, survives the fire but alters the course of history in troubling, Ray Bradbury-like ways. Incidentally, Quaid’s character used the W2QYV call sign, which belongs to the Niagara Falls, NY Radio Club. The ARRL served as a technical consultant on the film.
  • In the 2020 “almost-end-of-the-world” disaster epic Greenland, much of the world is destroyed by a rogue comet. When a collection of survivors—handpicked to ride out the disaster in underground shelters—emerge to view the devastation, hope comes in the form of ham radio communication. We hear the call, “CQ CQ CQ. This is Greenland Station. Is anyone receiving?” This is followed by a series of responses: “Greenland Station, this is Helsinki one-nine, the signal is weak but we read you, we copy.” “CQ, CQ, CQ. This is Sydney Station. We can hear you as well.” “Five-by-nine. Five-by-nine. This is Moscow Station. Zdravstvuyte.” As we like to say, when all else fails, ham radio saves the day—even in the movies.
  • Birmingham, England’s Electric Light Orchestra were well-known for slipping back-masked passages into their songs that could only be understood if played in reverse. In 1983, the title track on the band’s lesser-known Secret Messages album also included a series of Morse code bursts spelling out . / .__ . . / __ __ __ (ELO), something the rockers had done on another album ten years earlier.
  • In Steve Jobs, a 2015 biographical drama directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Walter Isaacson, you might have missed a passing ham reference during a scene in which Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer, asks Jobs to publicly acknowledge the Apple II team’s contributions to the company. It doesn’t go well.

Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen): This whole place was built by the Apple II. You were built by the Apple II.

Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender): As a matter of fact, I was destroyed by the Apple II and its open system so that hackers and hobbyists could build ham radios or something and then it nearly destroyed Apple when you spent all your money on it and developed a grand total of no new products.

While that’s the only ham radio reference in the movie, it’s interesting to note that Isaacson’s book mentions how an amateur operator from Jobs’ childhood, Larry Lange, WB6EVG (SK), had an influence on his life. From the book:

 “He was my model of what an HP engineer was supposed to be: a big ham radio operator, hard-core electronics guy,” Jobs recalled. “He would bring me stuff to play with.” 

  • At the top of our list of favorites is Last Man Standing, a sitcom starring Tim Allen that ran from 2011-21. Allen played Mike Baxter, an outdoor sporting goods executive and ham radio operator (in real life, Allen’s call sign is KK6OTD; the show’s fictional call was KA0XTT, the XTT standing for ex-Tim Taylor, his role on Home Improvement). Check out this video of show producer John Amodeo, NN6JA, discussing how he incorporated ham radio into the show.
  • The 1997 science fiction drama Contact, starring Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, begins with her childhood experiences with amateur radio. This leads to a career in science and her passion to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. She works at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The observatory’s massive, now-disabled radio telescope is featured in the movie. Watch the clip here.

Also take a moment to watch this video of Tim Duffy, K3LR, DX Engineering CEO, interviewing Angel Vazquez, WP3R, who was head of telescope operations at the time of the telescope’s collapse in December 2020. Below is WP3R’s QSL card featuring the telescope:

WP3R QSL card
  • Let’s take a trip in the way-back machine to see how ham radio and popular culture have changed since the early days of the hobby. For an entertaining and eye-opening look at wireless tales from the 1920s, read “The Radio Boys” and “The Radio Girls” books, including The Radio Boys at the Sending Station and The Radio Boys with the Flood Fighters—good old-fashioned stories of adventure and heroism. Here’s a brief blog post about these vintage books.
Radio Boys poster
  • And finally, lest we forget OnAllBands’ favorite band, the Spurious Emissions, whose brilliant parody songs about ham radio have delighted Hamvention attendees since 2010. Read all about the band in this article from founding member Ward Silver, N0AX.

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