This Colorado Santa is coming to town on ham radio
One recent December evening, a white-bearded man wearing a red button-down shirt and large red hat with a fluffy white pom pom at the end was sitting at his desk in Longmont. Santa Claus was at work, ready to listen to Christmas lovers’ wish lists. Soon Natalie from Oklahoma City was patched via Ham Radio. The 11-year-old said she wanted a hair straightener for Christmas this year, and Santa has promised to bring her a surprise on Christmas Eve. But, he said, “you just need to be sound asleep – and no traps!”
John Chilson bought his first Santa Claus costume 22 years ago after his mother passed away. She loved the color red, and when he stumbled across the costume at a Wal-Mart store, he thought of her and bought it on a whim. While costume was first a hobby, it eventually became a profession and an identity (Chilson prefers to go through Santa Claus).
Last year, Santa was unable to host any in-person events due to the pandemic, so he looked for other ways to connect with the kids. He started setting up video chats through Zoom for a fee. And when the Longmont Amateur Radio, or LARC, invited him into the world of amateur radio, he seized the opportunity.
“I’m just geeky enough to be able to be successful,” he said.
Amateur radio is similar to Citizen Radio, or CB, but you need an FCC license to operate one. Because amateur radio is regulated, you won’t hear swear words, political speech, or commercial content on these parts of the radio frequency spectrum.
The idea of connecting Santa Claus to children via amateur radio was the brainchild of members of LARC, who introduced it to Chuck Poch, Chairman of the Board of Directors of LARC.
Poch only embraced the hobby about five years ago, when he fell in love with technology. He is now licensed and has his own call sign – K0ITP – to connect with other amateur radio operators.
“I started playing with it and found that there are all kinds of facets with amateur radio,” he said. “You learn something new every day, from building antennas to building your own radios. There is a lot of science involved.
Poch said there are millions of amateur radio operators in the world and more than 20,000 licenses issued in Colorado. For him, it’s a way for people to connect using technology that has been around for over 100 years. While many people use ham radio for fun, the technology can save lives in an emergency.
“Usually in a disaster-type scenario, when you have a power outage – cell phone, internet, all forms of communication – most emergency agencies will look for an amateur radio operator to make contact,” he said. -he declares.
This was true in Colorado during the 2013 floods that hit Boulder County particularly hard, Poch added.
Despite its usefulness, the popularity of ham radio is declining as cell phones and the Internet facilitate communication. This is why Poch and LARC have been looking for ways to introduce more young people to this hobby. When the pandemic cut off in-person gatherings last year, the club came up with the idea of connecting kids to Santa Claus through the airwaves.
The experiment worked. And earlier this month, Santa Claus did another amateur radio tour every night for almost a week.
Poch – who goes by Chuckie the Airwaves Elf – served as the screening operator, moderating communication and making sure everyone was following FCC rules. At the start of one session, he called into his transceiver, “Good evening, looking for boys and girls around the world, Longmont, or wherever you are from to talk to Santa this evening.”
To participate, children need to know someone who has an amateur radio operator and is licensed to operate it – usually a parent, grandparent or neighbor. Many families find out via Facebook or word of mouth. Children called from across the Front Range, states like Ohio and as far away as Canada.
Although Santa Claus uses computer software called EchoLink that connects him to amateur radio signals, he still has a call sign: N0P, which stands for The North Pole. When he encounters technical issues, he attributes the poor connection to interference from sunspots and the Northern Lights near his home at the North Pole.
But, he says, the technical hoops are worth breaking through in order to talk to families that he might not otherwise have reached. Especially at a time when there is a shortage of Santa Claus.
“The past year has been so traumatic for so many people,” he said. “They needed someone like Santa to talk to and encourage them to; to bring them a little hope and joy. And this is something that I seem to be good at.
Throughout that December night, Santa Claus shared jokes and stories about Mrs. Claus and the reindeer. And with Natalie from Oklahoma City on amateur radio, he asked her if she had ever heard anyone say that Santa Claus isn’t real.
“Yes I have. But I really don’t believe it,” she said.
“Well Natalie, I’m glad you don’t believe it,” he said. “But let me tell you what is the most important thing: that you remember that Santa Claus believes in you. And I do. You are a lovely person and continue to be kind to everyone.
Pedro Lumbrano contributed to this story.