Some of the terminology, customs and traditions of amateur radio are a bit, oh, opaque, shall we say, to an outsider. Some of them seem to make no sense on the surface, and some even seem silly. But we’re stuck with ’em. And from time to time people ask me what something means, or why something is done a certain way, etc, so I thought I should explain some of this stuff. Sometimes things get a bit silly. But that’s all part of amateur radio. I can’t cover all of the terminology used in amateur radio, but here’s a few that people have asked about the most in the last month or so.
Let’s start with “elmer”. In the amateur radio world, the term has come to mean a person who is a mentor, someone who helps a newcomer (or even someone not so new) learn something, troubleshoot a piece of equipment or otherwise give assistance that is related to the hobby. So how in the world did a mentor come to be referred to as an “elmer”? A whole mythology has sprung up about the term. I’ve talked to people who claim the term is a 100 years old and goes back to the early days of radio.
The term actually isn’t that old. It certainly doesn’t date back to the early 1900s as some people have tried to tell me. According to the ARRL it can be traced back to 1971. The references I’ve found say it was started by a single reference in an article in QST magazine when a writer referred to a ham who had once helped him with something. Elmer “Bud” Frohardt is apparently the person in question here. The writer of the article mentioned about how disappointed he was that more people hadn’t known someone like Elmer to help them overcome problems, and wished there were more like him. And for some reason the amateur radio community immediately latched onto this and started calling their mentors “elmers”. Why? I have no idea.
While I imagine Mr. Frohardt was pleased to be recognized, the fact of the matter was he preferred to be called “Bud”. Mr Frohardt, I should add, passed on not that long ago, 2016 I think, at the age of 93, and by all accounts he was a wonderful person and very active in amateur radio for most of his life. But…
This is a term that I don’t use and to be honest it makes me wince whenever I hear or read someone using it because to me the name “Elmer” conjures up images of a short, bald, fumbling, bumbling and very stupid hunter who, every Saturday morning, failed to catch Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. Yes, I’m talking about Elmer Fudd. In my world, especially when I was a kid, being called an “elmer” was actually an insult. Perhaps that’s why Mr Frohardt preferred to be called Bud? Still, the term “elmer” is one that we’re stuck with and it will probably never go away.
Now I’m going to wander off into the realm of editorial commentary here because, to be completely blunt, amateur radio contesting is one of the most ridiculous things ever.
Usually when I start trying to explain radio contesting (at least they seem to have stopped trying to rebrand it as “radiosport”, thank goodness) people get this blank look on their faces and start shaking their heads and they mutter stuff like “Wait, you people actually do this?” and they have a point. Contesting is is one of the silliest things ever. It ranks right up there in silliness with things like, oh, golf. No, I take that back. It’s even sillier than golf. At least in golf you get to hit something with a stick which can provide, oh, minutes of entertainment. I just don’t get contesting. I’m not the only one. I know a lot of hams who actively hate contesting and would love to see it go away. I have no animosity towards contesting, myself. I just don’t see any point to it.
Basically you fire up your equipment, sit down, and for a specific period of time, let’s say 48 hours, you try to contact as many other amateur radio operators as you can. And when it’s all over you send your logs recording the contacts you made off to whatever organization is running the contest.
And that’s it.
Oh, it’s a bit more complicated than that, of course. There are various categories you can enter depending on your equipment, how you want to operate and things like that. There are bonuses and multipliers and other things that can enhance your score. But basically that’s it, just make as many contacts as you can in the time allotted.
And if you win you get a car …. Well, no, you don’t. You don’t get anything, really, except maybe a $2 plaque to hang on the wall or they email you a certificate you have to print off yourself.
The organizations that run these things, like CQ magazine and the ARRL, would dearly love to have you believe that contesting is popular. They publish page after page of interviews with contesters, photos of contesters, talk about the equipment and antennas they use in depth, and publish page after page of scores in microscopic type. And they are so desperately trying to make contesting look interesting and popular that it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because virtually no one actually enters these contests.
I am not joking. If you look at the actual number of amateur radio operators who actively engage in contesting, the percentage is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Still, that doesn’t prevent CQ Magazine from using the term, “wildly popular”, when referring to one of it’s contests. But if you look at the actual data, contesting is perhaps one of the most wildly unpopular activities amatuer radio operators can do. If you look at the actual percentages, contesting is about as popular with amateur radio operators as, oh, wearing underpants made of angry bees.
Let’s look at the numbers.
In the latest worldwide contest from CQ, the magazine claims 30,000 people “participated”. But even that is extremely misleading because only about 5,000 people actually bothered to submit logs in order to actually enter the contest. I don’t understand that, either. If you participate, why the heck not finish up and send in the logs so you’re actually in the contest? Not sending in your log is sort of like entering a marathon, getting within two feet of the finish line, and then you stop, shrug, say you just can’t be bothered, and turn around and go home.
So that means there were only about 5,000 actual contestants. And while 5,000 sounds like a lot of people, let me point out that there are about three million, amateur radio operators in the world according to Wikipedia. So they claim that having 5,000 actual contestants who entered the contest out of 3,000,000, is “wildly popular”. Seriously? Let’s run some numbers and look at the percentages… Oh, dear… the calculator tells me that it is… Oh, my, is that right? Let me run that again. Well, this is a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? It’s 00.16% Not even two tenths of one percent of amateur radio operators participated in the contest.
Now I’m sorry, but if you’re getting a participation rate of less than two tenths of one percent, whatever you are doing is most definitely not “wildly popular”. If this kind of thing sounds like fun to you, heck, go for it.
For a time they were actively trying to rebrand contesting as “radiosports”. There were supposed to be “teams” and special contests and events and… Well, to be honest pretty much no one cared except the people who were actually trying to promote this silliness.
If you hear anyone ever using the term “radiosport” when referring to contesting, do this to them:
Oh my, how to explain what a “lid” is. A lid, in amateur radio jargon is a, well, how can I put this politely?
The term seems to go back a long, long way, and certainly predates radio. It turns up back in the days of the old wired telegraph system, and originally it seemed to refer to a rookie telegraph operator, but it was adopted by the amateur radio community almost as soon as there was an amateur radio community, and it rather quickly turned into a term to describe a ham who was, well, a jerk, an idiot, someone who either deliberately or through ignorance operated in such a manner as to cause interference to other operators. It can also be used to refer to a certain type of person who is fond of buying used police cars, outfitting them with dozens of antennas, multiple radio monitoring devices, badges, insignia and other official looking stuff, even appearing at emergencies wearing what looks like a uniform and wanting oh so desperately to have people take them seriously. You’ll know one when you see one. Or hear one on the radio. And the best advice I can give you is that if you encounter one of these odd creatures, run away as fast as you can.
If you have a radio receiver that can tune into the amateur radio bands, you’ll eventually hear something like “I’m getting QRM can you QSY?” Now if you read that and immediately translated that as “I’m getting interference. Can we move to a different frequency?” well, good for you. You’re well on your way to being a genuine radio nerd/geek.
The Q codes developed out of necessity to make early radio transmissions easier and less confusing, and are over a hundred years old, being developed originally in 1909 by the British government for use by ships and coastal stations, and they were quickly adopted within a few years by international radio operators. Back then the only way people could communicate via radio was with morse code, which is slow and often hard to accurately copy under poor conditions. The Q codes made essential bits of information easier to sent. Sending QSY takes much less time and is probably going to be easier to copy by the listener than sending “I am going to change frequency”, for example.
The Q codes are all three letters long, and always start with the letter Q. Why Q? Probably because the letter Q is one of the least used letters in the English language so it stands out more. These are not acronyms. The letters used in the code have nothing to do with what they stand for. If you want to know more about Q codes than anyone probably ever wants to know, you can go look it up over at Wikipedia.
The Q codes are still in use today, especially among those of us who use CW (morse code). As soon as people started to figure out how to use voice instead of just CW, the Q codes jumped over to that as well. Even though the use of Q codes is discouraged except when using CW.
PSK, FT8, RTTY, JS8Call, WTF??
All of the above are acronyms for different modes of communication. Well, except for the last one up there. All of them are the same in that they use radio to send communications from one person to another. But they differ in how the communications are sent. Instead of just talking into a microphone, a computer is inserted into the mix. You type on a computer keyboard, a program encodes the letters you type into tones, triggers the transmitter to transmit the tones via radio. A radio receiver at the other end hears those tones, feeds them into a computer which translates it back into plain text that you can read. This is ridiculously simplistic, of course, but essentially that is how most of these modes work.
So why insert a computer into the mix when all you really need to do is just pick up a microphone and talk? Well it’s because most of these digital modes are more efficient in terms of their use of the spectrum, for one thing. Radio signals take up space, so to speak. They don’t just sit on a single frequency and use only that frequency. They sort of spread out. A standard AM voice signal takes up about 6 kHz (kilohertz). A single side band (SSB) signal takes up about 3 kHz, while a CW signal takes up only about 150 Hz. Generally speaking, the narrower the bandwidth of a signal, the better. Sometimes. Maybe. Sort of. To give an example, you can have dozens and dozens of FT8 signals occupying the same bandwidth as a single AM signal. So the digital modes are generally far more efficient in terms of bandwidth than a standard voice transmission.
They are also generally better under poor conditions. You can often still communicate using some of the digital modes under propagation and noise conditions that would completely obliterate voice transmissions.
So why doesn’t everyone just use digital modes and forget about voice? Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. Using digital modes adds a another layer of complexity and expense to things. You have to have a computer. You need special software. Often you need some kind of interface to connect your computer to your radio. You need special cables to connect all that gear together. And if all you want to do is chat with your friend Susan down in Beloit, well, why bother with all that when all you need to do is turn on your transceiver and pick up a microphone and talk?
QRP: Less is Sometimes More
QRP is one of those Q codes I talked about a few paragraphs ago. Its original meaning was “reduce your power” or if sent with a question mark, “should I reduce power?”. But it has also become a term for those of us who enjoy the challenge of trying to communicate using as little power as possible. Officially operating QRP means using 10 watts of power or less. Often a lot less.
The average amateur radio HF (short wave) transceiver puts out a maximum of 100 watts. The more expensive high-end models may push that to 200, but most will only do 100 watts. And that’s generally enough for most amateur radio operators. If you want or need more power than that, amateur radio operators in the U.S. can legally run up to 1,500 watts maximum. (Just for comparison, a commercial FM broadcaster often pumps out 100,000 watts.)
If you do want to run higher power, you have to get an external amplifier, and those can be very expensive, often running over $4,000. They’re also very big, very heavy, and often won’t run off normal house voltages and require you to install a 220V line. And as a lot of amateur radio operators will tell you, including me, how good your antennas are is often going to be more important than how much power you’re running.
But a lot of us go in the other direction. We’re more interested in trying to communicate using as little power as we can. (I not using the editorial “we” here, I use “we” because I’m one of these gluttons for punishment who likes to run QRP) Why? Because of the challenge of it. A lot of QRP’ers look at the high power guys as, well, like fishing with a hand grenade. You dump enough power into an antenna and someone, somewhere, is going to hear you. But running 5 watts? Or 2 watts? Or less than 1 watt? Into an antenna that’s little more than a bit of wire hanging from a tree? Now that’s fun.
Well, okay, it might not be your idea of fun, but there are enough of us who enjoy this kind of thing that there is a lot of hardware out there designed specifically for QRP operators, either kits or ready made QRP transceivers like the FT-818 like mine, antennas and other goodies.
And… Well, I think I’ve bored you long enough.