Saturday, September 26, 2015

Improving Participation in QRP Field Events - A Modest Proposal

I posted a few days ago asking how others treat contacts from stations who are participating in a different event.  I received a couple of excellent responses from Greg N4KGL and Myron WV0H that detail what are likely the only two viable options:
  1. In S&P mode, work and log the other station as long as you can elicit the correct exchange back from them
  2. In calling mode, work and log any station that provides the correct exchange, no matter what event they are operating
I'd mentioned in my post that I was frustrated with hearing so many stations working other events but not finding stations working QRP Afield, even when calling CQ.  I wasn't sure if that was due to a lack of participation or spotty propagation.  It could be a combination of the two or even something else such as poor weather conditions in large areas of the country.  We don't have any control over propagation or weather but it is worth a conversation about how to improve participation.  I don't have any great insight into causes and possible solutions, but maybe something I write will resonate with others.

It's not at all necessary to have an official event in order to enjoy operating your radio in the field.  Many hams who hike, bike, canoe, ride motorcycles or pursue other outdoor activities simply carry along a small portable radio with them.  They may stop somewhere along the way or wait until setting up camp for the evening.  Sometimes operating is their primary objective and other times it's ancillary to their travels.  Either way, they typically just toss a wire into a tree and start looking for a contact.

Other hams will organize their field operations around an operating event.  I fall into this category, with much of my outdoor operating concentrated on weekends when events are scheduled.  What I find attractive about these events is the sense of camaraderie I get from participating with others in a common activity.  What I don't find attractive are the occasions when it is very difficult to find someone else on the air who is participating in the same event.  Quite often, I'll hear dozens of stations operating various contests or state QSO parties.  Either of the two options mentioned earlier would allow me to log valid contacts from among these other operators, but they are stopgap measures that don't address the root cause of a lack of participation.

So how do we improve participation?  Barring cash prizes or huge trophies ;-), I don't believe that there's any one thing that will magically get hundreds of hams to head out into the field and fire up their radios.  Instead I propose a number of incremental improvements that, taken together, might increase our numbers.
  • Find a way to easily log contacts from operators participating in other events.  I'll draw an analogy to fishing to help explain the issue.  Let's say I find a nice lake and decide to spend a few hours fishing from shore.  By chance, I happen to select a spot where there is an abundance of crappie.

    Unfortunately, I'm looking for bass and there are none to be found.  The only way I can catch the crappie is to make them imitate a bass, a significant challenge.  I can also ignore the crappie, continue casting for bass, and hope that one of the crappies grabs my lure and acts like a bass.  No matter how pleasant my surroundings, if my goal is to catch bass I will leave disappointed and will probably think twice before fishing at that lake again.

    One solution is to go ahead and catch the crappie (and any other fish in the vicinity) while still continuing to fish for bass.  I don't need to make the crappie imitate a bass - I only need to understand that a crappie requires a different approach (exchange) for a successful catch.  The crappie doesn't care or need to know that I'm fishing for bass.  I may leave at the end of the afternoon with just one or two bass, but catching a few dozen other fish kept me entertained and anxious to come back another day.  I might even tell a few friends how much fun I had and encourage them to go fishing with me another day.

    In a competition, a problem with this solution is with the scoring.  If the objective is to catch bass, someone catching a dozen bass should place higher than someone else catching two dozen fish but only two of them are bass.  I'd propose that the scoring system reflect that bass are worth much more than any other fish but there is still value to catching fish other than bass.

    Another scoring problem is validating that I really caught the other fish and didn't make them up.  In larger contests, logs are cross checked and operators who show contacts that don't appear in others' logs are disqualified.  That wouldn't work in this situation because no logs would be submitted showing my catch.  Here we'd have to rely on personal integrity, something we already do by generally only requiring summary sheets rather than detailed logs to be submitted.
  • Open up events to multiple operating modes.  Most events are CW-only.  This only serves to exclude those hams who, for whatever reason, don't do CW.  With the popularity of the Yaesu FT-817 and Elecraft KX3, along with new radios being introduced by LNR and probably others, many hams own a radio that can be easily carried into the field and operate SSB.  Software available for phones and tablets open up digital modes for field use.  It makes sense to be more inclusive of different interests within a common event framework.
  • Encourage more use of themes to add interest.  A number of events already do this quite successfully.  A good example is QRP To The Field.  Paul NA5N typically adds a theme - 2015's was "Geronimo" honoring Native American heritage throughout the country - that provides for an extra multiplier to those operators who follow the theme.  Some of the contests maintain a common theme from year to year.  For example, Flight of the Bumblebees and Skeeter Hunt.  Any and all of these make participating more interesting.
Certainly these would all require a lobbying effort aimed at event organizers.  There's lots of tradition behind most events and hams are well known as being resistant to change.  But I believe that a soapbox comment or note to the organizers saying something like "I know a couple of hams who would have liked to participate.  They aren't CW operators but would love to work digital modes" might be a nudge in the right direction.

I can't believe that I'm the only one who thinks that something needs to be done before some of our events die off from a lack of interest.  Or maybe I'm tilting at windmills and people are happy with the status quo.  What do you think?  Do you have other ideas to help improve participation?

72, Jim - K0RGI