Hundreds of ham radio enthusiasts gather at convention center is your source for free local news and information in Virginia Beach

(Ed Williams, Virginia Beach resident and member of Tidewater Radio Conventions, Inc. in his home studio in 2003. Courtesy of
(Ed Williams, Virginia Beach resident and member of Tidewater Radio Conventions, Inc. in his home studio in 2003. Courtesy of

Virginia Beach resident Ed Williams spends close to eight hours a day in his home studio, manipulating controls and switches, seeking a connection to the unknown.

As an amateur radio enthusiast, he is not alone.

Thousands of fans of amateur radio, also known as ham radio, have gathered in Virginia Beach for more than three decades to view, purchase and sell equipment and to make connections to other amateur radio operators across the globe. Amateur radio enthusiasts communicate with fellow hobbyists across the country and around the world, according to website for AARL, the national association for amateur radio. This weekend, they’re back in the city for the Virginia Beach Hamfest on Saturday, which is slated to run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, 1000 19th St. 

“We exist because we’re able to provide valuable public service in times of emergency, but on a day-to-day basis, we sit there and communicate with one another over the radio,” said Bill Holland, a vice president of Tidewater Radio Conventions Inc., which hosts Hamfest. Williams is also a member.

Tidewater Radio Conventions is made up of licensed amateur radio groups throughout the Tidewater area. Members have passed an exam, which requires an understanding of regulatory policies, electronic theory and mathematics. They have also been licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to operate on the “Amateur Bands,” which are allocated by the FCC for operators of ham radio, according to AARL’s website.

For many, a large part of the hobby is making as many connections as possible to radio stations throughout the world, Holland said. The American Radio League awards enthusiasts for making connections and for connecting to a good number of the 339 spots on its site list.

Williams has made contact with almost all of them – 326 of the 339, in countries spread around the globe. In order to support other hobbyists, he even traveled to Guantanamo Bay twice a year for six years, to create a connection spot and allow others to connect to that site. Williams, who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers in 2001, had an 89-foot tower installed in his backyard in 2003 to boost his ability to participate in the hobby.

Hamfest will offer vintage radios and radios and radio components, so enthusiasts can build their own setups.

When the festival began more than 30 years ago, it brought in around 6,500 attendees. In recent years, the event has drawn between 1,000 and 1,500 attendees. The internet and availability of items for purchase online reduced the turnout, Holland said. 

That doesn’t affect Holland’s or Williams’s own affinity for the activity, though.

During winter, when he’s not outdoors as much, Holland spends time trying to contact as many stations as he can over the airwaves, to add connections to his list. Williams enjoys the surprise element involved.

“You never know where you’re going to talk,” he said. “One of the last contacts was to Cuba – you just never know where it’s going to be.”

Tickets will be available at the door for $10.