The art of the rag chew

If you’re reading this, you probably know the boilerplate elements of a standard ham-radio QSO: signal report, QTH and name, generally followed by your station equipment and maybe a word about the weather.

A lot of hams never go past that, and that’s fine. But what if you want to have a real conversation — a “rag chew,” as we hams call it?

Amateur radio long-winded QSOThese illustrations, taken from the late Doug DeMaw’s “W1FB’s Help for New Hams,” first published by the American Radio Relay League back in the 1980s, accompanied some very good advice. (The book is out of print but easy to find via Amazon and other online booksellers.)

For one thing, keep it short and to the point. There’s nothing like dueling monologues to kill a QSO. DeMaw wrote:

Some hams are so enthusiastic about the prevailing conversation that they tend to “windbag” when it is their turn to talk. Excessively long transmissions may annoy the other people in the QSO, especially if they have never met you before.

Amateur radio boring ragchewAnother thing is not to belabor the obvious. Better yet, why not ask the other ham a question to engage him? DeMaw suggested asking your contact about, say, his signal strength to get the ball rolling, writing “(Don’t) bore him by repeating dull information about that may be of little interest to him.”

Are any topics off limits? As a matter of law, very little is forbidden. Still, common sense ought to guide you. DeMaw wrote:

I recognize and honor our 1st Amendment rights, but I feel that coarse language, profanity and bigotry have no place in Amateur Radio … An important part of our amateur credo is to promote good will rather than animosity. Even though the FCC allows the use of several unsavory four-letter words on the air, you will fare better and earn greater respect by “keeping it clean.”

He added:

Restraint, in general, is an excellent rule with regard to the tone of your conversation during a QSO. Although each of us has the right to discuss such topics as politics and religion, some points of view and statements may seriously offend others with whom we chat … Certain frequencies in our HF bands are regarded by some as cesspools, because of the language that’s used and the suggestive nature of the conversations. It’s best to avoid involvement with these groups in the interest of avoiding guilt by association.

Amateur radio profanity on the airRemember, unlike social media, where to some extent you can restrict your audience only to friends who agree with you (or at least tolerate you), amateur radio is essentially a party line. Anybody can listen to you, at any time. You have to assume anybody, licensed or not, may well be listening — and what you say may represent the entire hobby to others, even if it’s only your personal opinion.

Even though I discuss politics vigorously on my personal Facebook page (I’ve worked as a journalist and have drawn editorial cartoons in the past, so I’d like to think I know whereof I speak), I really value amateur radio as neutral turf. Some aspects of the DeMaw book are dated — does anyone actually tune up their transmitters these days? — but other aspects are timeless. How to conduct a rag chew, in my opinion, still rings true.

 

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All about public service

Gordon Wes Tech public service watermarkThis is another cartoon I created for Gordon West’s new Technician license manual, illustrating public service. We all know this guy, of course: Club baseball cap, orange vest, and a half dozen handi-talkies hanging from his belt. (The only reason I’ve never been this guy myself is I can’t afford a half dozen handi-talkies — a single dual-bander usually suffices.)

A lot of new licensees joined our ranks for just this purpose. Are you one of them? What public-service groups do you belong to? And how many radios do you carry on event day?

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Danger: High Voltage!

dangerous high voltageThrowback Thursday: I drew this cartoon years ago for a chapter on safety in “First Steps in Radio” by the late Doug DeMaw, W1FB, published by the ARRL. It makes a really good point: Some of our equipment — particularly power supplies — can kill you if you’re not careful.

Always practice safety first — and NEVER work on high-voltage equipment when you’re not fully alert. If you were tired before, you’ll end up going to sleep a lot sooner than you’d planned.

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Satellites, anyone?

ham satellite cartoonThrowback Thursday: This is a cartoon I drew some years ago for “Morse Code: The Essential Language,” written by L. Pete Carron Jr., W3DKV, and published by the American Radio Relay League.

What do satellites have to do with CW? Carron wrote at the time that the “low-duty-cycle characteristic of the code makes it especially popular for satellite communication.”

That was in 1986 (the book is now out of print). Who uses satellites now, and how do you use them?

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Have you ever caused a pile-up?

Who do I answer?When that rare DX station appears, we’ve all had the experience of trying to be heard in the ensuing pile-up. But have you ever caused a pile-up?

Of course, operators of DX stations are used to sorting out calls in pile-ups. But what if you’re a new operator who’s just called his first CQ and more than one station answers?  For the novice ham — like this one in a cartoon I drew for “W1FB’s Help for New Hams” — the effect can be overwhelming and seem like a pile-up.

If you’re a DX station on the receiving end of pile-up, how do you pick who to answer? And how would you advise a new operator to handle multiple answers to a CQ?

 

 

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Hitting warp speed with Morse code

high-speed CW cartoonThis cartoon I drew for “Morse Code: The Essential Language” by L. Peter Carron Jr., W3DKV, reminded me of how you know you’ve hit warp speed copying CW: You hear whole words instead of just letters.

When I earned my Novice ticket in 1973, it was all I could do to count the dits and dahs to copy CW. It kept me slow — but, fortunately, there were lots of other newbies in the Novice bands at the time who were just as slow as I was to keep me company.

At some point, I started recognizing whole letters, and I got a little faster. But it wasn’t until I started hearing whole words — at least, the short common ones like “the,” “it” and “for” — that CW started to feel comfortable.

These days, when I’m not on PSK31 I operate CW almost exclusively. I rarely use my microphone on HF. As a casual ham, I’m hardly a speed demon, but I am fast enough (around 20 wpm when I work at it) to have fun with a key. It’s also made me very popular at Field Day (CW contacts score higher).

How do you get that fast? It’s the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

“Morse Code: The Essential Language” was published by the American Radio Relay League but has long since gone out of print. It’s still available online, often in used editions. If you’re into CW, it’s worth seeking out.

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TuBE or not tuBE …

Shakespeare and vacuum tubeI drew this a few years ago for “The Opus of Amateur Radio Knowledge & Lore,” an excellent book by my friend Eric Nichols, KL7AJ. It visualizes a chapter title about vacuum tubes — yes, vacuum tubes — that explained them and a lot of other stuff with intelligence and style.

In fact, the whole book is like that; it explains not only how to be a ham, but also why to be a ham. If you haven’t fired up your rig in awhile (and if you have only a tube rig, we’ll assume it’s been awhile), you’ll want to after reading “Opus.” I know Eric’s text inspired me to get back on the air and enjoy the hobby after too much time bruised by its club politics and not enough time just playing radio.

The book is already in a second printing, this time with extra material by the inimitable Gordon West, WB6NOA. It’s also available at your better candy stores (I know our Atlanta-area Ham Radio Outlet carries it). I highly recommend this book.

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Phone patches and auto patches

ham radio autopatch cartoon by N2ESTI drew this cartoon some years ago to advertise a phone-patch-related product marketed by j-Com. It sure brings back memories of the way hams used to connect with the phone system. Does anyone still use a phone patch or an auto patch? For that matter, does anyone still use a landline phone?

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When a ham snaps …

Look-at-thatThis is one of the last cartoons I drew for QST some years ago, and it’s one of my favorites.

I don’t remember the exact details of the article it accompanied, but I do remember the set-up: Some poor amateur had worked so much public service that he eventually lost his mind, so much so that at his final assignment he mistook a fishing rod for a handi-talkie and started barking status reports into it.

Anybody else been in his predicament? I haven’t — yet.

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