Photos by Sydney Cromwell.
Above: Jerry Fiore holds his amateur radio vehicle tag in front of his ham radio equipment. On the wall are a few of the plaques he’s won in amateur radio contests over the 60 years he’s been involved in the hobby.
The crackle of radio static is one of the first sounds Jerry Fiore hears in the morning. From the antenna in his Vestavia Hills backyard, Fiore can listen to what’s going on around the world.
For 60 years, Fiore has been a licensed amateur radio operator — sometimes called a “ham.” His Federal Communications Commission license enables him to broadcast over the airwaves under his own call sign, N4JF, and talk to other hams in any country that his signal can reach. After six decades, Fiore said he’s talked to someone in every country around the globe, with only one — North Korea — not being officially confirmed.
He has boxes of QSL cards, which are mailed between operators to formally recognize communication, from major countries and tiny islands. Each sender personalizes the card with their call sign and decoration, which could include a picture of the ham operator or something iconic from their country. Fiore said he will sometimes take out a box and flip through the cards, recalling the conversations he’s had.
“There are people of every aspect,” Fiore said. “I can’t tell how many people I’ve met. I have friends that I still talk to.”
His contact list includes some royalty: a former king of Thailand and Hussein bin Talal, the former King of Jordan. In Fiore’s basement, alongside hundreds of plaques and certificates from various amateur radio competitions, there is a framed QSL card from King Hussein from 1970, including the envelope postmarked from the royal palace in Jordan.
“Not many people have one of those,” Fiore said. “You won’t know it’s him unless you recognize his call sign.”
Fiore discovered ham radio as a teenager. He would listen to the radio at night and eventually stumbled upon an amateur channel, which led to the discovery that a man in his neighborhood, named Seymour, was a ham. Seymour showed Fiore his equipment and how to get a license of his own.
At 15 years old, Fiore learned Morse code, which is still one of his favorite ways to communicate, and got his license. In 1955 he built his very first radio, which sits nearby the more modern equipment he uses today.
“My daddy brought this piece of aluminum home and I bent it to make the chassis,” Fiore said. “I built it when I was 15 years old and I’ve still got it!”
His early ham days transformed into a lifelong career as a broadcast engineer. Fiore worked for WCRT FM radio, then at Channel 42 for more than 20 years. He said he especially enjoyed working at Channel 42, where the staff included other ham operators he already knew.
Fiore also worked in public access communications, maintaining microwave equipment and weather radios.
“[When] you’ve got a storm coming and something happened to one of those, you better get ready to go. You might get a call at one in the morning,” Fiore recalled.
Those emergency communications also cross over into the ham world. In floods, tornadoes and other events that knock out cell phone and Internet communication, Fiore and other hams can pick up their equipment, powered by battery and generator, and provide emergency communications at the site of a disaster. Fiore participates in annual “field days,” where hams test their ability to respond in a potential emergency.
Over the years of ham operation, Fiore has made many connections through the radio. A regular contact from Japan traveled to Birmingham to spend a week with Fiore, enjoying his company and connecting Fiore with his first Cambodian operator in the process.
Fiore also remembers befriending a ham from Mountain Brook and losing contact with him for about 50 years. They happened to reconnect and the man, now living in Florida, returns to Birmingham once a year to attend Hamfest, the annual convention for Birmingham operators. This year’s Hamfest is March 4-5 at the Zamora Shrine Temple, and Fiore said it’s a great chance to meet the people behind the voices he knows on the radio.
In retirement, Fiore enjoys building and working on radios and checking in on different channels every morning to “see if I’m missing something” happening in the world. He can hold a conversation while listening to the steady sound of Morse code coming from his radio, and let you know if the hams are talking about their favorite coffee or the outcome of a football game.
The immense variety of people talking over the airwaves has made ham radio Fiore’s favorite hobby for most of his life.
“I turn my radio on and there’s no telling who I’ll talk to,” he said.