Conversational Morse

Some time ago, I received the following mail from John WA9AQN. I appreciated this mail so much and asked him to let me post it in my blog. He gave me permission to publish it here. So here it is.

His attitude toward non conversational hams as well as his enthusiasm for true communication through CW is more than wonderful. I am apt to take non conversational QSOs as lower or inferior things in ham radio. Reading this sentnce, I feel I should be more open minded to them. His interests in the other cultures or peoples also attract me much. He used to send me some Haiku, a short poem style originated in Japan, which I put in this blog. some time ago. I should learn much from his this attitude as well.

The biggest sympathy I had for this article was that we may reach the genuine conversation "kindled in the first QSO". That was the way I met John several years ago. 

I know he is going to retire soon. May his retirement be blessed with good health and much joy !  May we have many more interesting conversations in our retirements.


Conversational Morse

Shin, as the Brits would say, your remarks on the subject of conversational Morse are “spot on.” I wanted to put some of my ideas together and send them to you.

I recently gave a presentation to our local radio club.  The leaders of the club asked me to put on a program about DX’ing for the membership.  Most of the members do very little, if any, HF operating, and even fewer are able to send and receive Morse very well.  In putting together the program, I had to step back and look critically at how amateur radio has changed in the last 50 years, and to put together a presentation for an audience who had not acquired an interest in radio in the ways that influenced many of us who are now reaching the age of retirement.

In thinking through the subject matter, I recalled that many years ago I had come to the realization that a CW operator may very well have to make hundreds of contacts before finding someone with whom to hold a real conversation.  And, added to that one must realize that sometimes a real conversation is one that may only be kindled in the first QSO, and evolve through successive QSO’s in which the participants openly explore subjects beyond the formula RST, name, QTH, followed by rig, antenna, and weather.

In the presentation, I broke DX’ing into three categories.  One category is the DXpedition contact in which nothing other than callsign and signal report are exchanged, even though the signal report isn’t a report on the signal quality of the other station as much as a simple acknowledgment that the other station has correctly copied your callsign.  Woe be unto the uninitiated who attempt to exchange more information than that in a pileup on an expedition!

The second category is also a formula QSO, in which nothing more than the extended formula is exchanged.  Then, the third category is that in which a real conversation is possible, and a potential lifelong friendship can be achieved. 

What I encouraged the new DX’ers to do is to have a prepared list of possible questions to ask the DX station, and to keep a detailed atlas at their operating desk to show more detail of the other ham’s QTH.  With those tools, a ham can inject some question or comment into the formula QSO to see whether the other station will respond and carry on a conversation.  Of course, this technique is not limited in application to DX’ing, either.

It seems to me that in order to have a genuine conversation, or to start one, there are a number of conditions that must exist between the two stations.  Of course, being focused on radio, we require that solar and band conditions must be strong enough to allow the two amateurs to make exchanges for some period of time.  Generally speaking, I think that it is fair to say that many, many of our QSO’s are cut short by eroding band conditions. 

Then, in the DX world, there is the question of language.  Both amateurs must be fluent in some common language. The Internet also presents the potential for direct communication with people in these places, even though we who are experienced amateurs know that there is little similarity in what we do with amateur radio.  This, too, will limit the numbers of genuine conversations that can occur.

Many, many amateurs are involved in DX’ing and contesting as sporting activities, as you well know.  These amateurs seem to be interested mainly in the statistical status they can achieve in these activities.  I have to confess that I had long pursued a goal of attaining the highest status possible in DXCC in one area, my mixed mode total number of countries/entities.  If you attend gatherings of DX’ers and contesters, the conversations center on performance and statistics, and how to improve the operator’s competitive status.  When these amateurs do get to know each other, it is generally in that context and probably not a broad experience that truly introduces one to the culture of the other amateur.

But, these activities are legitimate and those who pursue them are certainly entitled to do so.  No one owns any frequency, and if these activities keep the bands alive and active, so much the better.  I believe that we have frequency allocations protected because our governments trust us to step up and serve in times of disaster, when other communications systems may be down. And, they trust us to shut down when they need the frequencies clear for other reasons. Apart from that, I do not see what compelling reason there would be for governments to keep the frequencies which are set aside for amateur radio; it is certainly not sufficient that amateurs engage in cross cultural exchanges as a tool of government foreign or domestic policy to protect our frequency bands.

I agree that it is disappointing that there are not more opportunities for genuine conversations on the amateur bands, and particularly in Morse.  But all in all, it makes the conversations we do have all that more valuable because of the surprise, the joy and the knowledge that we can touch each other’s lives so profoundly when we do find someone who can take the time to chat. So, to encourage the newcomers, and those who have only experienced contesting and chasing awards, I think it helps to enlighten them to the possibility that by asking something about the other amateur’s home country or QTH, or asking if he or she has seen a particular movie, or read a particular book, or visited Dayton, Friedrichshafen or Tokyo Ham Fair, there might be the start of a conversation and a friendship that will last for a long, long time, with someone they might never get to see, but who means as much (if not more) to them than many people they will see on a daily basis.

In encouraging others to take up Morse and become conversational on the bands, I think it helps to point out that Morse takes a lot of determination, training, and real work to achieve proficiency.  It has been my experience that because of that, Morse will attract people who will be much less likely to spend time on the air grousing and complaining about politics and life in general.  I think that among proficient Morse operators we find a generally positive attitude toward life, and people who enjoy the challenge of the mode, and who especially enjoy the company of people who are positive in their attitudes.  So, while it would be nice to have more conversations on the CW bands, we can also be thankful that the major alternatives on the bands are contests and DX’ing, and not the kind of attitudes that are more common on some of the phone bands!

Even in amateur radio, it takes a special person to see the possibility that the hobby can enrich one’s life and mind, and that one can learn a lot more about the world, its people, and can make life better than simply learning electronics, propagation, and all the other technical matters.  These are really tools to better understanding the world.  And, that being said, however, we, as amateurs who wish to pursue genuine conversations could not pursue our hobby without those other amateurs who see things differently and who do not pursue radio for the same purpose.  Is that Zen?

It is why I get excited and smile when I get a chance to have a QSO with you, Shin.  Your words always help me to realize that we have a special place in the universe.

Be well, my friend.  I hope your cataracts can be healed!  Will you be having surgery for them?

161,  John



  1. One of the best essays I have read on the subject of conversational Morse. I think John has successfully expressed what many rag-chewers feel instinctively about a good QSO, but were unable to voice so eloquently. Thanks for posting it here Shin san.

  2. John in Singapore,

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, John has expressed it in the most proper way. Always nice for me to hear him as it is to hear you.
    Enjoy the rest of your days home. I don't feel I retired yet. Too many paper works for closing the clinic and applying for the insurance or the pension etc. In addition, we will have an anniversary ceremony for our mother in May. Take care.