[Adapted from an article by by Bruce Sawyer,
AA6KX (now N6NT), for the NCJ in 1995. Augmented with rememberances of John Minke,
N6JM (ex-WA6JDT and W6KYA), and Tom Frenaye, K1KI (ex-WN6KIL and WB6KIL)]
The California QSO Party (CQP) has experienced
phenomenal growth over the past decade or so. It is now the most popular of the state QSO
parties and is no longer merely a regional contest.
The first instance of the California QSO Party was
way back in the fall of 1966. A couple of high-school students, Tom, WB6KIL, and
Chris, WB6EUZ, organized the first running of this event. (For
those of you who dont recognize the calls, WB6KIL later changed his call to K1KI and
can still be heard calling a CQ every now and then during contest season!) Tom says he and Chris organized the event for a couple of years as part of the Claremont Ham Club (CHC) in
Southern California, but later lost interest when they became old enough to discover other
diversions. The succeeding 8 or 9 years of CQP history have eluded us, but then in 1975
the newly organized Northern California Contest Club (NCCC) took over operation
of the contest. [Webmaster's Note: Tom turned the CQP reins over to John, WA6JDT (now N6JM), who ran it from 1968 to 1974.
Here is the 1969 QST
announcement.] At that time the
big events were the Georgia and New Jersey state QSO parties. CQP was a virtual unknown
when Rusty Epps, W6OAT, signed on as contest chairman and made an all-out effort to gain
publicity and to ensure that there was enough activity from Californians to attract
national participation. Rusty had already been down this road; it was he who first
organized the Georgia QSO party. He drew heavily from that experience in tackling the
Rusty completely revamped the rules for the
1975 event and
most of the changes he made are still in effect today. In a radical departure from
established practice, the CQP exchange did not include the perfunctory signal report.
Instead, it did include a sequence number as well as the multiplier identification, so
there was something meaningful to copy. Most importantly, California stations could work
each other for QSO credit only; they could not work each other for multipliers. This had
the effect of forcing the California stations onto the high bands to seek out contacts
around the country rather than simply hammering away at each other on the low bands. When
Rusty instituted this rule it was not popular with the Californians, but the long-term
benefits in attracting national participation far outweighed the potential of a
doubled-up multiplier total. The contest was on both CW and SSB; the rules guaranteed that
an operator who did not go to both modes would have a hard time reaching the top ranks.
But multipliers were counted once per weekend rather than per band in order to keep the
score spread down to a level that would not discourage beginners. And the scoring was kept
simple by not injecting bonus points into the calculation (e.g., for contacting special
stations). The result of that first NCCC effort was 222 log submissions, of which 116 were
from out-of-state. There were entries from 53 counties and 39
states. For the first time, there was operation from all 58 counties and many
records were broken. 36 of the non-California single-op records were set, 34 of the
58 county records were toppled and all of the top-10 California stations broke the
previous California record! Since the previous year had
seen only 70 logs submitted, this was a major success. (Contest history buffs will also
recognize W6OAT as the devilish fellow who thought up the Sprint rules, another event that
seems to be doing all right in its own regard).
As seen in the accompanying graph, the succeeding
years present an interesting picture. Clearly there was a lack of effective follow-through
to that first years success. Rusty was off to law school and simply didnt have
the bandwidth to continue running the October games. The contest went into slow but steady
decline, finally hitting bottom in 1984 when only 95 logs were submitted. In 1986, Gary
Caldwell, WA6VEF, took over as the contest chairman and did most of the work associated
with promoting the event. The difference that one person can make when he lives and
breathes a project like this is evident from looking at the chart. (Gary now operates
under the call VA7RR and continues to set CQP records each year.) It is Garys story
that most needs to be heard if we want to understand how this contest came to be so
popular. The practices he instituted in promoting the contest are still the ones we follow
First of all, Gary followed the same path Rusty had
traveled 12 years earlier in going all out to get advance publicity for the contest.
In those days, that meant QST, CQ, and NCJ. The only thing that has changed in the ensuing
years is that today we have more tools to use in getting the word out. Primary among them
are the Internet news-groups and the CQ-Contest reflector, the 3830 reflector and, now, this website. Used correctly, these are extremely
effective mechanisms for disseminating contest information and reaching a broad audience.
Next, Gary had to ensure there were enough California stations on
the air to attract attention when the contest began. This is a key factor, and it just
cant be left to chance. There has to be activity in place to attract more activity.
People read about the event and then take a look to see whats happening. If
theres nothing there, they simply forget it. If something is going on, they look
more closely and take a stab at it themselves...and if theres enough happening,
theyll get hooked. Then the process continues to feed on itself. But first there has
to be that critical mass of activity. Gary went through recent listings of results of
domestic contests like Sweepstakes and pulled out the calls of California stations who had
been active in them. That formed the start of a database we still use. Each year we update
this database with the calls of new contesters who have joined the party. A personal
letter of encouragement goes out to each of these contesters inviting them to participate.
Along with each letter is a reply postcard asking for a commitment to a level of activity
(casual, serious, etc) and the intended county of operation. This is a large mailing
(approximately 500 letters), so the postage expenses are nontrivial. Even with this large
mailing, though, the initial commitments are rarely even close to guaranteeing that all 58
counties will be on the air.
The next step involves persistent arm-twisting to get commitments to
cover the remaining counties. Californias large population is concentrated in a few
urban areas, and most of the state has a very low population density. Many counties have
no resident HF operators. The only way we can get full coverage is by convincing people to
put on expeditions to some of the less-populated counties. There are a number of
inducements we use to get that coverage. After all, people dont normally go sit for
24 hours in front of a radio on a frigid mountaintop high in the Sierra Nevada in October
for no reason other than making another HF contact with Ohio! We make a big production out
of county records; each year the printed results contain a county-by-county and
state-by-state listing of all the current records. In addition, there are separate entry
categories for mobile, single-op county expedition, and multi-op county expedition.
Each category has its own award structure, though we personally
believe its the idea of setting new records that provides the major incentive. When
these inducements dont yield the last few counties, it then falls to our county
coordinator to appeal to club loyalty, guilt, or whatever else it takes to get all the
necessary commitments. This has been N6TVs job for the last few years and he has
seen to it each year that we had all of the 58 California counties on the air for at least
a part of the contest. We believe that being able to make the pledge that all the counties
will be active in the contest and that they will be looking for out-of-state contacts has
been crucial in building the level of participation by casual operators.
Going back as far into CQP history as we can, one constant that
seems to come up every year is the hue and cry for changes ("improvements") in
the contest rules. It is amusing that the changes being debated as new ideas even today
are almost precisely the same ones that WA6VEF had to debate back in the late 80s.
We have talked with other contest sponsors about this problem, and they have all had the
same experience. The urge to tinker seems to be universal, but we believe that
predictability is a very important factor in sustaining year-to-year growth in contests of
this category. The participants may not like all aspects of the rules, but at least they
come to understand them and to count on them. We fear that more damage than gain would
result from unnecessary meddling with the rules. Whether it was visionary wisdom or just
plain luck were not sure, but we think the basic outline of the rules put together
back in 1975 has served us exceptionally well. Its truly remarkable that weve
been able to resist that urge to tinker and have kept the rules nearly the same for 20
Judging a contest like CQP is a monumental task that requires an
enormous commitment of time by patient and dedicated volunteers. Readers of the NCJ
probably assume that all logs sent in to contest judges look similar to the ones they
submit: easy-to-read and accurate output from logging programs. The reality is that at
least half the logs we receive in CQP are handwritten paper logs. They are often
illegible, covered with food stains, replete with unidentified duplicate contacts and
gross arithmetic errors, and show complete lack of understanding of the scoring rules.
This is where patience on the part of the judges is such a necessary virtue. We have been
fortunate to have had an unsung hero in Ken Anderson, K6PU (then for a while
K6DB, now K6TA), who made it a
personal goal to salvage every single log that is sent in. Perhaps we shouldnt admit
this publicly, but Ken went to great length to make any sense possible out of what most of
us would disqualify at first sight. But the fact that he did so has earned a lot of
loyalty to the event. Ken looked hard for reasons to qualify an entry rather than
disqualify it. Quite a few of the logs we receive contain comments to the effect that this
is the only contest event the participant enters each year and that he looks forward
to it year after year. We doubt we would be able to build that kind of a dedicated
following by being too rigid about the entry format. In 1997, Al, AD6E, took over
the horrendous job of log checking, following on the fine tradition set by Ken.
Providing timely and predictable feedback to the contest
participants is essential, yet this is where NCCC has made its worst mistakes. Were
still learning on this score and struggling to improve our procedures. Addresses in the
database of previous participants need to be updated to reflect new information contained
on the summary sheets. Likewise, entries for people who have not participated for several
years need to be purged (otherwise the cost of doing our announcement mailing will
continue to grow each year without any commensurate benefit). This database can be used to
generate mailing labels for results and awards. We face a complex distribution problem in
delivering contest results, certificates, participation awards, and winners
trophies. The problem, of course, is trying to contain the postage expenses. We have tried
bundling these deliverables together to save postage expenses, but that has led to
miscommunications among the people doing these tasks that later turned out to be
embarrassing to the Club. One common blunder weve made, as have several other
contest sponsors, is having one person send out results to all the people who did not win
awards and trusting the person sending awards to include results with them. The likely
result, of course, is that people receiving awards never see the results. And the problem
can become particularly acute when there is a delay in sending out the awards.
We have made the problem even more complex for ourselves by having
participation awards (roughly a third of the entrants in the 1995 contest received CQP
T-shirts), participation certificates for everyone who made 100 or more QSOs, 40 bottles
of CQP wine to the top scorers, plus a large assortment of plaques. Were still
searching for the best strategy for this problem. In 1995 we asked participants for a $1
contribution to cover postage expenses in mailing the results, then sent a copy of the
results in one mass mailing to everyone who entered the contest. Included in the results
was a statement that we would attempt to deliver as much in person as we could at Visalia
and at Dayton, then mail what we could not deliver in person. At least we knew that
everyone was receiving the results at the same time and that they were being told when and
where to expect to receive the other awards. Since then we've done variations on
As much of a headache as the distribution might be, we still believe
that a good awards structure is essential in attracting a large following. We offer a
large number of plaques for top scorers in each entry category and have been fortunate to
have these plaques sponsored by individual members of NCCC and others. To award top scorers, Jeff Stai, WK6I, has generously donated several cases of wine each year from his Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras Countv. All we have to do is soak off the vineyards label, print our own
CQP labels, customize them to suit the winner, and glue on the new labels. We also have
offered participation awards to people who make a defined minimum number of contacts. In
past years, we went around with hat in hand to get corporate sponsors to underwrite the
cost of these awards. In truth, though, this kind of begging gets old quickly if
youre not a politician. Clearly, were still learning, but participation awards are a big
motivator, so we feel its important to continue.
As you can see, putting on a contest like CQP is an enormous amount
of work, but theres no question in our minds that its all worthwhile. A lot of
people in every state and in a lot of DX locations have a great time each October with
this event and come back year after year to see if they can win a participation award,
finish working all California counties, or maybe even get their call in the record books.
For some of us, CQP offers all the pioneering aspects of Field Day but with multipliers
(and the opportunity to enter as a good multiplier) in a real contest setting. Its
been a ball, and we really would like to see some of the other state QSO parties win as
much of a following. To do that, the sponsors have to pay adequate attention to:
- A set of rules that encourage in-state people to make contacts with
out-of-state stations on multiple bands and modes.
- Guaranteeing enough in-state activity to make it exciting for casuals
- Full coverage of all multipliers so that you can offer a
realistic chance of getting a clean sweep.
- Participation awards.
- Full, accurate, and timely reporting of results.
The good news is that it can be done, and the
diligent efforts of just a single dedicated and committed organizer can make all the
difference in the world. For proof, just look at what happened with CQP in 1975 and 1986!