In 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.
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