Programming my Radio?

One of the first questions of a new Ham is “How do I program my new Radio?”  Most modern handheld radios offer hundreds to a thousand or more programmable memory locations. Probably more than you initially need.  You may start with a handful of key frequencies suggested by the club or fellow hams, but sooner or later as your list of frequencies grow, you may wish to use computer software to ease the task of managing and entering so much data.

The club does not strongly recommend a DMR type HT radio as a first radio as programming these is generally found to be significantly more difficult and this may be a difficult place for you to start.   We do recommend that, for our area, you stick to radios that include at least dual band coverage (2 meters and 70 centimeters or 144-148MHz and 430-450MHz) due to the density of repeaters on both bands in Southern California.   You will find a single band unit to be inconvenient.

If you’ve gone to a brick and mortar store and spent the “Big Bucks” on a ICOM, Yaesu, Kenwood etc., the sales person at that store may offer programming.  This may be free but, of course, you will end up with the frequencies that THEY suggest, not necessarily those that you need.  If you would like to do the programming yourself there are a couple of ways to go, which we’ll discuss below.
If you purchased one if the very inexpensive radios available from the web (Baofeng, etc) you probably won’t get programming support from the seller but you have some similar choices for doing it yourself.  Some users find that manually programming these less expensive radios from the keyboard can be quite difficult.

Whichever radio you have, there are three elements to preparing to program it from a computer:
  1) the computer itself,
  2) the programming software and,
  3) a matching programming cable.  

It is not uncommon for both the software and cable to be unique to a specific model radio.  As to the cable, do not assume that just any cable with the right looking connectors on each end will work. Many solutions contain electronics embedded within the cable that must exactly match the software and radio.

Before your purchase your radio, consider your computer choices and try to choose a radio for which software is available that will run on your computer and operating system.   You might consider choosing a radio that is sufficiently popular that you will have experienced local acquaintances that can help you over the rough spots.
As to the software, there are broadly 3 categories and each of these has advantages and disadvantages:

  1). Some manufacturer’s offer proprietary (and often free) programming software for certain radios. The manufacturer may specify use of their own cable.  This option can be available for both premium and discount radios.  For this option, follow the manufacturer’s recommendation as to what cable to purchase carefully.  Be aware that the user interfaces for different brands of radio will be very different and transferring data between models may be troublesome or impractical for some.

  2). There is an open sourced program called CHIRP with versions available for a range of radios. CHIRP is free but support is likely whatever you can find in discussion groups on the web.    Follow the web based recommendations for what cable to purchase and where to purchase it.   For many of the discount radios you may find that not all of the cables sold on Amazon or ebay are created equal.  Most of these contain some electronics to create a ‘virtual serial port’ from  your USB connection.  In some cases the chip set used will have drivers automatically installed by the computer’s operating system  But other cables advertised as compatible may not be recognized and may require you to manually install drivers and be very careful of the order in which you a)install drivers and, b)connect the cable and/or radio.  Cables that use a genuine FTDI brand chip set seem to install more easily and consistently but may cost a few dollars more.

  3). RT Systems offers premium software and cables for many radios, though at a cost.  While not free, this solution comes with excellent product support, a user interface that is remarkably similar amongst radios and a great reliability record.  You must use RT systems supplied or approved cables.  While different radios may have different settings options, RT systems does a good job of allowing you to cut and past data between the programmers for different radios.  And their provided cables are highly reliable.  A typical software/cable combination is about 40-50 dollars for each radio model however.

We suggest you refer to the local band plan documents for Southern California to identify useful simplex frequencies and to online resources such as RepeaterBook (free) or Rfinder to identify local open repeaters.