Tales of the Iowa QSO Party

Last year, I entered my first radio contest and participated in the Iowa QSO Party. I worked a lot of stations, had a few good non-contest conversations along the way, and had a pretty good time. I submitted my scores the next day, and found out several months later that I actually won the darn thing!

ImageWho knew right?

Fast forward to this last weekend, when it came time for me to defend my title. Like a prize fighter entering the ring, I sat down in front of my radio Saturday morning ready to defend my status as defending champion. OK, it was a lot less serious than that, but at 9 AM I began repeating my “CQ Iowa QSO Party” mantra, and didn’t let up for about 9 hours.

The way the iowa QSO Party is scored is fairly simple. You basically work every station you can, multiply that by the number of different states and Iowa counties you worked, and add on bonus points for working the WA0DX club station and all the different Boy Scout Jamboree of the Air stations you can (maximum of five).  Jump through these mathematical hoops and you come up with a final score.

Like last year though, I took a rather light hearted approach. Yes i wanted a good score, maybe even a back to back win, but the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. I got to talk to a mobile station in Texas just as he crossed over the border into New Mexico, giving me my first contact with either of those states. A little later, i talked to a mobile station in TN, followed immediately by another mobile in the same state seconds later. It turns out that the driver had handed the mic over to his wife, giving me an additional contact from the same rig. Nice!

As I mentioned earlier, I got bonus points for making contact with ‘Jamboree of the Air” (JOTA) stations, which are stations set up to get Scouts interested in amateur radio. Several times through out the contest, I was asked by these station operators if I would mind talking to a few scouts, and I always welcomed the opportunity. I talked to kids from California, New York, and a couple of other places as well, even after I’d reached my 5 JOTA station limit. Hey, winning the contest is cool, but getting kids interested in radio has a much bigger payoff in my mind.

I worked a few QRP stations, a couple of guys who needed Iowa for their Worked All States award, and even some DX out of Europe on 10 and 15. Two of my more memorable contacts came later on in the day, when I worked an American Airlines air mobile 36,000 feet over Bristol, VA. About an hour later, I worked another DX station, but this one wasn’t out of Europe, it was North Africa, Morocco to be precise. Somehow or another, my crappy longwire and 100 watts managed to get my first ever contact with Morocco during the Iowa QSo party. Go figure.

For the record, I ended up scoring 6855 points, about 1200 less than i did last year. That score is good for third place right now, but stations still have about a month to turn in their loggings. Win lose or draw though, I had a pretty good time. I’m pretty sure I’ll do it all again next year too.

See you on the bands.

Pirate Chasing

ImagePirates. What’s the big deal?

I mean, when I’m in the car, I usually change the station when they start playing hair metal or Fleetwood Mac. Why in the world would I spend so much time and money to try and hear the same stuff in the super low fidelity of a pirate broadcast in upper sideband? I have asked myself that question an awful lot over the last 20 (!!!) years, when I caught my first pirate on an old Hallicrafters SX-73, but it hasn’t stopped me from spending a lot of time in front of my radios trying to squeeze out that last microvolt of signal to get that faint, static plagued station ID.

I guess it comes back to the fact that the forbidden fruit is usually the most delicious. While they may often be playing the same run of the mill classic rock that I can hear anywhere on the FM dial, these people are putting an awful lot on the line to make this broadcast possible. Fines for shortwave pirates can go as high as $20,000, and usually involve a forefiture of any broadcasting equipment. In many cases, that means anything that looks like a radio or a computer. There’s a lot of horror stories of stations having all of their gear trashed by the FCC after getting ‘the knock’. In spite of the possible consequences though, these people still fire up their transmitters on or around 6925 to bring their listeners whatever their hearts desire. And if that means classic rock then so be it.

ImageOf course, there are exceptions. Wolverine Radio is almost always loud throughout North America, and often plays an eccentric mix of music surrounding a theme with top notch fidelity. Dr. Benway, on the other hand, plays stories about his experiences with everything  from extra terrestrials on Undercover Radio. On some nights, if you’re lucky, someone will fire up the transmitter and relay some of the classic horror stories of Alan Maxwell and the Voice of the Illuminati.

Maybe that variety is the real appeal of the pirate band. When almost every song you can think of is available on demand through multiple online services, and commercial radio follows a strict corporate sanctioned play list, pirate radio always keeps you guessing. When it comes right down to it,  you never know what you’ll hear next on the pirate band. Or if you’ll hear anything at all.

Some Getting Started Tips

ImageFor those new to the world of shortwave pirates, start by setting your radio to 6925 upper sideband around 2300 UTC. Pirates can be heard anywhere from about 6920 up to around 6970, but 6925 is a good place to start. There are a few other places where they might pop up, but I’d say 90% of Norrh American activity is centered on those 50 kilohertz of spectrum. I’m not exactly sure why most pirates use upper sideband (I’ve only heard one that used the lower side), but my guess is it has something to do with old surplus military transmitters. These units were upper sideband only, so when they were modified for pirate use, that convention came over to the band as well.  Its the same with ‘pedestrian mobile’ hams. since a lot of their pack radios are milsurp in origin, they use the upper sideband regardless of what band they’re using.

Remember, pirates usually limit their output to around 100 watts, so a good receiver and antenna will be very helpful, but not mandatory. I remember listening to Radio Azteca and Radio Zanax on my Radio Shack portable from a basement apartment, so it can be done. The two most important pieces of gear you’ll need are information and patience. For information, I’d keep a close eye on a couple of the pirate radio websites, namely the HF Underground and the Free Radio Cafe, to see what others are hearing. Thanks to these sites, you can avoid hours upon hours of listening to static filled nothing, which makes then very valuable resources indeed.  HF Underground probably sees more traffic, but both are great resources and well worth supporting. Remember to post your logs to both.

ImageEven with the best of information though, there will be times when you’ll fire up your radio, tune it to the frequency where Ann Hofer Radio is supposed to be and hear… nothing. This is where patience part comes in. Remember, propagation is a funny thing. What isn’t there now may pop up for a few minutes later. Just keep the radio tuned in, wait a little bit, and see what happens. You’d be amazed what a difference a few minutes can make, especially when the location of your receiver or their transmitter is approaching sunset or sunrise. Remember, patience grasshopper. Patience!

While you’re listening, be sure to take notes of what you hear so you can get a QSL card. Back in the stone age, aka the 90s, most pirates used mail drops to receive verification reports. You’d write up a report, drop it off in the mail with a few stamps and a self addressed stamped envelope, and hope and pray you got back a reply in a few weeks. Fortunately things have changed though. Nowadays, most pirates receive verification reports via email, which means you can now write up a report, send it off to the given email address… and still wait three weeks for a reply. Actually, the usual turn around time is a few days, but there have been cases where a verification will show up in my email months after the fact. This instant communication also means that you’ll occasionally get an on air shout out from the broadcaster, which is always very cool. Sometimes they even take requests.

So yeah, chasing pirates is kind of a big deal. From the antics of Spike on board the Red Mercury (Feel free to send us a six pack of that Octoberfest next time you’re in dock by the way) to the musical tribute shows of Rave On Radio, they provide a fun and challenging DX target while sticking it to “The Man” at the same time. May you all sail the seas a few leagues ahead of the FCC for many years to come.

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A slow scan tv capture from Radio Totse, a station reportedly broadcasting from New Zealand.