Introduction to Ham SWL DXing

By Barry Williams ZL1ACZ

  All my adult life I have been DXing on the shortwave broadcast bands, and to a much lesser degree, on the radio amateur bands. My keen interest in SW DXing left limited time for ham radio, but I did have periods where I did some ham DXing, both CW and phone, however was limited by low power and basic wire antennas. That was until 3 years ago when I purchased a Kenwood TS570S, resurrected an old tilt over mast and 3-element tri-band rotatable beam antenna.

Since 2000 I have more actively chased DX on the HF ham bands but unfortunately this period has been during the falling off of the solar cycle. Never the less, during the last three and a half years, I have become more aware of the differences between radio amateur DXing and SW broadcast band DXing. The following are my observations. I believe I have been an experienced SW DXer but I certainly cannot claim to be an experienced or knowledgeable ham DXer.

The first difference would be the equipment. For SW DXing over the last 15 years, I have used an ICOM R71E receiver and an 80 metre half wave antenna with open wire feeders, probably with a replacement value of less than $ 1000. Ham Radio is more expensive. The equipment I mentioned in the opening paragraph, plus my Swan linear, antenna tuner and lap top computer, most of it second hand would have a very approximate value of $ 4000 and considerably more if replaced with new equipment.
I have included the laptop computer as it is a great help with checking instantly what stations, countries etc, one has worked and verified. I have never seriously used an antenna tuner with my SW DXing, but one is essential for amateur radio. Having never used a beam antenna before it was instantly obvious what gain and directional benefits, a good directional antenna can give. For 12 months I ran my TS570 ” barefoot ” at 100 watts, until I had rejuvenated the old Swan linear amplifier that had been given to me. A set of second hand output valves (supplied by Bill Smith a US League member) and the replacement of a couple of resistors and the amplifier was giving me 300 watts and about one and a half ” S points ” gain in signal strength. I now had a signal that could be heard reasonable well around the world.

Compared with some overseas amateur stations, mine is relatively basic. It is not uncommon for stations around the world, to run 1000 watts or more, with several transceivers connected to operate from a selection of antennas. What really amazed me was the size and height of some of these antennas. The majority of the ham DXers use beams with up to 6 elements and in some cases have stacked arrays. The once popular cubical quad is still in use and effective but less heard of. The log periodic antenna is becoming more popular because of its wide frequency range, something that would be very practical for the SW DXer. Unfortunately size and cost would be prohibitive for most NZ DXers. The real mind blowing thing one hears on the air is the height of some of these big antennas. My mast is 40 feet high, which would be a maximum height for a city location. I have heard on air, and seen photos of masts of 100 and up to over 200 feet high. Where the US CAA has requested that masts be reduced in height or have warning lights placed on them. One 200 foot mast was located on a 300 foot hill so one can see the danger to aviation. BC DXers have no fear in this regard, with a 1000 foot beverage. Of course there are many hams around the world that DX with verticals, inverted Vs and dipoles, just like DXers do here in NZ. To hear the real DX on needs a real antenna in both hobbies.

The major difference between SW broadcast DXing and ham DXing is that with SW DXing, one has to hear the station and verify it. With ham DXing, one has to hear, then actually work (QSO) the station, and then attempt to get a verification card (QSL). Hearing a station is usually easier than working a station and QSLing some hams is almost as hard as QSLing Latin American SW stations.. My return is roughly 40%. It has taken me 50 years to verify my 242 countries on SW. I fear I will run out of time to achieve that same number on the ham bands. Even though there are over 330 countries listed by the ARRL, they are not all active. Never the less it is estimated that there are over 200 countries active each week. During one week in May the count was 222. During a week I might spend 6 or more hours normally on 20 or 15 metres and after 3 years, have just verified 110 countries, with 150 worked. Hearing new ham countries can be just as difficult as hearing a new SW country. However working a new country is far more challenging. There would be at least 20 countries that I have heard bit been unable to establish a QSO with.

There are several reasons for being unable to make contact. The first is ” pileups “; a term used when anywhere e up to 100 stations around the world could be calling a rare DX station. The DX station normally establishes himself on a frequency, say 14195 kHz, and advises that he is ” listening between 5 to 10 kHz up”. When calling the DX station, one has to compete with those other amateurs calling him, often unsuccessfully. A recent example was A61R in Dubai, who for several weeks created pile-ups. It was not till 3 weeks after first hearing him, that he swung his beam in my direction and I finally had a QSO. Working a ZL is considered relatively rare DX and I have created the occasional ” mini pileup ” myself. That is a change for a SW DXer, being chased rather than chasing.

With SW DXing it is more common to know what time and what frequency to listen for a particular BC station. This is not necessarily the case with ham DXing. The majority of my QSOs are from randomly tuning the bands. With consistent listening and reference to propagation charts, one becomes familiar what bands are open, at what times to what areas. Then it is a matter of tuning looking for a pile up or a new call sign. Of course there are DX aids, most from ham web sites which can list new station news, DXpeditions, QSL managers, propagation and much other information. Another medium is the DX Cluster, an active listing of current real time activities on the HF bands. Also for serious ham DXers are the DX nets, where a rare DX station or stations are geared up for the net and amateurs wishing to work them are assisted by the net controller. This is a more orderly procedure to work a hard to get station, than dealing with a pile up. To date I have not taken advantage of participating in a DX net but as new counties become harder to work I may be forced to do so.

The cost of QSLing can mount up. Firstly an amateur has to design and have printed his own QSL card and this can entail some cost. For the ” run of the mill ” QSO, a QSL card is written out or printed from an electronic log, accumulated, and then sent to the NZART QSL Bureau, who then eventually distributes them in bulk to QSL bureaus in countries around the world. Many stations do not have access to a bureau, therefore the card must be sent direct to the station, or via a QSL manager. To obtain an address, one normally accesses the web site A QSL card, self-addressed envelope and a US $ 1 note, is airmailed to the station. Not all countries accept IRCs and in some cases the money helps cover the cost of mounting the DXpedition. Probably 50% sent direct, oblige by returning a QSL direct, some come back via the bureau and others just never respond.

There are other differences I have observed over the years between the two forms of DXing. Propagation changes are more apparent on the ham bands. Activity on ham bands is limited to shorter periods. One can hear some high powered shortwave broadcasters on a shortwave band most times of the day. Just remember most amateurs have to work and sleep, so the time of air is limited, where-as international broadcasters can transmit 24 hours a day. One can log a shortwave station no matter what language they are broadcasting in. A successful amateur DXer must speak English when on phone, but if he uses CW (Morse) where there is an accepted format for a QSO, language is not a factor.

After 50 years of SW DXing, ham radio DXing has given me new challenges and renewed my interest in radio. It is not uncommon when talking to hams around the world to hear they started the hobby with SW DXing and in many cases still actively listen to the shortwave bands. Both hobbies can fit neatly together,