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curmudgeonIn the previous post, the Curmudgeon looked at the first of the two major sociological changes that, in his opinion, have occurred in the Amateur Radio Service during the past fifty years:  the “dumbing down” and “consumerization” of the ARS.  In this post he examines the second major change.

This other change, the Curmudgeon suggests, is the ascendency of ARS operators’ ego as a principal organizing force. It has changed the Service during the past half-century, and not for the better.  There are several ways in which this trend manifests itself today.

The first way, and perhaps the hardest one to describe, is simply on-air courtesy among operators.  Basic operating courtesy, over the fifty year period, seems to be a diminishing quality.  This is seen most readily in the “use of the frequency” area.  Unlike all other licensed radio services, the FCC does not assign Amateurs fixed frequencies on which to operate.  By virtue of the Rules, each operator can use any frequency (as long as it is authorized to him by his individual grade of license) among the thousands of frequencies contained in a given ARS band.  There is no long-term primacy of frequency use accorded to any individual or group (there are some voluntary frequency reservations, however).  And so at any point in time the use of any individual frequency depends on cooperation and coordination among all those who would like to use it.

Generally the individual who first operates on a previously unused frequency is considered by most operators to be the one who controls it, for however long (within reason!) he wishes.  Fifty years ago it was very rare for one operator to deliberately “invade” someone else’s frequency-in-use.  In that era if someone did accidentally access an active frequency and was then notified of the fact, his typical response was to apologize and then quickly to move to an unused frequency.  Today, in too many instances (often during contests, see below) and especially if competition is involved, an invading operator may decide just to ignore the established operator and to force his way onto the frequency.  If the invader is utilizing high transmitter power and large antennas (see below), he and his dominating signal can very well drive the established operator out.

Second, compared to a half-century ago, the Amateur Radio Service has many more, as well as more frequent, competitive on-air operating “contests.” The stated goal of the contests is to make on-air contact with as many different stations in as many different (pre-specified) land locations as is possible during the published contest operating hours, and the winner is the operator who makes the most contacts.  However each contact is fleeting (perhaps ten seconds in length), human interactions are minimal and nothing new is learned from the contact.  When contests occur, large portions of some frequency bands may be taken over for the event, and those operators who have no interest in competing may be driven, in whole or in part, from those portions.

The ultimate ham contester’s antenna!

The ultimate ham contester’s antenna!

And what is gained from these frequent contests?  Their major function seems to be to bolster the egos of those who choose to compete in them.  The specialized skills that are developed through participation in contests, in the Curmudgeon’s opinion, are not particularly useful for or transferrable to broader communications contexts!  There is little recognized need in the general telecommunications universe for skilled human operators who have been trained to make large numbers of short, rapid contacts with random network nodes, each of which contact produces almost no useful information!

Long hours of intense on-air competition are rewarded solely with ego-stroking and paper certificates; this is almost entirely “competition for competition’s sake.”  To satisfy increasing operator ego, contests beget both more contests and more “wallpaper” certificates, and truly cooperative work among ARS operators continues to decrease.  Historically the ARS has always sponsored a basic roster of contests, but it is the relative increase in their numbers and the consequent increased attention and resources focused upon them which have shifted greatly during the past half century.

Third, the increases in levels of ARS RF transmitting power during the past half century also give testament to the rise of operator ego.  At the beginning of the period most Amateur transmitters (then, of course, vacuum tube designs) provided at most 100 watts, and often less, of “transmitting power” for the High Frequency (“shortwave”) ARS bands.  At the end of the period the equivalent solid-state transmitters provide a minimum of 100 watts, and often more.  But even this is not an accurate comparison.  The former 100 watts figure was for d.c. power to the final amplifier stage, with the actual RF output from the transmitter being less, perhaps 65 watts.  The 100 watt figure for today’s equipment is for RF output power.  Thus there has been a subtle escalation even in basic power levels.

Today’s US ARS licensees are allowed by FCC Rules to use up to 1500 watts of “peak RF output power” for their stations.  The equivalent figure for most of the rest of the world is considerably lower, often around 400 watts maximum.  And today’s operators have abundant access to commercially-manufactured high power RF amplifiers, some of which can provide the 1500 watts of output power (and more), as well as to commercially-manufactured large antennas to boost transmitted “effective radiated power” levels by additional factors of from 2 to 10 times.  These “power-booster” items were much less available and less often used in 1960.  Thus increasing licensee ego has been paralleled by increasing operating power levels, and vice versa.

Fourth, operator ego has asserted itself even in the area of station call signs.  Fifty years ago the FCC had a systematic program of issuing Amateur station call signs when new operators first qualified for licenses.  The call signs were assigned in a strict alphabetical sequence, with each new operator receiving the next incremental call sign.   Thus the most-recently issued call sign in a region might be W8ABB, with the next one to be issued being W8ABC.

The practice was fair, uniform, and informative; a call sign would convey both information about the geographical region within which its authorized station was located and some rough indication of the time period during which the license was first issued.  And a call sign, once obtained, would generally remain with an operator for life and would become his personal identification among other operators.  An operator might be “Jim” to his business associates and family, but he would be forever known to his ham buddies as “GJF” or the “giant jumping frog” (from W8GJF)!

Today, an Amateur can select and purchase the “call sign of his choice” from the FCC, and then change it at will.  And this ego-driven practice has resulted in “instant gratification” situations in which a new operator with perhaps just half a year’s experience purchases one from an historic format of Amateur call signs, of the kind identified with those operators first licensed fifty to seventy five years ago.  Most call signs are now “prestige” to suit their owner’s ego, and they no longer convey any meaning or significance.

Fifth, there is the increased use of inappropriate and inflammatory language on the air.  Half a century ago almost all Amateur operators maintained voluntary “standards of conduct” about language and content to be transmitted on the air.   (This practice in today’s freewheeling society might now be labeled “internal censorship.”)  Most operators then well understood that their transmissions could easily be monitored and identified by the general public as well as by the FCC, and they did not wish to jeopardize their license privileges.  The on-air use of profanity and obscenity, as they were then commonly recognized, was almost non-existent, and certain potentially inflammatory topics, such as religion and politics, were routinely avoided.

Today, with more lax societal standards, the old “taboos” are largely gone.  Individual operators’ egos seemingly can now be directly modulated onto their radio carriers, and too many licensees consciously operate to proclaim to the world, directly or indirectly, that they are “the biggest damn stud on the air!”  The level of language that is more typically heard in athletic locker rooms and saloons now goes out over the air in complacent disregard of whoever might inadvertently receive the transmission.  And highly-biased and inflammatory political, racial, or gender slurs emanate daily from a minority of organized groups, making some Amateur bands all but unusable at times.

Sixth, deliberate, willful jamming of operational stations, not totally unknown fifty years ago, has also increased considerably today.  Especially distressing is the willful interference to long-established disaster nets carrying well-identified emergency traffic.

All of these trends have increased since the beginning of the 1960s.  They are driven primarily by operator ego, which itself seemingly has become an on-air contestable quality.  The negative trends are making ARS on-air operations increasingly less appealing and the Amateur bands less hospitable.   Kind, thoughtful, and considerate Amateur licensees do still operate on-air, but the long term outlook is not encouraging.

Next time we will conclude the series with a summary look at where the ARS has been and where it might be going.

What do you think?

“Let’s keep the universe safe for RF!”

The Old RF Curmudgeon


  1. Steve Conley - W4SWC August 13, 2010 at 4:10 pm · Reply

    Well, as a relatively new operator (Advanced 2/2008), I must say that I agree with your comments – although I do have a call sign with my 3 initials since it was available.
    I also have to admit to being 58 (and possibly an old curmudgeon myself).
    But given those caveats, I was looking to Amateur Radio as a chance to be of potential service and to correspond with law-abiding, courteous, intelligent comrades.
    And, as a new Ham I could not see the “apparently” incredible draw of staying up 24 hrs to have hundreds of less than tweet-sized one liner – one transaction conversations.
    BTW, I am intentionally staying off CW until I get to about 20wpm – which I am approaching. Although I joined when it was not required, I have determined after listening to a number of on-air hams, it is now a personal requirement to develop a good CW proficiency. In fact, this goal has kept me mostly off the air except for listening), as I am a slow learner apparently when it comes to code.

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  2. Fred Hopengarten, K1VR August 13, 2010 at 5:23 pm · Reply

    If contesting needs a defense, some elements would be that:
    * Contesting is chiefly responsible for bringing computer logging into the hobby.
    * Contesting has caused the improvement in receiver filters.
    * PacketCluster was primarily invented serve contesters and DX’ers, by the Yankee Clipper Contest Club (AK1A, K1EA, K1GQ and others).
    * Low band antennas were vastly improved due to contester requirements.

    And so forth. Contesting, one might say, is to ham radio progress, as racing is to automotive progress. In the cost-benefit world, you lose your favorite band (phone or CW) 3-4 weekends per year, and get great advances in exchange. Seems like a good deal to me.

    Fred Hopengarten, K1VR

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  3. Gary "Red" Letchford February 22, 2011 at 10:59 am · Reply

    Yes, I agree that operating has become much more confrontational since the 50′s. But that isn’t just an amateur radio/contest thing. It’s the world as a whole. Think the pig farmers that operate on 75 meters at night. Are they contesters? Are they friendly?

    The one thing I notice is the lack of signals on the air during the week. You can tune 20 meters SSB or CW and find less than 10 qsos going on at one time. Try that during a contest weekend. The bands are alive and functioning! As far as contesting and the rubadubtub weekly Sunday net held on 14200, it probably has problems about 5 or 6 times a year with intense contest activity. MOVE TO ANOTHER FREQUENCY THAT ISN’T SO BUSY! The WARC bands are contest free.

    One of the axioms for amateur frequencies is “Use it or Lose it” If we depended on just general qsos and the rubadubtub weekly Sunday net as the evidence of activity, you will soon be listening to some data noise across the entire “used to be” amateur 20 meter band.

    Red K0LUZ (same call sign for 52 years)

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  4. Dave, AB7E February 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm · Reply

    At least you got your moniker correct … you indeed sound old and curmudgeonly. I’ve been licensed for over forty years and on a percentage basis haven’t noticed any appreciable difference in bad behavior now versus then, and whatever decline in civility that may have occurred over that time period certainly isn’t limited to contesting. In fact, most of the bad behavior I hear during contests is coming from NON-CONTESTERS who, like you, resent the increased congestion that contesting brings to the bands. The rest of it is either simple human error (i.e., I didn’t listen carefully enough before I transmitted) or the natural result of increased competition for scarce open frequencies.

    But, more to the point, your basic contention that contesting is based upon inflated egos is just nonsense. There is WAY more ego involved in the time-honored pursuit of DXCC than there is in contesting. The monumental majority of contesters know they are not going to win anything at all, and most of them know that whatever weaknesses they or their station have are going to be exposed to the world if they participate. The reason more and more hams have joined contesting is simply because it is fun. If you don’t believe me, just ask them (something you should have done before you wrote this piece of misdirection). Contesting is an enjoyable activity in its own right and it’s an activity where you can compete against your own previous score as much as you can against others … just like the great majority of runners who, knowing they will never rank high in the results of any 10K race, still compete on a semi-regular basis to see if they can better their previous time. Email reflectors, web site forums, and foolish blogs like this one have to a great extent supplanted much of the on-the-air ragchewing that many of us grew up with, but contesting is one activity that doesn’t lend itself to those alternatives and is therefore still growing.

    Read the hundreds of soapbox comments for any major contest and see how few of them are boastful versus merely describing the fun they had. Check the statistics for contest participation trends over the last couple of decades and you’ll see that it represents the fastest growing aspect of ham radio in terms of numbers of new participants. If contesting was half as elitist as you try to portray it, would that be the case?

    Yes, there are a few blowhards in contesting, just as there are in DXCC, competitive running, internet blogs, or any other aspect of life. They aren’t the ones crowding the bands on weekends, though … it’s the thousands of smaller stations having fun that are doing that while you sit back and moan about the old days.

    A better topic to be griping about would be why are the bands so dead when there is NOT a contest in progress.

    Dave, AB7E (non-obsessive middle of the pack contester)

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  5. Jim Rhodes February 22, 2011 at 2:39 pm · Reply

    Still not as bad as loudmouths who blog on the internet!

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  6. W0MU Mike February 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm · Reply

    I see the decline in courtesy on the air as a direct reflection of how people act toward one another off the air. The hobby follows society not the other way around.

    As for contesting, it allows the service to maintain a core trained population of Amateurs that are very capable of passing traffic, have stations built that allow them to do that on most any band. Contesters are generally the most active , buy gear more often and push the manufacturers to provide better gear.

    I guess you have missed the multitudes of nets who believe that they actually do own frequencies. Spend some time on the high end of 20 and try to use 14.300 or 14.330 some day when nothing is going on…..There are nets all over 40 and 75 too and they just fire right up with little regard to the prior users.

    Should hams and people in general be more respectful and courteous? Yes! Is being discourteous limited to a certain group of hams….No way.

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  7. Ron, KU7Y February 22, 2011 at 2:59 pm · Reply

    Homomorphism, let’s see now. I think I am in the “older” crowd as I got my license back in 1952 while in HS. I remember some contests and how much trouble I had because I was Xtal controlled. That drove me to building my first VFO.

    Next it drove me to getting a better receiver. Then a better antenna. Next move was to give up the bug and go with a keyer which helped me send better CW. Next I made a keyer with 4 memories. I think the next was my first transceiver. No longer did I need to worry about switching from Rx to Tx without blowing the front end of the Rx! Then came computer logging.

    And so the story goes. Contesting also moved my CW skills way up. It has done more for my overall operating skills than anything else.

    I’m sure that holds true for most others who play in contests.

    Ego? No, I just find them fun. And I find that almost all the “big guns” are also very nice people who are, on top of everything else, GREAT operators.

    I think that you are way off base and don’t understand much about the subject. Why not get involved and have fun with so many others during those few weekends when the bands are really being used?

    You would be surprised at how many people are running either QRP (5 watts) or LP (100 watts) with very simple antennas and still having a LOT of fun.

    Jump in, the water’s fine!

    Ron, KU7Y, just a low scoring QRP guy.

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  8. Dave G4BUO February 22, 2011 at 5:06 pm · Reply

    @Fred Hopengarten, K1VR – I’d disagree with you that PacketCluster is a good thing Fred!

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  9. Pete Smith February 22, 2011 at 5:50 pm · Reply

    The amount of nonsense packed into this one blog is truly heroic. I particularly liked this:

    “Fourth, operator ego has asserted itself even in the area of station call signs. Fifty years ago the FCC had a systematic program of issuing Amateur station call signs when new operators first qualified for licenses. The call signs were assigned in a strict alphabetical sequence, with each new operator receiving the next incremental call sign. Thus the most-recently issued call sign in a region might be W8ABB, with the next one to be issued being W8ABC.”

    Right, and that’s why the head of the FCC field office in Detroit when I took my novice in 1954 just *happened* to be W8DX, and one of the big dogs at ARRL in those days was W1DX?

    Nostalgia is fine, but let’s get our facts straight.

    73, Pete N4ZR

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  10. Kelly Taylor February 23, 2011 at 8:44 am · Reply

    Of the 1,500 or so operators who enter Sweepstakes, for instance, only about 100 have any realistic hope of showing up in the Top 10 boxes. That said, of the 1,500 operators, only about, oh, 1,500, are there because it’s fun.

    If something isn’t fun, what’s the point?

    There was once an analysis of CQ WW that showed that the total number of people who participated to any degree, the actual number of callsigns that appeared in logs, was about 100,000. There has NEVER been anywhere near that number of logs submitted, so clearly, some people are just getting on the air for the fun of it.

    There are any number of “pointless” activities in ham radio, yet those who partake in them enjoy them. It is only a hobby, so the only reason anyone does anything is enjoyment.

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