“Magic moment” is a descriptive which comes to mind, when one contemplates ham radio popularity in the United States. License numbers have never been so high, and now our hobby has been featured in a Hollywood blockbuster: “Super 8,” produced by Steven Spielberg. Since October 2011, amateur radio has become even more visible. Mike Baxter, starring character of ABC sitcom “Last Man Standing” is a ham, and every Tuesday, at 8/7 central, seven to thirteen million North Americans get a peek in his shack.
Baxter, played by Tim Allen (his second ABC sitcom after “Home Improvement”, and perhaps unforgotten for his voice-over of Buzz Lightyear), is a director of marketing at an outdoor sporting goods store in Denver, Colorado. His world is dominated by women — especially at home with his wife Vanessa (a geologist, played by Nancy Travis) and three daughters, one of whom is Kristin, a single mother. His radios are in a corner of the office in the back of the store, crowded with QSL cards and awards. His callsign is KAØXTT, and he’s got a Facebook profile too.
It’s the first time amateur radio happens to be the star in a television comedy. It was a natural for us to enquire as to how it happened. So, we discovered that show producer John Amodeo is a ham himself (NN6JA), and had the idea of the radio motif (“Last Man Standing” has been under development since late 2010). He wanted the shack to be the real deal, looking at it from every possible angle in the sitcom, although not being core to the central theme (so far, viewers have experienced a little 40 meter traffic and saw Mike walking with an HT), does add a degree of intrigue while adding value to the concept of amateur radio (which has a way of consuming the staff).
Well, we were able to connect with show Producer John Amodeo and conduct a Q&A…
How did the idea of making ham radio a part of Mike Baxter’s character come to be and why?
“Early in the development of Last Man Standing we discussed Tim Allen’s character, Mike Baxter as a “man’s man.” Mike is well versed in camping, hunting, fishing, boating and all the technology that now goes with these activities. I asked, “What about ham radio?” Tim said, “absolutely.”
From what can be seen in the shack on the comedy set, ARRL and other ham radio advocates like CQ Magazine have been quite responsive to the idea…
“The ARRL and CQ have been very supportive of the show. In fact, Allen Pitts, W1AGP, who is the Media & PR Manager for the ARRL was instrumental in finding a way for us to have a ‘cleared’ callsign for Mike Baxter. Both CQ and the ARRL sent many publications and certificates which added authenticity to the set.”
This has probably been asked you several times, I guess. However, can you enlighten us on the significance of the call KAØXTT, assigned to the character Mike Baxter?
“When Tim starred in ‘Home Improvement’ his character name was Tim Taylor. His initials were TT. We thought now that he plays Mike Baxter he’s “ex T. T.”
How exactly is the shack made up and how was the equipment selected?
“The shack is really more of a corner in the back of Mike’s work office. Because the show is a family based comedy there was no budget for ham radio equipment. To solve the budget complication, Billy (KJ6RVA), who works in our production office, contacted several amateur radio equipment manufactures to see if anyone could help us. In time, Ray Novak (N9JA) from Icom America came to our aid by loaning us an IC-9100 transceiver. In addition to HF, the IC-9100 includes 2 meters, 70 centimeters, has D-STAR and 23 centimeter capability. That’s a lot of bands in one radio! Icom also contributed an IC-92AD hand held, with D-STAR capability. Mick Stwertnik (KB6JVT) from NCG Companies helped us out with a Comet CHV-5X rotatable dipole that covers 40, 20, 15, 10 and 6 meters and one of their Comet GP-1 base antennas to cover 2 meters and 70 centimeters. A big plus in dealing with NCG is that they also loaned us a CAA-500 antenna analyzer and a Daiwa CN-801 SWR/Power Meter. I already owned an Arrow Antennas GP146 2 meter ground plane and Tim Chapman (KB7MDF) from Arrow made us a custom GP435, 70 cm ground plane. There are 4 antenna outputs on the IC-9100 and I wanted an antenna for the IC-92AD as well. Viewers wanted the shack to have both straight key and paddles, so the show found a few dollars to purchasethe final bits and pieces. I raided my garage and found an old rotator and a bunch of coax and a few other “necessities.”
The shack is not fictitious, it really works. How tough was to install antennas in a TV studio environment?
“That was the most fun part! There are a number of hams on the staff and we put together the station in the evenings and some weekends. Including installing the antennas above the set.”
Two real ham radio moments took place so far from the shack. You had “Ham Nation‘s” Bob Heil and Gordon West come to visit and had a few QSOs. Then, on another occasion, a few calls on the “Papa” repeater group were made. What kind of results did those “tests” achieve in terms of contacts and distance?
“We had about 30 check-in’s when Norm (K6YXH) and Naomi (WB6OHW) Goodkin worked through the LA based PAPA system and had a few callers through IRLP from the East Coast. Bob (K9EID) and Gordon (WB6NOA) were a lot of fun to have on the set and they did make contacts on 40 meters on SSB”.
I read here and there of intentions to expand the shack, for example with a D-Star rig. What about any other future additions?
“We just added a D-STAR board to our ICOM IC-9100 we have always had an IC-92AD handheld. We hope to run a D-STAR net from the stage soon.”
How did Tim Allen, while playing Mike Baxter, react to performing, even if for only a few scenes as a ham radio operator? Many ham viewers wondered if he’d ever be up to getting his ticket. Is that an idea that‘s crossed his mind?
“When Tim first saw the equipment he had a big smile. He loves technology and especially radio technology. He is interested in getting a license but he’s very busy. Not sure when he’ll have the time.”
Having amateur radio on the set has caused sort of a “ham virus” to spread among your crew. You had an actual test session at your office and seven individuals got their license. I personally would be proud of such an achievement…
“It was a lot of fun to have our office staff learning about the hobby. We had a series of ham radio lunches where we discussed the theory and studied the Technician Question Pool. They really took it seriously and had fun with it. Seven took the test and passed. Since then two more of the crew got their licenses.”
How are the “radio moments” created and inserted into the episodes?
“We mostly see the gear innocently when in Mike’s office. We have had one scene where Mike is sitting at his radio gear and we hear some SSB communications from Tim Holly (N6QJ).”
Obviously ham radio is just a part of Mike Baxter‘s life, and it would probably become less interesting to a wider audience to have more radio scenes in the episodes. However, have you thought about making radio central in an episode (maybe with a depiction of Field Day, since KAØXTT is kind of an outdoor man)?
“I’m pretty sure that the general public sees the ham gear only as background set dressing and prop items. Our ham fans really love to see the equipment and QSL cards in Mike’s Office. We are hoping the writers can add some ham radio content.”
Hams can actually send KAØXTT (at his qrz.com address) their QSL and actually get Mike’s back, signed by Tim Allen. How many cards have you received so far?
“To date we’ve received about 400 QSLs from around the world. I have to thank my staff for processing them and especially Tim for having the patience to sign them.”
You are a ham John. Even I could guess that your work doesn’t leave you much spare time. What about your personal preferences when it comes to ham radio?
“Unfortunately, it is a matter of time. We work 12 hour days on the show and when home I often get right back on the computer. I have an ICOM IC-7000 for HF and listen to 10 meters on weekend mornings and afternoons and 20 and 40 meters as it gets later in the day. I usually have my Yaesu VX-8 on 2 meters and 70cm in the background”.
Are there plans to have “Last Man Standing” aired, in the future on European or other global outlets? Will KAØXTT make it beyond America’s television borders?
“If a US TV show is successful (which today is produced for several seasons), it syndicates in the US and to Europe. It’s too soon to say if and when you’ll get to see the program outside of North America. I hope it will be soon.”