We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Success! You're on the list.

John Zorger grew up on a small hog farm in western Pennsylvania. “I hated raising hogs,” he says.

On a Monday morning, Zorger sits in a tight, electronic-equipment-cluttered room on the top floor of the Voice of America (VOA) building with the Capitol visible through the window, listening in on the world. Working the knobs on a shortwave radio transceiver, he picks up the muffled bleeps of Morse code. “It’s a California guy,” he says. “I think he’s talking to a guy in Guatemala.”

Zorger, a 56-year-old satellite engineer with VOA, started dabbling in ham radio at age 13, back on the farm. It was escapist activity, he says, for a kid in Altoona: talking to other amateur radio enthusiasts around the country through Morse code.

Today, as president of K3VOA, Voice of America’s amateur-radio club, Zorger views citizen hams as something more than hobbyists. They are, he says, the last line of defense in an emergency communications system saddled with vulnerabilities.

“When any emergency arises—power outage, natural disaster—and where typical communications fail—like the telephone or police circuits—hams maintain their own equipment,” Zorger says. The K3VOA ham shack, he says, has a lavish setup that could keep any ham inside the Beltway in contact with another during a crisis: a linear amplifier that feeds dipoles and a beam on a 30-foot tower, plus a 50-watt, 2-meter repeater that has an omnidirectional antenna with over 600 kHz input. Because they’re on the building’s emergency backup power system, they could keep running during an outage.

“We were at the World Trade Center, and we were at the field in Pennsylvania,” says Zorger. “A cop isn’t a radio person. But you put a couple of hams in there [in a major emergency], then you’ve got communication.” He notes how hams swooped into Northeastern cities during the August blackouts, when power grids failed and cell towers were overwhelmed.

“It’s unfortunate that 9/11 had to create more of a need for us,” he says. “But we’ve stepped in and filled those voids.”

Zorger, who carries radio equipment with him in his minivan, says a ham is “the ultimate Boy Scout.” Operating on battery power and generators, hams have no need for power grids or cell towers. “I can pull my van up at any accident and immediately be in contact with anybody,” he says. “A cellular structure can be down, but our stuff’s always working.”

When they’re on break, Zorger and club members who work in the VOA building will pop in and out of the ham shack several times a day for some “rag chewing”—talking with fellow hams around town. Zorger will check on local traffic or chat with co-workers in the building. When there are no pals to chat with, as is the case today, there’s always eavesdropping. “Listen to this guy,” he says, holding the dial. “Doesn’t he sound like a Southerner?”

Zorger, who can build a transmitter from scratch, says a lot of hams get into the field for experimentation. Some guys, he says, will see if they can bounce a frequency off the moon, just for the hell of it.

“About 85 percent of us are in the techno-weenie fields,” he says. “Computer nerds. Radio nerds. Space weenies.”

“During 9/11, hospitals couldn’t talk to one another reliably,” Zorger says. “The government put in just one channel between hospitals, and there’s 43 or so hospitals in the metro network.” So after Sept. 11, Zorger and the Manassas ham club he belongs to took up the responsibility themselves, laying down an emergency communication plan at Prince William Hospital in Manassas.

“Every hospital has its own group of hams,” says Zorger. “We actually solicit them. We go out there and tell them what we do.”

Although the national ham league gets the occasional grant from federal agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Zorger says members at local clubs like K3VOA put up their own money for the pricey equipment. K3VOA’s latest pickup was a 440 MHz repeater that Zorger found at a ham fest in Virginia. It’s not on the air yet, but Zorger hopes it will give the club better inner-city coverage when it’s up and running. “We really can’t afford it,” he says, “but it was just such a steal.”

With all that great equipment out there, Zorger wishes hams had more lobbying power. “Barry Goldwater was a ham,” he says, gesturing toward the Capitol dome. “He fought for us on the Hill.” CP