Yes, Michelle Toon will tell you, there is a stereotype about ham radio operators, and it doesn't bother her at all. "A pocket protector, a radio hanging here," she says, motioning to her hip, "maybe a telephone or something -- the original computer geek."
But searching frequencies in the middle of the night? Not for her, she says, "although I do love the idea of that."
"Hams" must pass tests offered by the Federal Communications Commission in order to have access to allocated frequencies on the air. Since she became a licensed amateur radio operator in 1992, Toon has used the medium to interact with a wide range of people in the years before Internet chat rooms existed.
"Ham radio is like a room full of strangers," says Toon, a microcomputer specialist in Information Technology Services. "It's just a really big room."
The hobby also served a more practical purpose during the years she was completing her doctorate in information science at the University of North Texas. While driving between Waco and Denton, she used her mobile ham radio unit to talk to other operators. "People would listen for me on those days at a certain time and if they didn't hear me, they'd check with me to make sure I was doing OK," she says.
Her job, troubleshooting problems on campus Macs, keeps her busy -- as do her recent efforts to open a computer learning center in Waco for senior adults -- but she occasionally finds time to "troll" the frequencies during lunch breaks at the campus radio shack, located near Fifth Street and Speight Avenue. The small shed is home to the Baylor Amateur Radio Club, an organization for students, faculty and staff; currently, Toon sponsors the club, which has more than a dozen members.
Ham radios play an important role in emergency preparedness, she says, and were instrumental after Sept. 11, 2001, when many operators traveled to Ground Zero to offer their services and equipment when the phones weren't working. "These are the kinds of stories I love about radio, when the radio could get through when nothing else could." But, casual interaction among the global network is equally valuable, she says. "A lot of the time, people will sit alone in their rooms or in their basements with all their stuff, but they can get out in the world. They're meeting people and experiencing things."