Sortable Sherwood!

One of the most valuable tools for amateurs worldwide to use when evaluating HF rigs is the set of bench tests that Rob Sherwood NC0B has provided for quite a number of years now. He ranks the receive tests by his favorite metric: narrow dynamic range in dB. It’s a key for CW contest operators (pun intended) which he is in spades. But it is a frequent question from readers of Rob’s table: why can’t I sort it on another criterion? Especially if I’m not a CW contest operator?

Well, now you can! Working directly with Rob NC0B, I’ve taken his latest receive test data and made a sortable table for the Sherwood Test Results. They are circa March 5, 2022. It’s at my companion site, foxmikehotel.com at this link. I plan to update it when Rob adds new radios to his Table.

I’ve also added sub-pages to illustrate some facets of the data. Based on my work over the past couple of years with adding price and consumer satisfaction data for each rig in his Table, I’ve learned that it’s important for readers to better understand both Rob’s tests and his ranking metric. In that research published in the ARRL’s National Contesting Journal, I created a composite of all nine of Rob’s bench tests which I called the Sherwood Performance Index (SPI). It is a broader assessment of receive performance than the narrow dynamic range. But it is not intended to be a replacement for Rob’s preferred metric, only a complement.

Thus far, I’ve added two interactive charts that will help the viewer better understand Rob’s table results. More may come.

One chart shows how the reader can “out-rank” themselves by ONLY focusing on how a rig is ranked on the narrow dynamic range measurement. Rob tells readers not to take the exact ranking as the only aspect of a rig for the top ten rigs are all very good on receive. This interactive graphic will allow the viewer to see how some rigs “bunch” together with almost identical narrow dynamic range but are, indeed, sequential ranked because of numerical differences that simply do not make much difference as realized in the rig’s actual performance. But, ever hear an athletic team cheer this after a game? We’re Number 10! We’re Number 10! I didn’t think so. But Number 10 might be just as good as Number 1 on the metric determining the ranking. You have to look at the data behind the ranking. This chart makes it easy.

A second chart demonstrates how Rob’s ranking variable, narrow dynamic range, relates to the composite SPI. You’ll find some interesting results from that chart, seeing how narrow dynamic range is important but there is more to some rigs than that. Especially if you’re not a contest operator, CW or otherwise.

As he has stated in various podcast interviews (including mine on the ICQ Podcast and recently on the Ham Radio Workbench), he started these bench tests for his own use as a CW contest operator. Rob disagreed with the ARRL’s tests as published in a review of the classic Drake R-4C receiver. So he created what he thought was a suite of appropriate bench tests. And the rest is history. For transceivers and receivers (“rigs”) over a 50 year period!

Here’s a trend line for the SPI by year over the horizon of rigs in his Table, circa November 2019. We are in the best period yet for receive performance in terms of Rob’s test suite. But now you can sort the Sherwood Table on any of his tests including the composite SPI that I added to asses your rig of choice.

Rob codes his website in conventional HTML. He recently had to suddenly change hosting providers. So he’s had enough on his plate with all of the other engineering contributions he makes almost daily to various email lists and groups. So while he could alter the HTML code to provide the ability to sort his table, I appreciate his spending his retirement time continuing to assist the amateur radio community as he does now. I hope that this offering of a Sortable Sherwood Table on my companion website will help the reader better understand this terrific tool as well as help Rob, too.

HOMEBREW HEROES TO BE MANAGED BY THE HAM RADIO WORKBENCH PODCAST

In a joint announcement, the ICQ Podcast team and the Ham Radio Workbench podcast team agreed to shift the ownership and management of the Homebrew Heroes Award (homebrewheroes.org) to the Ham Radio Workbench team. “George Zafiropolis KJ6VU and I have discussed this over the past few months. It makes better branding sense for their team to acquire and manage this awards program. Their episode-to-episode content clearly reflects the underlying principles of the Homebrew Heroes Award,” said Frank Howell K4FMH of the ICQ Podcast team.

George KJ6VU

George Zafiropolis KJ6VU stated that “We are enthusiastic that our fellow podcasters thought of us to take on this terrific awards program. Our team has admired both the concept and the implementation over the past two years. We plan to maintain the Award into the future!” Martin M1MRB added, “We have been pleased to provide promotional support for this Award. And we will continue to promote it under the management of the Ham Radio Workbench team.”

Rod Hardmon VA3ON agreed, stating “I’m delighted to have a leadership role in this Awards program on behalf of Ham Radio Workbench. It’s a perfect fit for what we are about.” Vince d’Eon VE6LK concurred with both George and Rod by saying, “It’s a great program that we hope to take to the next level over the years by promoting those who truly make heroic efforts to show the way to build stuff in amateur radio and related areas.”

Frank K4FMH

The Homebrew Hero Award was the brainchild of Frank K4FMH during the 2019 Hamvention in Xenia, OH. It was the first time the ICQ Podcast team had visited in-person as a group. As Martin Butler M1MRB, his son Colin M6BOY, and Frank were having lunch in one of the sets of bleachers between buildings, a number of prominent homebrew makers had passed by. “There sure are some homebrew heroes here this year,” said Frank. Colin looked at him and they both knew that this concept was worthy of fleshing-out. During the tour of the famous radio station WLW during Hamvention, the three of them put together the concept and implementation.

A few months later, the first Award was given to Hans Summers G0UPL, proprietor of QRP Labs (qrplabs.com). Colin M6BOY added, “It was a fast endeavor for Martin, Frank and I to put this together as we did. Corporate sponsors have been terrific in signing on, including Digilent, Siglent, MFJ Enterprises, and Heil Sound. The ICQ Podcast has been privileged to have Presenters who come up with innovative ideas like this.”

Rod VA3ON

Frank K4FMH added, “I’ll still have a connection to this Award program as a sponsor. I’ve committed to donating a soldering iron station each year as this is the heart-and-soul of any homebrewer’s work bench. Awards programs like this take on greater meaning and importance as they transition over the years. This move to the Ham Radio Workbench Podcast team is the right move at the right time.”

Details on the Homebrew Heroes Award program in the future can be found at hamradioworkbench.com. The current slate of sponsors are continuing through the 2022 cycle of the Homebrew Heroes Award.

Any Other Hams Near You?

As my attorney friends like to say, I was “shocked and amazed” at my answer to that question!

Ham communities vary, of course. But I suspect that you may not be as aware of the licensed amateur radio operators who live in your general vicinity. Some are simply not “active,” whatever the heck you want to say that is. We tend to see through our personal windshields rather than a bird’s eye view those hams who are engaged in some visible activity. Hearing them on the air (very strong nearby signals perhaps), seeing them at radio clubs or local ham fests, and that sort of visibility is mostly how we gauge our impressions of other hams nearby. But I suspect that many, many hams are simply not visible to us that way.

We tend to look up specific call signs through a variety of resources, the most popular of which is the venerable QRZ.com. The results can be viewed on a map. But it is most always just the single call sign. And that is very useful. For some purposes.

But Ross KT1F in New Hampshire—his FCC record says he lives on Sleepy Hollow Road (!)–has published a very clever map of most all FCC ULS records for licensed amateurs. It’s about four years old now. As someone who has been involved in GIS and related technologies since the early 1980s, I am very impressed with KT1F’s ambitious project. Geocoding address records, especially about 750,000 of them requires either a lot of crunching against an enhanced TIGER street database (or similar source), $$$, or a clever way to use relatively free sources. See his site at to find out how he’s done this.

Here’s a screenshot of the map from Ross’ website with my location annotated. I had previously been the only licensee in the EM42xk grid. But no longer! As this graphic illustrates, there are several hams who now reside in this grid square, both on my side of the Reservoir as well as in the Fannin Landing neighborhood across the water.

Screenshot of my community from the HamInfo website (https://haminfo.tetranz.com/ham-map-info)

I was very surprised at the number of hams around me. Driving by many of these neighborhoods on a daily or weekly basis, I would never know that so many had licensed ham operators living there. I just don’t see many obvious antennas. If you’d like to check out your neighborhood, here’s the website below (clicking link will open a new tab):

https://haminfo.tetranz.com/ham-map-info

What did you find in your neck of the woods? Are you rather isolated? Or less isolated than you imagined?

What Can You Do With This Map?

There are a number of very useful and productive things you can do by judicious use of Ross’ map tool. Here are just some thoughts that crossed my mind.

Yep, the idea of a local area club jumps out but there are likely existing clubs if there are enough hams in the general vicinity. But it’s clearly a thought. However, contacting your neighboring hams who are close by can be good for numerous other things, too.

One is periodic gatherings in a park or other suitable area. Saturday Morning Amateur Radio Time is a “smart” move but other times work just as well. A quarterly gathering with rigs, antennas and some food/beverage can grow into a low maintenance and enjoyable collective activity. If the locale is a park listed in the Parks on the Air (POTA) map, activate it! Announcing it on the POTA app website and on their Slack channel can draw a crowd on the air. You only need 10 contacts for it to become official. And, you get to know your neighboring hams.

A careful investigation of this map in your area can identify hams who live in HOA-governed neighborhoods. If you live in one, pizza night at a local restaurant (or elsewhere) can be a welcomed time of sharing. How do others deal with the ubiquitous rules against ham antennas in their neighborhood? Perhaps if enough hams join in over time, this group can request meetings with relevant HOA Boards to just inform them about the hobby, convince them that Herman Munster really isn’t a ham (or a real person), and that ham antennas do not have to be nearly as onerous as above ground utility poles, cell towers, marinas with boat masts that have marine radio antennas on them (like mine). Plus, during bad weather or other events, having an active ham in the neighborhood can be a real asset. But, right now, they probably do not know that.

Looking for area organizations and institutions, such as libraries, schools, assisted living centers, can often give concentrations of hams ideas about public service.

Library programs can be easy to schedule as Directors are all about programs as much as books and magazines these days.

Schools? Not so much from outsiders who would take up valuable curriculum time—-unless you have an insider connection on staff at an area school. I’ve talked with numerous school administrators. They estimate that there’s only about a 3 our of 10 chance to get into a school, regardless of whether there’s a connection with a school. Private schools tend to be more challenging than public schools. The race to gain the “best” college application packet quickly fills up a middle or high school student’s dance card. Just ask any parent of one or more such school children. (They were the first Uber drivers!)

Assisted living centers vary but the ones with resident mobility could be promising for area amateurs to arrange a visit. Doing a brief show-and-tell about amateur radio could well be a boon for residents. Those who know about amateur radio, were exposed to it earlier in life, or who just get struck by the hobby’s excitement could become very interested in the hobby. Most retirement counselors suggest retiring “to” something (e.g., a hobby) instead of just “from” something (work). A Tech license and an HT courtesy of you area hams could be lifeline for one or more residents. Remember, those who are still ambulatory and get out in the community can be as active as you are! (I gave a professional friend who moved into such a center in the Chapel Hill, NC area an inexpensive HT programmed with all of the repeaters in the Raleigh-Durham area. He had maintained his amateur license for decades but the last radio he had was a 2M Goonie Box.)

Is there an RF noise problem in your area? Are their neighborhoods where area hams live where the noise is not so bad? With cooperation, pooling a few dollars into a kitty for a web-based SDR (KiwiSDR, etc.) with a loop or other broadband antenna could be used by other hams in the area for RX (CATSync is a great tool for that). Password-protect it so that just your “team” can access it if the host’s Internet bandwidth is an issue.

Getting acquainted for an “unclub” group to meet and exchange ideas on projects, contacts, events and so forth can be useful. You can also check out others to see if they are individuals with whom you feel like spending time with. The issues with clubs are legion: just read the Clubs board on eHam! But not every club has to be like Walmart. Not every ham is someone with whom everyone else would like to break bread with. Or them, you. We “should” welcome all as a general value position but, honestly, all hams do not behave that way. So meeting without the formality of an official club is often an unobtrusive way to find other area hams with whom you’d like to meet with from time to time.

Of course, your best ham buddies do not have to live nearby. Some of mine certainly do not. But I was “shocked and amazed” that so many licensed hams to live near my QTH. Perhaps you will be, too.

There are other uses of KT1F’s map tool. These are just a few I’ve thought of as I was writing this blog post. What are your thoughts?

ICQ Podcast Feature on the Lost Tribe. TSM article now freely available

The historical research I recently published in October issue of The Spectrum Monitor is now available on my companion website, foxmikehotel.com. It’s on the home page. TSM allows authors to hold secondary publication rights to articles so I can freely post the PDF now that the November issue is published. Have a look if you don’t subscribe to TSM.

The next episode of the ICQ Podcast, Number 363 that will drop on Sunday November 7th, will feature an audio version of these new research results. For those who’d rather listen than read, this might be a viable option.

One upshot of my research is this: if you begin with the ARRL-published and famous book, 200 Meters and Down by ARRL Secretary Sutton, you are going to be terribly mislead about how amateur radio got organized in the United States. The new website, worldradiohistory.com, amidst other sources such as online historical newspapers (e.g., https://www.newspapers.com), the Internet Archive, the Hathitrust archive, various university-based archives, and other sources, really opens up our ability to more fully understand the origins, emergence and organization of wireless telegraphy which begat amateur radio.

Who is this?

I’ve included a picture from Wikipedia of a person who made voluminous but unheralded contributions to the emergence of amateur radio. This included selling parts to the person who Elmered one of the founders of the ARRL into the hobby. (Did you know there were two co-founders?)

Do you recognize him from this picture?

If not, you’d find the TSM article and the ICQ Podcast feature in the next episode very informative. I’ve included another, one that looks a bit wacky from the day but if you’re familiar with 3D immersive technology, it was “seeing” far into the future of…today! (See the search results using the term, Oculus Quest, if you’re not familiar.)

During a somewhat boring world history class in college, I heard my professor say, “Yes, history is boring to many. Until it touches your life.” He had a point. I was living through some important history of America back in the late-sixties and early seventies. It led me into studying social movements and how they intersect the lives of not only the current participants but those who come afterwards, too.

I hope that the research I’ve done into the early part of the last century on this topic will touch your amateur radio life, so to speak. It has mine as I learned quite a bit from almost a year’s worth of reading and study. I’m delighted that we have an outlet like TSM whose Editor, Ken Reitz KS4ZR, is willing to publish pieces like this.

Guess who? Intelligent Vision was the name of the gadget.

Brashear’s Stand: Still Being Used for a Break in the Day

The history of the early 1800s in the United States’ development holds meaning for today. More than we tend to realize. Back before Mississippi was a state, the Federal Government called it “I.T.,” short for Indian Territory. Territories were not “settled” from a Federal viewpoint. During those times, many footpaths established by Native American Tribes—for instance, the Choctaws—became passable roads for travel by foot, horses, carriages and stage coaches. The opportunity for interim settlers, mostly whites but not always, became obvious: Where are the Holiday Inns of the day? There were some, of course, but they were rudimentary places along the paths from here to there, offering a break in the daily travels, food, drink, and overnight accommodations. They were typically called “Stands,” and most often had enslaved peoples working there.

Inns, or stands, provided occasional shelter for travelers along the Natchez Trace from the 1790s to the 1840s. These stands offered food to eat and food for thought: local news, information, and ideas. The ever-changing mix of diverse people – whites, American Indians, African Americans – interacted at the stands on a regular basis.

National Park Service

My portable operations team, consisting of Mike N5DU, Thomas N5WDG, Mike K5XU and myself, availed ourselves of such a break in the daily tasks on Saturday, October 9, 2021 to activate the historic site of Brashear’s Stand on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Ridgeland, MS. It’s just a mile or two from my house. Here’s what it was like back more than a century ago:

Brashears Stand

Brashears Stand is named after Turner Brashears, who moved to the area in the late 1700s. He became a trader with the Choctaw and learned their language.

“In 1806 Turner Brashears placed an advertisement in the Natchez newspaper about his stand labeling it “A house of Entertainment on the road leading from Natchez to Nashville.” Travelers on the Natchez Trace generally seemed to be pleased with their treatment and accommodations at Brashears Stand. In 1807 Reverend Jacob Young, a Methodist preacher, wrote “Near the line that divided the Choctaw Nation from the Mississippi Territory stood a fine public house kept by a man by the name of Brashears…He treated us very well but knew how to make a high bill.” In addition to earning money from his stand operation, Brashears prospered by selling land and enslaved people.” (National Park Service)

Picture of a pencil drawing of the original Brashear’s Stand, a Holiday Inn Express of the early 1800s on the Natchez Trace (note: it looks more like a modern day Cracker Barrel restaurant)

The Stand no longer exists but it’s a testament to what we hams sometime take for granted when we get outdoors to enjoy our hobby. One inspiration of mine to better understand these environs is the well-known POTA and SOTA activator and blogger, Thomas Witherspoon K4SWL (see QRPer.com). He is always appreciative in his blog posts about the park or summit he’s activating. This area was the location my team chose for our very first POTA activation. Here’s the setup, two permanent picnic tables with 100+ foot pines. That and perfect weather make for an enjoyable time whether the band conditions follow suit or not.

POTA Site at Brashear’s Stand

The four of us paired up at each of the two permanently mounted picnic tables. We placed old sheets on top of the tables. You may guess why since there are lots of birds in the area! We used N5DU’s Xiegu G90 (the one Rob Sherwood tested for his website) for FT8, K5XU’s Kenwood 590s for CW, and my new Icom IC-705 on it’s maiden voyage. Mike K5XU has been blind since birth and is a 50 year amateur licensee and career broadcaster. (Learn more about Mike’s amazing life and career on the ICQ Podast episode 299 here.) He is the CW op for our team. Thomas N5WDG is a wide area network engineer covering several states for AT&T and is one of my engineering Elmers. Mike N5DU has become our FT8 leader. I can neither deny or confirm that he uses the G90 bedside at night to work other countries via FT8. Mike is the State of MS RACES Officer for the Emergency Management Agency and practicing attorney in Jackson MS.

Given the tall pines in this small park area, we used three EFHW antennas I had built in the past month. I ran across an eBay vendor, John KG6ZBN (seller name eddieson), who was selling both 1:9 and 1:49 UnUns for $10-$12. I could not source the parts for that! Since George at Packtenna was out of stock on his EFHW antennas, I just bought several of John KG6ZBN’s EFHW UnUns as shown below for the 1:49 model. I did follow George’s build specs using the #26 Silky Wire from The Wireman. This wire for low power is a wonder. One of the EFHW’s is shown below with inexpensive plastic kite winders to manage the wire. I use S-hooks to link the kite winder in the air to very small paracord once I have the latter over a tree branch or something. A sweep of one of the 1:49 EFHW is shown using a RigExpert Stick analyzer and Antscope illustrates the resulting SWR dips in the HF bands. The bluetooth-connected “blue stick” was connected at the SO-239 connector of the EFHW before hoisting up in the air so the coax is not in the system on these measurements. I was very pleased with these results.

So how did our first POTA activation go in an otherwise ideal Saturday for doing some amateur radio? Not bad. Not bad at all. I posted our activation on both the POTA.app and on the Parks on the Air Slack Channel. Some tweeted that they tried to reach me on SSB while I was using the IC-705 at 10 watts. Most were a no-go except the one SSB contact from Arizona giving us a “true” 599 report. We had 59 contacts in all, but dropped one due to a busted call sign. The map below shows the range by mode. SSB is green, CW is red, and FT8 is yellow.

The 58 Contacts that the Fox Mike Hotel Portable Ops Team made during our first POTA Activation on the Natchez Trace Parkway at Brashear’s Stand in Ridgeland MS. Note: SSB = green, CW = red, FT8 = yellow.

Mike K5XU’s 30 watts on CW worked very well as he is a master operator in that mode. Catching Alaska and Puerto Rico on 30 watts was not surprising. Mike N5DU’s FT8 power was 10 watts (5 watts for the first two). Working Guatamala and Sardinia on 10 watts using an EFHW was nice. N5DU added his DX Engineering Bandpass Filter box which significantly reduced interference between his FT8 rig and my SSB rig sitting just a few feet apart. My poor SSB showing, except for the one QRP contact out to AZ in their State QSO Party, was not to be unexpected. Nonetheless, as my friends Scott K0MD and Thomas K4SWL told me, my first deployment of the IC-705 was better than imagined in terms of how the rig operates and the features it contains. I did connect it the day before to my amateur radio laptop (Thinkpad 420s) on my patio via USB and tested a 1:9 EFHW strung head-high between two bushes in my garden. This is the very first rig that has connected immediately to WSJTX after two settings: rig selection of the 705 in the software and pressing the on-screen menu button for FT8 Preset on the 705. I immediately began receiving and decoding FT8 signals! One contact convinced me that I had that mode in the bag on the 705. Well done, Icom!

Lunch was served at my house a couple of miles away after our noon shutdown. Fried catfish from nearby Cock of the Walk restaurant, hush puppies, corn bread, fried onion rings and pickles were the main course. To finish off our meal, apple pie or brownie a la mode with chocolate peanut clusters were served. We dined on our screened porch with a breeze off of the Barnett Reservoir flowing through the solar shades. While not the healthiest diet, and one we do not eat often, a good time practicing this aspect of our hobby was had by all. We plan to continue POTA activation’s, and perhaps the one SOTA entity in the State, in the future. Having a group of ham radio friends like this makes the hobby most pleasurable. Now, I need to get that log submitted to my POTA manager!

The Lost Tribe, the Pied Piper and The Executive.

Think that the ARRL was the first amateur radio association in the United States? Or that the famous and brilliant inventor also “invented” amateur radio? If so, you are not alone. But pesky historical documents and the facts they contain tell a deeper and more accurate story. It’s in the October issue of The Spectrum Monitor. Smartly edited by Ken Reitz KS4ZR, TSM is a wonderful read in my household. I go back as a subscriber to TSM’s predecessor, the Monitoring Times, launched by Bob Groves, years ago. It’s a real honor for me to get the cover feature in the TSM this month. Thank you, Ken and Thomas K4SWL, for the encouragement on this revealing story!

Cover of October 2021 The Spectrum Monitor

The Secret Storm Approaching CW Contesting…

As a small child, my grandmother and mother both watched several “soap operas,” including the Secret Storm. The opening of Secret Storm showed violent waves crashing on the shoals, something I’d never seen being raised in Middle Georgia. My grandmother especially used to flinch and react to the plot-line drama there, something that I took note of even if to laugh to myself as a small boy.

The underlying theme was there was undetected turbulence in the offing, denied by those benefiting from things staying put as they are and have been. But all were impacted none the less when the waves of change ultimately pounded the rocks where many sailors during the great sailing days of yore and asleep at the wheel ran aground .

Opening video clip from the defunct television “soap opera” the Secret Storm (excerpt from Youtube)

The Secret Storm has been one of my go-to metaphors for periods of rapid change. This is where social institutions are altered because of changing demographics among the individuals who participate in the organizations making up the institution itself. This is certainly one of those times in amateur radio!

A demographic storm is approaching CW contesting in the ARRL Sweepstakes Contests.

It may be a rapid change in all CW and Phone contests. Those in power in the institution don’t see the coming storm of demography because it’s slow-acting…until it’s not…and more immediate fish are there to fry. One can see “secret storms” in various times and places. Some get attention. Others do not.

But this “storm” is largely secret for at least two reasons. Until this path-breaking study of the best available data, no one has reported on the generational patterns of major contest participation. Many hams have speculated on it but there has been no systematic empirical data until now. Another is that those who are the most successful in today’s contest formats, as well as those who govern them, tend to take a blind-eye toward anything negative or indicative of change to the “only positive contesting spoken here” ideology. Read the relevant amateur radio magazines objectively for the evidence.

But the facts describing this demographic storm are undeniable. Here is why.

The problem and the solutions are challenging but the latter is more so because it takes group decision-making in opposition to vested interests to make it happen.

Frank K4FMH

This post excerpts from the full technical version of a study that I completed in collaboration with Dr. Scott Wright K0MD, past Editor of the ARRL’s National Contesting Journal. Scott is the lead author on a popular article drawn from this study that appears in the September-October 2021 issue of the NCJ. It does not go into great detail on the data or analysis but as a social scientist, I believe that a full exposure of methods, data and analysis is always warranted. A PDF version of that report is published on NCJWeb.com as well as on my companion website under my Hamography (made-up word) section in the Studies tab.

The paper, “Generational Change in ARRL Contesting: The Pending Demographic Cliff Ahead,” by Frank Howell, PhD K4FMH and Scott Wright, MD K0MD is the first study (of which we are aware) that has measures of the age of contesters for a broad period of time in a major contest program. Moreover, the year licensed is used to measure the experience in amateur radio based upon license tenure. Georeferencing each call sign to the administrative location places each one in a geographic context which further illustrates who, when and where ARRL Sweepstakes participants are.

The radio sport of contesting is one of the top activities for ham operators [1]. The annual ARRL
Sweepstakes contests in CW and Phone have broad appeal as contests and the numbers of participants
has been increasing each year. Clearly, from an engagement viewpoint, it is one of the great success
stories of the League. So, why are there hams within our fold who express concern about the potential
for declining participation in contests like Sweepstakes? Why are there some alarmists among us who
believe ham radio contesting may face a cliff with regard to drop-offs in participation? We hope this
article will answer those concerns and clarify opportunities for the contesting community to “right the
ship before it takes on too much water,” so to speak. The problem and the solutions are challenging but the latter is more so because it takes group decision-making in opposition to vested interests to make it happen.

Our analysis is based upon entries into the ARRL Sweepstakes contest, a popular contest among ham
radio hobbyists in North America. The ARRL made available to us the participant entry data from the
years 2000, 2005, 2011, 2015 and 2020 for a series of analyses designed to create opportunities for the
contesting community to grow the ranks of contesters.

We discovered that Sweepstakes participants over the past two decades were from all over the world
but mainly in the United States with a much smaller number from Canada. Figure 1 is a map of CW
and Phone participants for the years 2000, 2005, 2011, 2015 and 2020 all combined within each
transmission mode. [2] They are concentrated around metropolitan areas but especially in the
Northeastern corridor, the West Coast, the Midwestern Rust Belt cities, and Florida. The Los Angeles,
San Francisco and Seattle areas tend to be concentration zones as well as Chicago, Minneapolis and
Detroit in the Midwest. The spatial patterns for CW and Phone participation are very similar with some
tendency for CW participants to be in more rural areas. So Sweepstakes participants tend to be like
most Americans, residing most in and around large cities with some outside of those metropolitan
areas. That’s great, right?

As the well-known sports announcer, Lee Corso, says: not so fast! The demographic processes shaping Sweepstakes participation, and perhaps most all long-standing contests, portend the potential for dramatic change to come in the next decade or so.

Frank K4FMH

We report the first results of a new study of Sweepstakes log submissions over the 2000-2020 period with age-matched data from ARRL Membership files and other enhancements by the authors. Using a number of data analytic procedures, we identify key generational changes in contest participation patterns that have not been previously identified. They paint a concerning picture for the attraction of new blood into the radio sport of
contesting. But first, let’s look at Sweepstakes participation itself for the past 20 years.

The growth in contest participants seems very clear from the numbers that the League compiles from
the log submissions. Figure 2 lists numbers of logs successfully submitted by year and mode. From
each five-year gap, the rates are positive and robust. For CW, the annualized growth rates of growth are
from about 4-5 percent over each gap while Phone’s annual rates of growth range from 4-7 percent,
with more participation in Phone sweepstakes from both absolute participation numbers and percentage
growth. These are positive but modest growth rates.

These results clearly suggest that the Sweepstakes participation is growing and includes hams from all around the U.S. and a noteworthy number outside the country, especially in nearby Canada. But like the sailor who ignores the dark clouds in the distance, there is a demographic storm on the horizon.

Frank K4FMH

Generational Patterns of Participation in the Sweepstakes Contests

The ARRL kindly provided birth year for all of the call signs in the Sweepstakes Contests data where age information was available. [3] We used this information in our enhanced dataset to examine the age distributions for each year and also added actuarial life expectancy data from the U.S. Social Security Administration to each birth year (see Note 5 below). This gives us a unique perspective on not only the age patterns of these contesting hams but their likely remaining years until reaching Silent Key status. Each log call sign was also georeferenced to license address.

Some age demography theory here is necessary for interpreting the results. If the age structure of contest participation is such that new hams are being regularly drawn into the radio sport in sufficient numbers to replace those aging hams who exit, the shape of the distribution from 2000 until 2020 would remain almost identical. That is, amateurs from more recent generations would enter as older participants become physically or mentally unable to engage in the necessary “butt in chair” activities for major contests, or have relocated their housing into situations where participation in radio contesting is not possible. However, if the age distribution continues to shift upward from 2000 until 2020, then newer generation newcomers are not keeping up in replacing with those from earlier periods who are eventually leaving the contesting scene. Or, it could be a mixture of these two opposing scenarios. The empirical answer from these data is surprisingly clear.

We present a histogram of the age distribution for Sweepstakes participants in each observed contest
year by mode in Figure 3. The median age over all contests and modes is 60 years. We insert this
median into each distribution to give a fixed target through which to visualize trends in the respective
age distributions over time. The results are striking, especially for CW participants. The bulk of the age
distribution lies to the left (younger) side of the median in 2000 for each contest mode. But with each
successive five-year snapshot, it moves like a caterpillar’s crawl to the right (older) of the age 60
median. It reached a tipping point in 2011 with the middle bulk of participants being around the age of
60. By 2020, a clear majority of participants are above the median bar (older) but slightly more so for
CW participants.

This picture suggests that the needed demographic replacement is not occurring as the Sweepstakes contesting participant pool is aging to the point where we need to examine carefully what is the demographic profile of newcomers and those exiting. Moreover, what is the life expectancy of those continuing to participate in the ARRL’s premier contesting program? We step through results addressing these issues from this dataset.

This picture suggests that the needed demographic replacement is not occurring as the Sweepstakes contesting participant pool is aging to the point where we need to examine carefully what is the demographic profile of newcomers and those exiting.

Frank K4FMH

Some key indicators of demographic change are in Figure 4. The row labeled Continuation is the percent of call signs from the previous year (e.g., 2000) that matched the call sign logs submitted in the next contest observation (e.g., 2005). This tells us which individual call signs continue from five-year observation to the next observed contest. Only a third to a half of the call signs in a given year appear again in the next contest some five years later. This applies to both CW and Phone contests. However, the Phone contest continuation percentages are systematically smaller, never reaching 50 percent. It’s clear that readers should recognize that Sweepstakes participants, especially those in Phone, are not the same operators but they do tend to reflect the same generation, collectively moving in some lock-step through the past two decades of the Sweepstakes. This suggests that Sweepstakes contesting is culturally rooted to one or more generations rather than a single collectivity of specific hams.

This suggests that Sweepstakes contesting is culturally rooted to one or more generations rather than a single collectivity of specific hams.

Frank K4FMH

The average age has moved upward over the past two decades some 15 years from 51 to 67 among CW contesters. Phone participants are slightly younger on average but they too have moved from 50 to 64 over this twenty-year period. Now a key element of this demographic mix is the age at licensure, created from the “check year” field in the required Sweepstakes log compared to the birth year. Phone participants tended to be licensed in their mid-twenties while CW contesters were in their late teens. These are averages, of course, and vary somewhat. We include the standard deviation under the mean score to better illustrate this variation. But this aids in our understanding of the tenure of being licensed. Participants in the CW Contest over the years have been licensed longer than similar Phone participants. They are culturally rooted in the era of amateur radio where they entered the hobby at a young age and may indeed reflect an earlier generation of ham radio in cultural beliefs about the hobby. In both cases, the vast preponderance of participating hams (88.9%) was born in the Traditionalist (pre-1945) or Baby Boomer (1945-1964) generations.

Demographic Sources of Newcomers and Exits from Contesting

Having described the dominant generational character of Sweepstakes participants, we remind the reader that these are not the same set of individual hams to participate year-in and year-out (e.g., 50% or less continuity). But what age demography are those who enter contesting? When did newcomers become licensed? How about those who get enthusiastic about amateur radio later in life? These factors are what will drive contesting into the future over the next 10-15 years. They are the drivers of the demographic storm brewing, especially for CW contesting, and will continue to significantly shape the size and nature of contesting. 

To address these questions, we enhance the Sweepstakes dataset to compute measures of exits and newcomers into each five-year observation window. Because it can be complicated to just describe this data creation in just words, we rely on the diagram in Figure 5. From left-to-right, the years of data we obtained from the ARRL represent whether a specific call sign was in a contest for that year or not. [4] If a call was in 2000, for instance, and it was not in 2005, then we count that as an exit case for the 2000-2005 interval. If that call was also in 2005, then we consider that a continuation (as shown in Figure 2). If a call was not in 2000 but was in 2005, then we consider that a newcomer. These were computed separately for the CW and Phone Contests. We also recognize that we are not able to link call signs used in each contest to previously used call signs so this aspect of our analysis is a weakness.

But taking into account that we do not have each and every single year’s log data, this method could have a call sign that was in 2000-2004 but just missed 2005 and still be counted as an exit. The same thing could conversely be the case for newcomer. But to counteract this random absence case, we computed long-term exits and entrants. As the red box on the left designates, if a call sign was in either 2000 or 2005 but was not in any of the remaining contest files, we counted that as a long-term exit. Accordingly, if a call sign was in 2015 or 2020 but not an any previous contests, we count that as a long-term newcomer. These may be more reliable but longer-term indicators of the ebb-and-flow of Sweepstakes Contest participation than the 5-year measurements.

The short-term exits for CW and Phone are shown in Figure 6. There is a greater exodus during the 2000 to 2011 decade and is dominated by the Traditionalists and Baby Boomer generations. Some exits are prominent by Generation X members during the second decade of observation. Note that the number of those leaving this contest program declines over time, suggesting that it may indeed be age-related health issues rather than changes in interest. While exits exacerbate the generational problem, Figure 7 contains data on newcomers, where replenishment of those leaving may be found. But here is what may be a surprising result. Newcomers tend not to come from later generations but from the wellspring of the Baby Boomers and their preceding generation. And while this is true for both contest modes, there is a nominally greater increase of Generation Xers and some token Millennials arriving in the Phone contest logs in the last five years. This trend is a potential strategy for the contesting community to grow participation in sweepstakes especially via the Phone contest.

The long-term exits and newcomers are described in Figure 8. In the CW Contest, long-term entrants are almost wholly from the Baby Boomer generation. While the small presence of other generations is observed, they pale by comparison to both long-term newcomers and exits by this generation.

Another potential source of new blood into radio sport are what the first author termed, “late-in-life hams,” in his NCJ article series on Aging and Contesting. These are middle-aged adults who become licensed and engage in the hobby. Using the definition cited in the NCJ articles (see note 1), we computed late-in-life-hams using the age variable as license age being 40 or above. Out of the 12,663 logs with matched age data, a total of 1,655 (13%) were classified as late-in-life hams. While this is a small number in absolute terms, to what extent do they represent newcomers to the Sweepstakes? Figure 9 provides an answer.

The bar chart shows that there is an increasing number of hams licensed later in life joining each contest year. Well over 100 were present in each year since 2000 in the Phone Sweepstakes but less for CW. This is a clear differential in late-in-life hams favoring Phone over CW. In the past decade, this difference has become larger with over 250 such hams taking up Sweepstakes Phone entry as compared to no more than 100 in CW. Thus, late-comers to ham radio and Sweepstakes contest participation migrate to Phone much more than CW. These observations suggest that the phone Sweepstakes are a perfect entry way into HF contesting for newer licensees who want to try contesting by participating in a domestic event that fosters success with modest antennas (wires, verticals) and lower power (100 watts). It is an opportunity for all contesting clubs to find and invite such newer licensees to join Sweepstakes 2021 and beyond to experience the thrill and passion of HF contesting. This suggestion is made even more crucial to long-term contesting sustainability given the next trend we uncovered.

…late-comers to ham radio and Sweepstakes contest participation migrate to Phone much more than CW.

Frank K4FMH

Life Expectancy and the Demographics Facing Sweepstakes

Our final analysis involves the estimated life expectancy of Sweepstakes participants, using the U.S. Social Security Administration’s actuarial data for average predicted remaining life by age. [5] Some basic explanations of these data are warranted before proceeding. The predicted remaining life is the average and there is variation around that mean score (standard deviation is thought to be between 8 and 15 years, depending upon the time period referenced. See Note 5.). So, these are population characteristics and individuals (hams) will vary on length of time with regard to becoming Silent Key around this average score. Regardless, taken in aggregate, these projections are likely critical for understanding the cliff that HF contesting is about to experience.

If we think of the expected remaining years of life at a given age as a battery where “years of life” is a charge, we can examine patterns of life expectancy as being above or below the expected “charge” until reaching depletion (Silent Key status), whether SK status reflects relocation to a living situation where operations cannot occur or ultimately through death of a given individual. The presented data will underestimate the age when physical or mental infirmity precludes active contesting. We constructed a set of histograms similar to the age distribution by year and contest mode (Figure 3). Instead of age, we substituted remaining life expectancy computed as the difference of life expectancy and age. Instead of the median life expectancy, we inserted a vertical line at zero which reflects the average remaining life expected, trading on the remaining battery charge metaphor. Figure 10 contains graphic representation for each Sweepstakes year and contest mode.

…future participation in the CW Sweepstakes would fade out within a decade or two based upon these data unless younger hams enter the CW sector of radio sport.

Frank K4FMH

The positive results are that all but one time-to-expected-SK status is on the right side of zero (or positive). If newcomers to the Sweepstakes contest program averaged the age distribution in this participation pool, there would be a supply “re-charge” (replenishment of SK contesters with newer contesters with life expectancies of several decades) that would sustain it for over two decades or so. The clear and dramatic exception is in the CW contest where fully one-half of the 2020 participants have used half of their expected remaining time until SK status. This does not take into account physical or mental impairments that would take hams out of the contesting participation pool. Thus, future participation in the CW Sweepstakes would fade out within a decade or two based upon these data unless younger hams enter the CW sector of radio sport.

What Do These Results Mean for the Sweepstakes and Other Contests?

The current participation numbers for the Sweepstakes contests look good, even promising future extended growth, if we only take the raw counts of submitted logs into consideration. This is exciting for those of us who are long-term contesters as well as the ARRL contest itself. However, there is more to what we have observed. The loss rate of contesters leaving the ARRL Sweepstakes contest is high and reflects the aging demographics of our hobby, as well as the lack of adequate replenishment of newer, younger contesters.

The current participation numbers for the Sweepstakes contests look good, even promising future extended growth, if we only take the raw counts of submitted logs into consideration…Because of these demographic patterns, it appears to be a culturally-situated issue riding a demographic storm…it is not too late to reverse these trends and interrupt the aging-related decline that is happening…

Frank K4FMH

Because of these demographic patterns, it appears to be a culturally-situated issue riding a demographic storm. If it were just promoting the Sweepstakes contests to other age groups, the activity would be attractive by itself. However, note the maximum continuity rates never reaching more than 50 percent across each five-year period. Yet, it was almost one-half of the second year’s participants that were also from the Baby Boomer (or perhaps Traditionalists) generation, not Gen-Xers or Millennials. Certainly not Post-Millennials which could be counted on two hands. This is strong evidence that Sweepstakes contesting as we know it is a cultural practice that appeals to those born before 1965 and, while nominally growing among Gen-Xers, does not attract younger participants thus far.

That said, we also recognize that it is not too late to reverse these trends and interrupt the aging-related decline that is happening in contesting and that will soon result in dramatic reductions in numbers of participants. Sweepstakes, especially Phone Sweepstakes, attracts new participants from among those recently licensed, regardless of their generational age. Growth in Sweepstakes is not occurring from a new hobbyist “teenage” demographic, which is how many of us entered ham radio. There are plenty of data describing how ham radio does not have the same allure today as it did in the 1950’s-1970’s. We cannot undo cultural trends and changes in new technology. We can however create new marketing/recruitment strategies to welcome adults of all ages into the hobby, and to encourage them to give contesting a try. Phone Sweepstakes is one such ‘gateway’ to contesting it seems. The data already point to that, and it is an observation that suggests ways for the contest clubs throughout North America to target and draw in new participants.

Our data analysis reveals several indisputable facts. First, Sweepstakes participation remains popular despite the folklore that it is not growing, although that annual growth is small. Second, the participants in Sweepstakes are typically experienced ham operators who have been licensed for many decades. Third, the number of younger generation hams (under age 40) has not contributed to any measurable change in Sweepstakes participation. Fourth, there are newer licensees (not necessarily younger in age) who are participating in Sweepstakes and largely contributing to its growth. Fifth, Sweepstakes has ‘curb appeal’ to newer licensees, especially Phone Sweepstakes.

These observations suggest several pathways forward to sustain contesting, enrich the hobby and replace our senior contesters who are becoming SK’s.

Contesters and contesting clubs can create new marketing/recruitment strategies to welcome adults of all ages into the hobby, and to encourage them to give contesting a try. Phone Sweepstakes is one such ‘gateway’ to contesting. Contest sponsors, like the ARRL, can ensure that any changes in the rules of Sweepstakes should reflect changes that encourage rather than discourage new participants. The ARRL might consider creating some awards which target exclusively newer entrants into Sweepstakes, like a ‘rookie category’ but without the culturally offensive stigma of calling a middle-aged adult a ‘rookie’. (We suggest using Newcomer instead.) The Contest Advisory Committee may want to critically evaluate the Sweepstakes data and offer additional innovative ways to attract more participants.

Finally, these data suggest that there are plenty of new hams in the hobby but not enough contesters. Local, regional and national contest clubs must re-evaluate outreach strategies and meeting formats to attract, mentor and retain new contesters within our ranks. Individual contesters can also contribute to contest growth. We can dispel the popular myth that a successful contest station requires multiple towers, Yagi stacks, vertical arrays and teams of operators. There is a role for these sophisticated, team-based contesters. They often lead through innovation and performance, stimulating the rest of us to pick it up a notch or two. But there are plenty of ways that individual contesters can enjoy the hobby and be successful, whether through modest stations at their home, through mobile contesting or even portable activities like the SOTA, POTA, the Portable Operations Challenge and others.

The first author has published an exposition of the first Fox Mike Hotel Portable Operations Challenge in the September-October issue of the National Contesting Journal. An international Steering Committee leads this effort to offer a clear and distinctive change in amateur radio sport, from focusing on gear to competitive strategy to win without segregating participants into ever-smaller categories of contestants..

We can dispel the popular myth that a successful contest station requires multiple towers, Yagi stacks, vertical arrays and teams of operators.

Scott K0MD

It is also important to acknowledge the impact the housing transitions from a home without antenna restrictions to a property with severe restrictions is likely impacting participation, especially later in life for those who wish to continue as contesters. It is imperative that we acknowledge this reality and work to create opportunities to contest via remote stations or through shared club stations, such as exists in The Villages in central Florida. The ham radio hobby has always been about innovation and response to challenges. The challenges we face in contesting are no different. The demographic “cliff” we observe and describe with contesting need not be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it will take the social capital of making collective decisions for the betterment of the social good to make this happen.

‘the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations…Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them’

Francis Fukuyama (1995) Trust : the social virtues and the creation of prosperity.

The first author gave an analysis of the dire need for “social capital” on the part of ARRL and other contesting organizations in his first Social Circuits column, “Lemmings Over a Demographic Cliff? Tradition and Change Are Terrible Bedfellows.” The following excerpt quotation from the ending adequately summarizes the policy issues that this path-breaking study of the generational change in ARRL Sweepstakes Contesting data identifies (emphasis is new):

It is often attributed to the social thinker August Comte to have said, Demography is Destiny. But it does not have to be so. It does require taking the blinders off of tradition and evaluate it for what it is today and what it means for the future. This almost always requires those in power to make such decisions to forsake their own vested interests in favor of change. Like the famous Lemmings advertisement by Apple, not everyone has to walk off this demographic cliff. We just have to take the blinders of tradition off our eyes, wake up, act for the common good, and smell the demographic coffee. Because it’s brewing…

Frank K4FMH

So the secret storm on the horizon of the next 10–15 years in contesting is not longer so secret. No action may be taken by relevant leaders but that’s up to readers to insist that progressive acts be initiated to attract younger and late-in-life amateur radio operators to different types of contesting than the style in place for several decades. What will you do to ensure that this happens?


Notes:

1. Frank M. Howell. “Aging and Radiosport — Part 1” National Contest Journal, July/August, pp. 3-8.

2. With the approval of ARRL CEO David Minster NA2AA, these data were kindly supplied by Bart Jahnke, Radio Sport and Field Services Manager, at ARRL Headquarters. He handled follow-up questions in a very timely manner and our thanks are expressed here.

3. A total of 12,873 birth years were supplied for the 15,390 logs sent to us by the ARRL. This resulted in 2,517 (or 16.4%) not having age data. We examined patterns of missing age data against several key variables that are independent of age: US call vs international, year of contest, absence of year contests by mode, mode over all years, state location, precedent category, long-term exits and entries, and total number of CW and Phone contests. All except long-term phone entry were statistically significant. But examining the cross-tabulations, the percent difference in any category was about 5 percent of the cases. We do not see these differences as substantially reducing our ability to generalize age patterns to the full Sweepstakes dataset used in this study.

4. We recognize that call signs can and do change. While georeferencing each log record, we took note of this potential by examining the log entity (person, club, etc.). It did not appear to be very prevalent enough to warrant concern by us.

5. See https://www.ssa.gov/oact/STATS/table4c6.html. We used these data to construct expectated (mean) life span and compared it to current age in the contest year to compute remaining life expectancy. Our narrative discusses the standard deviation around this average life expectancy. See, for instance, this article by Edwards at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285408/ which suggests that 15 years is a good approximation. Others, such as Hennington (https://www.actuaries.digital/2020/08/12/standard-deviation-around-life-expectancy-is-eight-years-what-this-means-for-retirees/) suggest that 8 years is a better current estimate.


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  • Matt W1MST, Managing Editor