Is Your Ham Radio Club a General Purpose or Specialty Club?

Ham radio clubs are often thought of as the bedrock of amateur radio. As one who has both criticized ham radio clubs as well as made suggestions for helping improve them, I want to take some time to talk through what makes a great ham radio club.

The very first decision that needs making when forming a club is this one: do you want your club to be a general purpose club or a specialty club?

Some definitions

General purpose radio clubs are those clubs that want ham radio operators from the many different subsections of the overall hobby. You want to attract DX’ers, contesters, VHF enthusiasts, rag chewers, digital enthusiasts, builders, CW operators, SSTV types and people who love to work satellites and bounce signals off the Moon. QRP and QRO. Public service and emergency communications.

Specialty clubs, on the other hand, want to focus on one specific area of the hobby. The DX club. The contesting club. The repeater club. The digital club.

The very first thing you need to do is decide what type of club you want to be. These different types of clubs are managed differently, promote themselves differently and approach club membership differently.

Now, if you are not in a large enough area to support specialty clubs, you may by default need to be a general purpose radio club so that ten people can get together as a club. That’s just fine, but you need to then manage the club as a general purpose club and not a specialty club that happens to have three other people in it.

And for established clubs, you need to periodically take a hard look at what type of club you actually are and not what your mission statement says you are. Is your entire club now consisting of DX’ers and Contesting? Maybe you should split in two – or focus on getting other hams with more diverse interests involved in your club.

Your club can be a general purpose club or a specialty club, but not both.

Ham radio clubs are managed differently based on type

If you are a specialty club, you can focus on that one specialty. DX clubs don’t care much about SSTV. And contesting clubs don’t care much about rag chewing or how to do keyboard to keyboard packet. It’s not what they are about.

General purpose clubs, on the other hand, have to work a relatively delicate balance that promotes all the different aspects of the hobby without concentrating on one specific part of the hobby. That diversity is reflected in how you run the meetings, what programs you bring in and the events that you hold. As soon as a general purpose club starts to focus too much on one particular area of ham radio, you start to lose those not in that particular part of ham radio.

Each type of ham radio club has a strength that matches their weakness

The strength of a specialty club is that the club can focus exclusively on that specialty. But that strength is matched by the fact that a specialty club focuses on that one area of ham radio.

Take DXing, for instance. At a sunspot high, DX is fabulous. Ten watts on ten meters and the world is your oyster and new countries are pearls for the taking. But at a sunspot low, not so much. The high bands never open, the power, space and antennas needed to work DX on the low bands put most everyone at a disadvantage not to mention that low band DXing is best done at night. Easy membership now wanes, the club becomes smaller and the enthusiasm changes. That needs management.

A general purpose club, on the other hand, promotes all parts of ham radio. It doesn’t matter what is hot at the moment, the general purpose club is agile enough to move to whatever is hot at the moment. It can promote different parts of the hobby and others in the club can learn about new areas of ham radio. But the diversity of the topics mean not every topic will be interesting to everyone all of the time. That balance between helping hams learn about different parts of the hobby while not focusing on one area is the disadvantage general purpose clubs provide.

Decide what type of ham radio club you want to be

If you are forming a club, figure out what type of club you want to be. And if you are an existing club, take a hard look at least once a year to determine if you are really still a specialty club or if you are really still a general purpose club. Once you start being something you are not, a slippery slope–attracting and retaining members, budgets, dues, and conflict in the club–is not far behind.

Lose your ham radio club members in one easy step

For the first time in a long time, I went to a ham radio club meeting. It was not a pleasant experience. In fact, I left after the half hour business meeting; I didn’t even wait to see the program for the night. It’s not that I was angry or frustrated or whatever; no, it came across that this club wasn’t serious about being a ham radio club.

Here’s three mini-events that came up during the business meeting:

No participation? Not a good club to be in.

After holding a fox hunt once a month for several months, there hasn’t been much participation. So in the business meeting, the person who is usually the fox stood up and noted the lack of participation and said that if there wasn’t going to be any participation, then the event should be cancelled. There was further discussion about publicizing the event–which showed there was lots of publicity in the club for the event–but no one came despite the publicity.

To me sitting in the audience, it screamed that the club members were not interested in the club activities. To top that off, no decision was made either on whether or not the event would continue. Hey, at least make a decision and move on; it shows leadership in the club. Nope.

Paid dues for NEXT year? Comment that the ham radio club will at least survive.

During the treasurer’s report, it was noted that some members paid dues for the following year as well as this one. The club president, perhaps with gallows humor, noted that the club will at least survive into next year. Now, no one laughed, so maybe he was being serious. I took the whole thing as survival was in question. Who would want to be a member of a dying club?

Bonus item: an e-mail to the last two years members who had not paid dues for this year brought in five or six additional dues payments. No participation, just money.

Need help for Field Day? No organization.

Field Day, for most ham radio clubs, is 70% in the bag. Location done, band captains named, equipment is getting organized and who is doing the cooking is all getting settled. Most won’t feel confident in the outcome just yet, but the organization of ham radio’s premier operating event is moving right along.

Not here. Nothing is done. Nothing looks like, from the discussion, that anything will get done anytime soon. You wonder if anyone learned anything from last year’s event.

One easy step to lose ham radio club members

You want a fast way to lose your ham radio club members? Start disrespecting the club and its activities. Dis the events. Don’t manage towards the event outcomes. Make misplaced remarks about the survival of the club.

It was my first visit back to a ham radio club since I moved. And in the audience, was someone who came to discover ham radio and found the meeting through the incredibly poor club web site.

You think he will be back?

Ham radio web sites need improved marketing

When I moved to Seattle from Illinois, I wanted to join a ham radio club. Great — I hit the Internet and started looking. Once I found a club that I thought I would like, I tried to get directions to where the club meeting was located. Google maps was tough — the address information on the web site was incomplete. I found it — after arriving in the general area and looking for 20-minutes.

Fast forward. I move to a new state this last December, new city — look for a ham radio club where I can hang out. You’d think I’d have an easier time in this city. After all, I used to be the President of this club. Alas, they have moved their meeting location — not unexpected after all this time.

Armed with my GPS device and the address, sans zip code, I get to the strip mall where the club meeting is held. It’s dark. I drive up and down the strip mall: nothing. I get out of my car and walk the strip mall: nothing. Nada. Can’t find it.

It turns out it is a simple door where you go in and that, apparently, opens up into some space where meetings are held. I don’t know; after 15-minutes of looking, I give up.

FAIL.

Now, I’m picking on these two clubs. But you know what? Most ham radio web sites suck when it comes to marketing the club to hams in the city or people visiting the site.

And don’t even get me going on those Saturday morning breakfast meetings — all located at the XYZ Restaurant. Great. Except now I have to go look up the restaurant on Google, get an address, hope that when I get to the restaurant I’ll be able to find this little group that meets here on Saturdays. Is it too much to ask to put the directions in one place so you don’t make your potential new club members go through hoops to find you?

Do you want to use your ham radio web site to actually ATTRACT hams to your club?

Here are some suggestions.

Adequate directions

What are adequate directions? Well, if you can’t embed a Google map with directions to your site, you at least need the complete address. Complete, as in address, city, state and zip code. Almost no one puts in the zip code — but the zip code is what really differentiates the address for maps from Google and Yahoo! and others.

123 Main Street, Kansas City doesn’t cut it. Seriously. 123 Main Street, Suite 120, Kansas City, MO 66101 is the right address.

But you know what? Ham radio clubs meet in mysterious places inside buildings. Places like basements, or conference rooms — or houses. You need to tell inquisitive hams who might want to join your club exactly how to find the meeting place. If it is a simple doorway with small lettering on top in the middle of a construction zone, you should put that on web site.

If you are a ham in a new town looking to find your meeting place, how hard are you making it to find you? You know what? Most instances…hard.

Contact Information

Please contact any of our Board Members….but there is no contact information provided. No e-mail addresses, no contact form on the web site…nothing.

Even if you wanted to contact someone in the club, it is hard. It shouldn’t be hard if you really want members to join.

There are a tremendous number of non-spam contact forms that you can use to have people send you inquiries about the club. But saying to contact any Board Member about the club with no contact information isn’t it.

Focus of the club

If you deal with government for your antennas, government officials — if they are not familiar with the multitude of services ham radio provides — will go search for ham radio and the city they are serving. Or, if you are a neighbor of a ham and want to find out about that strange thing you do for a hobby and hit Google to find out about ham radio, the search result will be…? Your club will be one of the first things you find.

And what does this public official or your neighbor see hitting the home page? Blech.

A generic mission statement. Or worse. From my targeted club’s first paragraph on the home page:

The Club is based in southern (state). Our members enjoy all aspects of amateur radio including: DX, CW, VHF, UHF, Packet, other digital modes and many other forms of amateur radio.

Unless noted otherwise below, the club meets at 7:30pm on the Third Tuesday of each month at (place), 2300 S Park Street in the Villager Mall.

(This club) sponsors HF events, DX, contests, monthly meetings with programs and weekly nets.

Inspiring, isn’t it? Makes you want to vote to have an exception to rules on the planning commission for your tower, doesn’t it?

It IS the world wide web. Let’s get what the ham radio benefits are to the community right up front so that people searching the site get the benefits of ham radio. Not a bunch of acronyms and generic mission statements.

The rule is this: a city council member would read it and it would help them decide in favor of a tower. Or the public would read it and decide that…”oh, these people are not nuts; they do good things for the community.”

Pictures of a fun, approachable group

You know what? We look like a bunch of…well, you know what we look like. Most of the “pictures of Field Day” depict a group of people we would never intend on becoming friends with, much less attend a meeting. Boring looking, we are.

Let’s get some pictures up of a group of people engaged, enjoying what they do and who are approachable for hams and others in the community.

Of course, if you are not a fun, approachable group, you have other issues; but that is for another article another day…

Your club programs

You know what? If you have a responsible Board of Directors, the first board meeting should have a list of programs and tentative dates. If you don’t, you don’t have a good Board of Directors.

On the web site? You can’t list the program as “Fred, W9ABC, will talk about PSK31.” Nobody gets that except ham radio operators.

You need to describe what PSK — you know…phased shift keying — is, what Fred will present and what a cool program it will be for the group. Who thinks PSK31 is fun? Well, it is — but no one puts why that is on the web site about the program.

A members area

You want to put all that cool newsletter, Field Day pictures and club meeting minutes on the web site? You should — in a members only area.

The objective of the club web site is twofold: attract new members and serve current members. Above is the marketing to attract new members and show the benefits of ham radio to people who can influence or control our ability to practice our hobby.

The members area — user name and password controlled — is for member services in the club. Here is where you should have your meeting minutes. Here is where you have the dull and boring to anyone but a member pictures of Field Day. Here is where you have the newsletters that support your members and the club.

And a forum area. Yes, you can set up an e-mail reflector for the club, but you can also set up a forum area just for members. A little exclusivity, easy access — but don’t pay your dues and the access goes away.

It is about marketing ham radio

Look, a web site is about marketing ham radio to people who are either not hams or are hams and are looking for a place to provide support through a club.

We turn it into this place where nothing is focused, nothing is clear and the only people who could possibly understand what is going on in the web site are half the current members of the club.

Get a marketing face for the club as what is shown to everyone to attract members and support the hobby.

Get a private area for members to support the members of the club so that they stay and contribute to the club’s well-being.

Let’s get the club web sites to help the ham radio cause and serve our members. Not a mish-mash of who-knows-what begging to get dismissed.

Working through the doldrums of a passionate Amateur Radio operator

One of the great things about amateur radio is that there are so many different aspects to the hobby. One can spend years on DX’ing only to become enamored with VHF and then move on to some digital mode.

It’s all learning.

But sometimes, there is simply a lull. A period of time where not much happens. I’ve been through that time here; not much has been posted for several weeks. Most of it is the day job…some stuff that is very exciting is happening and there is even better stuff coming up. But, have all of that going on and then switch to a Mac from Windows for work and your hobby and you don’t have a lot of time to get back into serious hobby work.

I’m trying to get the Mac to talk to my radio through my microHAM interface. I’ve looked at a couple different programs. I’ve tried to make it work. But what I have done is spend a half hour on it and then said…no, more important stuff to do on the day job, so go do it. I’ve asked for some help — and have gotten it. More on that later. But I haven’t had time to do the serious work to get everything working.

In other words, a poor attempt to get stuff set up that doesn’t represent the passion of the hobby. It happens.

Does that mean the hobby doesn’t mean as much to me? Nope. It just means that a hobby is a hobby and sometimes the hobby doesn’t count as much as that which earns you a living.

I need to respect that. And I do. But I feel guilty about it anyway. Wouldn’t you?

Oh…and doesn’t the site’s new look just rock?

If you were thinking of upgrading to Windows 7 for ham radio

You may want to reconsider that notion and just buy another Windows PC. Or a Mac.

I still have an XP laptop and I’d never go through the exceptional hassle of upgrading to the greatness of Windows 7.

Here’s the chart:

Windows 7 upgrade chartHere’s the operative statement to upgrade from XP to Windows 7:

All of the others, denoted by blue boxes, will require what Microsoft calls a “Custom Install,” also known as a “clean install”–a procedure Microsoft doesn’t even refer to as an “upgrade.” For most average, nontechie consumers whose PCs have a single hard disk, that will require a tedious, painful process with the following steps: Temporarily relocating your personal files to an external drive or other computer, wiping your hard drive clean, then installing Windows 7, then moving your personal files back, then re-installing all of your programs from their original disks or download files, then reinstalling all of their updates and patches that may have been issued since the original installation files were released.

Microsoft will provide a free “Easy Transfer” program to assist in this process, but this software won’t transfer your programs, only your personal files and settings.

Not so much. I’ll wait.

Signals!

You see, if you turn the radio on and have an antenna, you can hear signals on the air!

Now to connect the radio to the iMAC. Hmmmm….

K9JY Hacked!

The K9JY site was hacked over the last couple of days and you should have seen some weird screen renderings of the site. All should now be good. At least I hope so.

I’m security-minded

I try and not go nuts on the security stuff, but ever since I started putting out the K9JY WriteLog User Site, people started putting me in their Outlook contacts and you know how that goes. The mail lists get hacked and sends out viruses and other assorted malware and then I get all the hacked e-mails filled with the viruses. So I’ve always been careful and, thankfully, have never had my computers hacked from any of that stuff.

And my passwords are relatively bulletproof. The classic strong password generated and installed.

But you can’t prevent everything

In the relatively newest version of the software I use on this site, there was an “XSS” vulnerability identified. On Monday night, I first saw the updated version of the software that fixed the vulnerability. Tuesday morning I was going to install it since installing software at 9 PM in the evening after enjoying wine and company is not exactly the smart approach to doing upgrades.

But, the time I tried on Tuesday morning, it was clear something was not working right — I couldn’t access the admin panel, I couldn’t get any of my posts listed, nor could I list my installed plug-ins. Like, hosed.

Plus, the site, to visitors, would load great. Or not. Or sometimes.

Looking at the server error messages, there were many. With some good help from my hosting company, we eliminated the possible server issues and concluded I’d been hacked. First time ever.

The K9JY Rule of Troubleshooting

That troubleshooting rule is simple: the first thing you fix will reveal the other two things that went wrong in the first place.

So it was here. I couldn’t do the automatic upgrade to the software because I couldn’t access the admin panel to do it. So I quickly learned how to manually get the software, download it, unzip it and then carefully follow the directions to do the upgrade.

Sounds easy and I’ve done this before with other software. But, when it is this site, you get a bit chilled when the first words in the instructions are “delete all XXX files except those you’ve modified.”

The instructions don’t tell you that when the software was originally installed, there were passwords to access the databases for the application. And the database names for the application. Fortunately, I knew that there was a file that had that information in it and downloaded it via FTP to a nice safe place. It was a big potential gotcha. Whew.

Then, I carefully deleted all of the files and kept all of the other non-related platform files, like the layout of the site (called a “theme”) and some plug-ins that make things show up right (like the listing of the most popular posts in the sidebar is done via a plug-in).

Finally, I uploaded the new upgrade, hit the upgrade executable and logged in.

The upgrade was a success. But the problem didn’t go away.

When I logged into the dashboard, I could see that I was on the new version of the software. But I still couldn’t do anything.

So then I re-installed my Theme. Nothing changed.

Then I went to the Plug-ins. I couldn’t see the entire list of installed plug-ins (I wanted to deactivate all of them to get to a vanilla installation), but I could individually click on the plug-in name and go to the settings page for it.

Finally, a plug-in that searches Flickr so I can insert cool pictures on the site (like the pics for Sunspot Saturday) said it needed authentication before it could work. And since I’ve had that plug-in authenticated for about 18-months, something was up. When I went to authenticate it to Flickr, my Flickr account opened and politely told me that something was trying to authenticate with it, but what it was sending to authenticate was crap.

I went and deleted the plugin that interfaced to Flickr and then…finally…all was well.

The admin pages loaded correctly and so did the site. After looking through everything and updating all my stuff in the Theme that was reinstalled, I declared victory.

Another day lost to software infrastructure problems, that thing that is supposed to make us more productive.

The lesson?

The software people are really good at quickly identifying security issues and putting out fixes. Rare that it happens now as the security sweep is part of the overall testing. But hackers love to hack. I just hope that my sites (all the rest were fine) don’t fall into the IP address range the hacker is attacking before installing the fix.

And, yes, I have several weeks of backups, so if push came to shove, I could get all of it back. But, that’s a pain in the rear as well. And takes time and resources to do. And to verify once the backup is done.

But, all is well. At least I learned how to manually upgrade the software and I added a few things to my upgrade checklist.

Now, to turn on the radio.

The iMac: Will ham radio be the same?

Well, I took the plunge. I bought an iMac. Interestingly, it was over two months ago, but I haven’t gotten around to doing any ham radio stuff with it yet. Too busy getting the rest of it setup for the business (Cube Rules).

I’ve seen a bit of software out there for ham radio on the Mac, but I haven’t tried any of it out just yet. What I have seen looks compatible with my interfaces I already have, including Log of The World — but I haven’t tested any of it yet.

Why Apple?

Windows started to fail with the advent of the iPod. It was the first sense I had that Apple was about cool tools and not about big platforms. Windows was always about platforms, not making things work.

And work it was — I spent a great deal of time getting anti-virus software, cleaning registry software for performance, getting hard drives taken care of and chasing quirky problems that always showed up at the wrong time. Months would go by while searching Google for the Forums where someone finally came up with a solution that really worked. After searching hundreds of entries with the same problem identified as I would have — with no answers.

Usually the answer for a Windows problem was simple: reformat the hard drive. Right. Just what I want to do…

Then came the iPhone. The iPhone made it quite apparent to me that I didn’t need my Windows laptop with me when I went away except for DXpeditions and to access my business sites to enter in articles like this and doing maintenance work (which, of course, the passwords won’t export over to Windows so the K9JY site was down much of my vacation…).

Then, in a ThinkPad (I’ve always had ThinkPads here) that Kate uses started to simply lock up for no reason. First it was once or twice a day. Then it was every hour. Once it hit every hour, we made sure we had everything off the computer (I have always done backups, but when you have time to really look, you discover other stuff that needed backing up!).

Finally, the thing wouldn’t boot up at all. In the meantime, over the month this was happening, we had done everything except reinstall Windows and replace the drive. Well, once you get to that point, you have to seriously reconsider your assumptions about your platform.

And, to be fair, Kate and I decided not to go to Windows with the next computers we would get. As soon as we were ready to replace the laptops — in a couple of years — that would be that. I had no intention of going to Vista or whatever else comes up out of Microsoft. But the laptop giving up the ghost in just over a year means (to me) that everything is coming up crap — sure, Windows computers are cheap, but everything is so fragile in software and hardware components that the probability of failure is extremely high.

So, we walked into the Apple store and got an iMac. Then, two weeks after that, my laptop started having intermittent issues. Here we go. Except I went to the Apple store and bought another iMac for me. And, when we get enough dollars, we are getting two Apple Notebooks and that will be that.

And good riddance to the Windows stuff as well.

My level of stress in administering my business is much less since Apples arrived. I only have to deal with the infrastructure of the web sites and updating that software. Not updating Windows and the five thousand programs you need to really manage Windows. Not chasing after intermittent problems Windows cause that drive you crazy because all you want to do is your work, not administering Windows maintenance and troubleshooting.

Apple, of course, is not perfect. No company or software is. But the approach is quite different with Apple: a bulletproof operating system (yes, I know it isn’t bulletproof, but that is the approach…) with a set of other tools to get stuff done. It has been both more difficult to make the transition to an Apple (why, for example, does Office for Mac not look anything at all like Office 2007 and why doesn’t Microsoft offer Outlook in the package? Just mystifying…) and much easier to transition. It’s easier to transition because once you get the hang of the tools and get over that learning curve, you aren’t worried about whether or not the operating system will fail.

One of the last issues holding me back from making the transition to Apple was the fact that most ham radio software is built to run on Windows. And since I am much associated with WriteLog, even though I didn’t write the program, the whole DXpedition, contesting, writing about WriteLog becomes much more interesting.

But, all of that wasn’t enough to overcome my constant frustration with Windows and all the setup the software requires you to do to get anything to work. And, trust me, I know more about computers than your average bear. For me to get that frustrated tells you a lot about the state of the PC world.

So I’ve jumped the Windows ship and now look to do ham radio with a Mac. Any good suggestions on software to get going? I need it all — contesting, logging, Log of The World, digital modes, controlling a Yaesu FT-1000 PM and more. I’m ready to dive in.

Any suggestions?

How to learn from every ham radio contest

When taking notes at the end of the contest — what went well and what could have been better — what should you consider for inclusion?

Here’s a short trigger list for what you can learn from every contest:

Equipment

  • Radio working properly
  • Amplifier working properly
  • Keyer working properly
  • Computer issues
  • Contesting software issues
  • Interface issues
  • Rotor box issues

Antennas

  • Each antenna, each band notes
  • Directional weakness and strengths
  • Listening antenna performance
  • Feedline issues

Contest Performance

  • Right band, right time
  • Right frequency for the band
  • Missed band openings
  • Propagation challenges
  • Performed handling runs well
  • Performed S&P well

Support Performance

  • Meal breaks
  • Forced time off at right times?
  • Completed contest submission on time

Once you have all of your notes, you build a to-do list for the next contest and start to complete those items.

This is a great way to continuously improve your contesting skills while learning your station’s strengths and weaknesses. This also helps you see your improvements in your contesting and that provides further motivation to improve.

Any other items that help us learn from every contest?

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