On The Air: ARRL’s excellent magazine for newcomers…only available behind their paywall

Cover of the new “On The Air” e-magazine from the ARRL

[Please note: this is a cross-post from our sister site, the SWLing Post.]

Today, the ARRL released their new electronic magazine for ham radio newcomers: On The Air.

The ARRL describes On The Air‘s mission:

“On the Air magazine is the newest ARRL member benefit to help new licensees and beginner-to-intermediate radio communicators navigate the world of amateur radio. Delivered six times a year, the magazine will present articles, how-to’s, and tips for selecting equipment, building projects, getting involved in emergency communication as well as spotlighting the experiences of people using radio to serve their communities, and those using it for enjoyment.”

I checked out On The Air and was quite pleased with the scope of the magazine. The first issue covers topics such as: understanding the ionosphere, choosing your first radio, building simple antennas, and much more. I love the fact that the articles are written with newcomers in mind, too; less technical jargon and more explanations.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching a ham radio class to a group of high school students. Most of the students have now acquired their Technician licenses, and we’re even plotting a General class course for the fall.

Last month, I shared some copies of QST (the ARRL monthly member magazine) with my students. While they enjoyed looking through the pages of QST, many told me they simply didn’t understand the articles yet…There’s just not a lot inside a QST issue to grab the attention of a fifteen or sixteen year old who’s just gotten her ticket. Understandable.

Then, I learned about On The Air from a friend with the ARRL.  I was so glad to hear that the League was finally making a bi-monthly magazine aimed squarely at newcomers! I was also pleased it was an e-publication, because it will be that much easier to share with my class and propagate to prospective students.

But today, I discovered, to my dismay, that other than the premier issue, On The Air is for ARRL members only. Here’s a screen grab from the website:

But…”for members only”––?

Alas, in limiting access, the ARRL has essentially insured that most of their target audience won’t ever have the opportunity to read On The Air, and thus they’ve crippled the best ARRL recruitment tool I’ve ever seen. 

What a shame.

I’ve contacted my ARRL representative and asked that they reconsider the decision to hide this brilliant magazine behind a membership paywall. I’m pretty sure that ad revenue and membership fees could readily cover the cost of publishing this electronic edition. After all, On The Air could lead to a lot more ARRL members! And, indeed, I hope it will.

If you feel as I do, please contact your ARRL Section manager. It may be that those making the decisions are, in this case, a little out of touch with the future of amateur radio.

Update – To be clear about this post: I’m not implying anything bad about the ARRL here, I just think it’s a lost opportunity if they keep future editions of On The Air behind the member pay wall. I imagine that ad revenue alone could more than support this niche publication if they simply release it as a free PDF. The real benefit, though, could be an increase in ARRL membership as On The Air readers get a taste of what the League could offer! In other words: this is an opportunity!

What do you think? Should On The Air be free to anyone interested in amateur radio, or for members only? Please comment!

7 thoughts on “On The Air: ARRL’s excellent magazine for newcomers…only available behind their paywall”

  1. It’s a bit naive to suggest that they just do it for free. They have to pay the people who make it, after all. So in my opinion, giving it away seems unsustainable.

    But instead of saying “Members Only”, perhaps they should set it up for subscription on its own, rather than tying it to an ARRL membership. That way, people who want to dip a toe into Amateur Radio rather than diving in all at once can get the magazine for beginners first, read it for a while, and determine whether they want to go for their license or not. They might decide they’re not up to it, or that they think the tests are too hard, and not try to get their ticket. They may not want to join the ARRL until they actually become a ham…and offering On The Air as a regular magazine subscription separate from an ARRL membership might be a good tool to convince them that they CAN pass the tests, and there’s lots of great stuff to do with ham radio.

    TL;DR: I do think making the digital version available to ARRL members for free is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be limited to ARRL members — those interested in it should be able to simply buy a subscription without joining the organization.

    1. I hear you and, it’s true, that it costs money to make a publication like “On The Air.”

      The ARRL also spends quite a bit of money printing handouts to newcomers and, no doubt, this comes from a dedicated source of funds to promote the ARRL and recruit new members. They should tap this source to offset the costs if advertising revenue isn’t cutting it (note though that this is an ad-supported publication–!).

      The glory of an electronic publication is that all of the costs are up-front: paying people to write, edit and layout the magazine. If they share this publication as a PDF, there are no additional costs involved (ironically, they likely are paying per view using the eReader application embedded in the member portion of the website). The kids I’ve worked with would actually prefer a PDF to read on a device of their choice or even to print.

      When many of us are doing all we can to promote ham radio to young adults in the age of mobile devices, it would be nice to have a source of publications that are accessible–with no barrier of entry. I would love to know that part of my ARRL membership fees go to this.

      It’s actually very obvious they plan to use this publication for recruitment. I see at least two dedicated recruitment ads and several other ads promoting ARRL publications. Problem is, the only way I can share this publication with a non-member is to log into my account, load the page, and have a prospective member read it on *my* computer. 🙂

      I’m guessing the ARRL will make some print copies of this magazine to hand out at conventions, hamfests, etc. if history is a guide. They could save costs and increase the number of readers by orders of magnitude if they just shared it as a PDF. Keep in mind, too, that advertisers would be even more interested in supporting “On The Air” knowing that their ads are in front of *way* more eyes!

      That’s just my two cents! 🙂

      Thanks for your comment, Gwen!


  2. I don’t think all issues should be free but it will be smart to always have a not-too-old sample issue of On The Air available for prospective members.
    I am guessing that the ARRL will do that…but that’s only a guess.

  3. I’m glad they have the new publication, and I’m sympathetic with your students (I started when I was 14 and reading QST was a “deer in the headlights” experience). Later, Ham Radio magazine began publishing what became a short-lived magazine called ‘Ham Radio Horizons’ which was absolutely the perfect level publication for me at that time (you can find back issues of it on archive.org). I actually think it’s superior to ‘On The Air’.

    ARRL has a youth membership level ($25 instead of the usual $49), and offers a free sample issue of ‘On the Air’ available for the curious. You can print a pdf of it if you want. I think that’s good enough.

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