HAM Radio 101

Hams You Should Know: Walter Cronkite, KB2GSD: A Life on the Air

Known to the rest of the world as the “Most trusted man in America,” Walter Cronkite, KB2GSD, is revered among radio enthusiasts as the “Most trusted Ham in Amateur Radio,” or at least, he should be.

The voice of CBS Evening News for more than 19 years, Cronkite covered the stories that mattered most, including the Nuremberg trials, Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. He is the only non-NASA recipient of the Ambassador of Exploration Award for his coverage of the U.S. space program. And, of course, he was also a ham—although it took a bit of trickery from fellow operators to earn him his license.

At CBS, Cronkite was surrounded by hams, most notably his friend and the program’s radio engineer, Steve Mendelsohn, W2ML, who over time, gabbed about the topic often enough to ignite a slow-burning interest in his news anchor friend. According to Mendelsohn, “On finding that he (Cronkite) had to pass a Morse code test, he balked, saying it was too hard for him; however, he told me he had purchased a receiver and listened every night for a few minutes to the Novice bands.” Fear from the man who had visited war-torn countries and tackled the most controversial topics. Fear of the amateur radio license exam. So his fellow hams decided to take action.

Before Cronkite was to go live for a nightly newscast, Mendelsohn and CBS Evening News director Dick Muller, WA2DOS, tested the tone of the audio recorders by sending Morse code text from a copy of the New York Times with the tone key for ten minutes. Cronkite, of course, accepted the challenge, translating the message and bringing it back to his pleased-as-punch friends following the newscast. With great amusement, both instantly proclaimed him victorious over the Morse code section of his Technician’s exam—knowing it required only two General Classes, like the two of them, to officially validate the test. Weeks later, Cronkite, took and passed the written portion of the test as well, earning his license to operate and the call sign KB2GSD.

And the fun continued. When Cronkite went on the air as an operator for the first time on 10 meters at about 28.390 MHz, he was instantly snubbed by a Midwestern ham who didn’t believe the famous news anchor was who he claimed to be, saying, “That’s the worst Walter Cronkite imitation I’ve ever heard!” And then, “Walter Cronkite is not even a ham, and if he was, he certainly wouldn’t be here on 10 meters!” But he was, at long last, and would go on to accomplish great things both for the world and for the world of Amateur Radio.

Great things that included receiving a Peabody Award in 1963 and 1981, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1981, the TCA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986, the Nierenberg Prize in 2002, the Evelyn F. Burkey Award in 1980, the ARRL President’s Award, and the Radio Club of America’s most prestigious Armstrong Award. He even narrated a six-minute film titled Amateur Radio Today in 2003 that explained Amateur Radio to non-hams.

Cronkite passed away in his home on July 17, 2009, at the age of 92, following a long struggle with cerebrovascular disease.

“And that’s the way it is.” – Walter Cronkite, KB2GSD

(November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009)

Leave a Reply