The simple truth of DXing
DXing is a geopolitical game played by lunatics with wire, radio transceivers, generators, and many times a poor regard for their own lives. These people are called DXers.
The term DX originates from the early days of radio communication. DX means "long distance". In morse code it sounds like dah-di-di-dah-di-di-dah. Very rhythmic. (All cool morse words are rhythmic.)
The object of the game is simple in concept. Using amateur radio (ham gear) make a verifiable contact with someone in as many of the 335 geographic and political entities the American Radio Relay League recognizes as distinct countries in its DXCC list. Contacts are verified through exchange of postcards upon which is written the callsign of the contacting and contacted station, the time of contact in UTC, the mode of operation, and the signal report. This postcard is called a QSL. The act of exchanging postcards is called QSLing.
The ARRL certifies "card counters" who validate a participant's QSL card collection. Any participant with 100 QSL cards, each from different ARRL recognized countries, has achieved DX Century Club status, or DXCC, and is eligible to pay the ARRL for a plaque proclaiming this achievement.
Most rabid DXers achieve DXCC status within the first week of infection.
Tangible prizes for contacting more than 100 countries are scarce. The ARRL will provide stickers for your DXCC plaque notifying all who enter your radio shack that you have indeed contacted more than 100 distinct political or geographic entities.
Those who can prove through display of QSL cards they have contacted more than 300 distinct political and geographic entities are eligible for DXCC Honor Roll. Being on the honor roll gives you bragging rights with a bunch of gray haired men and women to whom this is important.
If you encounter a DXer, beware. Do not, under any circumstances, underestimate these people because they walk with canes and smell like violets. They are barely human.
The DXCC List
The ARRLs DXCC list is not static. There is a long list of rules that apply to define a "country". A quick coup d' etat or minor revolution does not a country make to the ARRL. A government must have some means to issue a radio license in accordance with the International Telecommunications Union for a country to be recognized. That means the United Nations must recognize its existence, which makes things difficult for hams contacting Taiwan.
As countries fracture or are conquered, the list must change to reflect this. For instance, Czechoslovakia had been a single DXCC entity before its dissolution to the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. People who had Czechoslovakia as one of their confirmed contacts suddenly found themselves with an invalid country in their QSL deck. Now they had to go contact two countries to make up for the hole in their honor roll list caused by the fall of the communist empire. This caused some people to fall off the honor roll. Falling off the honor roll is cause for several suicide attempts per year.
Tibet is no longer recognized as a country separate from the People's Republic of China to placate that communist government. Southern Sudan doesn't exist anymore as a country, nor does Java. And when the U.S. returned the Canal Zone to Panama, you could no longer get credit for contacting a ham in the Canal Zone as a country separate from Panama.
Some DXCC countries are not politically independent entities, but rather, isolated tracts of land. Mauritius, though a French territory, is considered a separate DXCC country. Nobody knows the political affiliation of Spratley Island but one is as likely to be shot by the Vietnamese as the Chinese for trespassing there. (Needless to say, Spratley Island is a rare one.)
Geology can also play a part in modifying the DXCC list. When Blenheim reef sunk below the waves and people couldn't stand on it without getting their shoes wet anymore, the ARRL revoked its status as a DXCC country.
In order to stay on the honor roll, a DXer must remain appraised of global politics. The DXer must know whether or not that contact to a sinking Pacific atoll is still valid. One can fall off the honor roll as his or her cards are invalidated by the overthrow of puppet governments or the effects of long term war.
The Lure of Radio
Ham radio is a reasonably anachronistic hobby. Invented in the early part of the 20th century, hams of the 1920s and 30s were at the cutting edge of technology. The transmitters and receivers they built in their own homes were state-of-the-art.
Hams could contact people in exotic locales normal people could only dream of seeing in magazines. There was a strong romance to the magic of wireless.
Now the communication age has pushed home brew wireless communications into the past with Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys. State-of-the-art ham gear is replete with integrated circuits and computer control. While there is nothing to stop the industrious ham from building her own transceiver at home out of garage parts, commercially built radios are better performing and cheaper. One can pick up a cell phone and by punching the correct series of digits, contact anyone in the world within reach of a telephone. Our computers allow us to communicate daily to others all over the globe with reliability unmatched in amateur radio.
DXing in the new millennium is a hobby not unlike those who practice jousting at renaissance fairs. Thirty or more years ago there existed the concept of the long distance call. Long distance calls were an expensive proposition. Hams could provide communications between continents for free. Hams controlled forces that seemed out of reach of the normal mortal. And it was the hams of the mid and late 20th century who became the gray-haired rocket scientists and computer engineers driving technology today.
Anyone involved in ham radio in the 21st century does it either to satisfy a primal itch nothing else can fill, or to remember the wonder developed in a youth in the radio age. While it's true we can pick up a phone anywhere in Europe and contact anyone in the United States, doing it with self-strung wires and vacuum tube lights has a certain charm, not unlike flying in a vintage aircraft. To some radio is magic in the hands of mere mortals. There is nothing quite the same as slapping together a bunch of incomprehensible parts, stringing a wire in the tree in your backyard, connecting another to a drain pipe, putting the headphones to your ear, and without any power supply other than the energy of the earth itself--hearing a voice from across an ocean.
For many radio nuts, a magic crystal radio is what starts the infection. DXing is merely the disease in full swing.
For a DXer sitting in her radio shack to make contact with someone in an American Radio Relay League approved country, someone has to be in that country with radio gear and power, transmitting according to the rules of the DXing game. This is not always possible. Some ARRL countries are uninhabited piles of rock in the middle of an ocean. Not only does no human live on Bouvet Island in the Antarctic South Pacific, but getting to it requires tactics with difficulty rivaling space travel.
Some ARRL countries are under the iron grip of military dictatorships that fear a radio equipped populace could foment revolution. Simply possessing a radio within the borders of North Korea can get one jailed for life, or shot. And nobody operates from the country bordering on Morocco called Western Sahara with any degree of regularity. That place has been in a state of war for the past 30 years.
Geopolitics prevents the possibility of every ARRL country being on the air simultaneously. Thus, achieving honor roll status requires a good degree of patience, luck, and sometimes a political coup.
As hams are notoriously impatient people and often obvlious to the hazards of the situation, they arrange expeditions to places they would like someone to operate from for the simple purpose of being able to confirm a contact with a QSL and thus achieve the honor roll status which provides their life's only purpose.
The Northern California DX Foundation accepts donations from hams all over the world. Among other things, it funds DXpeditions. Amateur radio gear manufacturers also subsidize DXpeditions through by donating or loaning expensive equipment, much of which is either confiscated by a military junta or falls off a zodiac into the waters south of Tierra del Fuego.
There tends to be no "typical" DXpeditioner. Sedentary, overweight retirees have chartered boats and "activated" uninhabited reefs in the tropical Pacific. Salesmen for major telecommunications firms have negotiated with ruling military leaders and activated oppressive places like pre-split Albania, Burma, and have made many attempts at North Korea.
Industrious hams have attempted to activate Spratley Island, a territory which is in perpetual dispute between Vietnam and China. In the late 1970's, a group of hams extracted permission from the communist Chinese government, were issued licenses, playfully stormed Spratley Island's beaches, set up shop, and began doling out radio contacts to DXers who desperately needed to check off Spratley for their honor roll quest.
Within hours they were raked with .50 caliber machine gun bullets from Vietnamese PT boat crews who were certain they were involved in some form of high-tech spy operation.
With the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam subsequent DXpeditioners to Spratley Island have been allowed to leave the island alive.
During the Russian-Afghanistan wars of the 1980's, a Russian intelligence officer named Romeo extracted a license from someone claiming to be in charge of Afghan telecommunications and between mortar explosions, activated Afghanistan for the first time in most of recorded history. Between performing his tasks in Russian military intelligence he doled out ARRL approved contacts to eager hams all over the world.
When the war was over and the Berlin Wall fell, Romeo traveled freely to the U.S. and gave a slide show lecture to ham radio clubs all over the country detailing the peril of his operation. U.S. hams then had the opportunity to lionize the man who gave them Afghanistan and enabled honor roll for many.
The world's most famous DXpeditioner must be the Finn, Martti Laine, whose call sign OH2BH is virtually a prayer to DXers. Martti activated some of the most difficult and dangerous ARRL countries in the 1980's and '90s. His work with Nokia as a sales rep brought him to many exotic locales, and he never traveled without a radio.
But in his spare time, Martti activated such terrible places as the South Sandwich Islands, Bouvet Island, Albania before the Yugoslavian split, and actually operated radio out of a hotel in North Korea for a few days before his equipment was confiscated by the military. Accomplishing some of these feats required cold-weather mountaineering skills, chartering ice breakers and helicopters, riding out hurricanes in Scott Tents pitched on solid rock, and negotiating for his life with paranoidal dictators.
His exploits are detailed in his self-published book, "Where Will You Go Next?"
The most interesting aspect of DXing equipment is not with the intrepid souls who have decided to activate a god-forsaken rock in the middle of an angry ocean--but rather--with the gentlemen and women back at home who do whatever they can to stack the deck in favor of their making a contact.
When a rare DX station comes onto the air, hundreds if not thousands of ham radio operators from all over the world descend upon it simultaneously with the might of their radio signals. The result is what is known affectionately as a pile up. A pile up sounds like the crowd at a baseball game. It is virtually impossible to distinguish one person's signal from another.
The operator at the DX station has to utilize every bit of technology and skill at her disposal to pull one particular signal out from the cacophony. They apply narrow band filters. Digital signal processing. But mostly, they're just good at it. They use their ears and concentrate.
The success of a DXpedition lies in how many ARRL approved contacts they can make in the limited time they have to operate. Operators want to make many contacts per minute to satisfy the world-wide hunger. Skilled operators like Martti Laine can pull out voice from the crowd with frightening accuracy. Others muddle through and frustrate the crowd.
Hams at home employ numerous tricks to make their signal apparent in the crowd. The most obvious is that they can make their signal stronger. This is problematic for two reasons. First, all countries that allow ham radio operation limit the amount of power a ham can use to transmit. In the US, this is 1500 watts, or about as much as a hand-held hairdryer. This amount of power can enable one, on a clear day,to speak to anyone on the face of the earth and sound like a broadcast radio station.
The second issue is that the apparent LOUDNESS of a signal at the receiving station has a logarithmic relationship to transmit power. Thus, the loudness of a signal transmitted at 1000 watts may only sound twice as loud as a signal transmitted at 100 watts. And generating 1000 watts requires expensive and sometimes esoteric outboard amplification equipment.
However, US-based DXers operate at the legal limit of 1500 watts. That means that at the destination, their signals arrive with relatively similar strength. To further stack the deck in their favor, rabid DXers raise gigantic antenna farms on their property. It is not unusual to hear of a DXer who has bought a couple of acres of farm land and erected an array of 200' antenna towers (with cranes and helicopters) each carrying 4 or 5 huge yagi antennas that focus his energy in narrow knife-like beams. This makes his apparent signal tens of times stronger at the destination even though he may only be transmitting using the same 1500 watts as his fellow hams.
Also, among hams, there is the legend of something called the California kilowatt, so named because any ham operating above the government specified limit of 1500 watts is prone to answer, "A kilowatt," when asked what his transmit power is.
Hams have been known to procure commercial radio transmission equipment and retune it to the ham radio frequencies. These devices run on three-phase, 440 volt commercial power, and they have their homes wired for it as if they were setting up an automobile assembly line. They use 1500 watt approved ham radio linear amplifiers as the INPUT to their monster amplifiers, and light up the ionosphere with their RF radiation.
Set ups like these--monster amps and antenna farms that consume acres of land and sky, soak up tens of thousands of US dollars. These well-funded "amateurs" guarantee themselves the ability to stay on top of the ARRL honor roll and earns them the title big gun from their peers.
One of the most famous big guns lives in Colorado and is currently inactive. He made his fortune as Madonna's sound engineer in the 1980's and took up ham radio as his hobby in the 1990's. He bought acres of land on a mountain top in Colorado. Helo'ed in massive arrays of antennas and outfitted his radio shack with the most advanced equipment of the time.
After achieving DX fame in a very short time, he faded away, one presumes, because he lost interest and directed his remaining fortune to other pursuits.
In light of the big guns an irony of DXing is that modern DXpeditions last for many days if not several weeks. Toward the end of the expedition, the stations go relatively unmolested and one can contact them with tiny radios and lousy antennas. Big Gun psychology suggests it's better to make the some of the first contacts. One doesn't know if weather or a military coup will drive the DXpeditioners from their location, and so an early contact ensures one can check that country's box off in one's honor roll hunt. And, there's a large amount of machismo involved in being able to punch through a pile up at will with your massive station.
But evidence suggests extraordinary means are fun but not necessary. People have achieved honor roll status with low power stations and perseverence. Low power operation is called QRP, and some QRP stations operate with miniscule antennas and milliwatts supplied by small dry cell batteries. QRP DXing can and is done. The remarkable physics of the universe allow radio waves to propagate across our oceans and continents driven my no more power than the flap of a hummingbird's wings. One might even DX with wires connected to the metal fillings on one's teeth. But as one ham suggested, "You might as well be trying to take all the sand off of Malibu beach with a teaspoon."
At the time he said those prophetic words he was wearing a T-shirt that loudly proclaimed, "Life is too short for QRP."
The Mania and Death of DXing
Obviously, DXing is a mania-driven sport. There are no rewards other than the noteriety and possible adulation (mostly scorn) of one's peers. Though the equipment is new, the technology employed has been well known for nearly 100 years. The resources required to become a big gun rival that of collecting vacation homes or antique Bugattis. Becoming a player at all requires a massive investment in time and a willingness to sacrifice one's family or work life. For when Christmas Island is active during their daytime, it may be the wee hours of the morning where the DXer is, and she will lose sleep and possibly a work day trying to make contact. DXing has been the cause of divorce. It has been the cause of innumerable lawsuits between neighbors complaining about spurious radio emissions fouling up their television reception.
The most extreme mania has to do with the way a DXer modifies his home to accomodate his sport.
Until recently, a US statute known as PRB-1 protected a US ham's right to erect a radio tower in accordance with local and federal laws. (In the event of a national emergency, ham radio communications WERE considered vital to the ability of the government to maintain an infrastructure). However, the rise of planned communities has seen the introduction of something called restrictive covenants which are placed upon property owners when they purchase a home in a particular planned development. All covenant packages ban antennas of any form, and a home owner is required to sign the covenants before the home can be occupied.
PRB-1 superceded all private covenant packages with federal law. So, a DXer would sign the covenants, move in, and proceed to erect a 100' tower topped with a christmas tree of aluminum antennas, all of which the neighbors felt was an eyesore that lowered property values. Said DXer would be hauled into court, PRB-1 would be cited, and the ham would win the case
However, with many home owner's groups complaining, the advent of modern satellite and digital communications outmoding amateur radio, and ham radio operators clearly in the minority, PRB-1 has been effectively rescinded and hams all over America are being sued by community groups. They are being required to remove their antenna farms.
While the American Radio Relay League is fighting this uphill battle in Washington, the possibility for their changing US law for what is at this point at best a "hobby", seems entirely unlikely.
Thus discouraged by community planning boards and overwhelmed by the proliferation of technology in the form of computers, video games, satellite television, and personal digital assistants, the radio art isn't passed down from generation to generation as it once was. The idea of constructing a device in one's basement which allows someone in California to speak to someone in Tanzania has less meaning in the internet age than it did when people went to the circus to see their first real elephant. Young people in the 21st century have more global simulation than their parents could have imagined. Radio seems an uninteresting addition to that mix.
The glory days of DXing adventure may be behind us for the forseeable future.
The Radio Dream and DX Clubs
One of the few places someone with the radio insanity can stay whole is to join a DX club. Their numbers are diminishing, but they can still be found in every major population center.
The typical DX club member is a male between the ages of 50 and infinity. He has been a ham for most of his life, and probably worked in electronics during the space race and the major wars. He is in love with radio the way he loves his wife, and talks about them both with the same affection and reverence. He's dying to talk to you about hypersil transformers and phased antenna arrays and 3-500zs, because everyone else just glazes over when he discusses his boyhood dream of radio. Radio makes him feel young, like there's still something magic in the world. And when he watches Harry Potter he tells his kids or grandkids he's a wizard too, and they just laugh at him.
The only place he can find solace is among his own kind, a thinning herd of sterile wildebeest whose numbers are no longer replenished by youth.
There are no young people to whom he can pass down his knowledge and love of the art. So he talks to his peers and lives in his memory.
Some of us can clearly remember the moment we fell in love with radio, and so then everything electronic. For me, it was spending a weekend with my uncle constructing something mysterious in his basement. Amid stacks of old Playboy magazines, tesla coils, jacob's ladders, and shortwave radios that glowed orange and blue, we built an unpowered device out of scrap he had laying on his workbench. It was a piece of wood onto which we mounted a coil of old wire, some electronic parts from an old broken television, and a bunch of terminals. We took it into the back yard and connected one terminal to a wire tossed into a tree. We connected another terminal to the faucet for the garden hose. To the third terminal we connected a tiny earphone from a crummy transistor radio.
When I put the earphone in my ear and adjusted the coil this kid from New Jersey heard the BBC for the first time in his life. And there were no batteries or cords to plug into wall sockets. My uncle told me the power was coming from the earth, like lightning.
Then, at five years of age, I asked my uncle what you had to become to work on radios. From that point forward I knew I would become an electrical engineer, and master the lightning as my uncle did.
I suppose it was inevitable, but sad to me all the same, that in my time I have found no one to whom I can pass the wand. I suppose that like all the other DXers and radio men, I'll be buried with it.
References for this article:
"Where Will You Go Next" by Martti Laine
"The ARRL Handbook" published by the American Radio Relay League
"The Death of Ham Radio" QST magazine, 1994, by iceowl
"So You Want to Be a DXer" QST magazine, 1993, by iceowl