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49th Running Of The CQP!
1600 UTC October 4, 2014 to 2200 UTC October 5, 2014


CQP History

[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 don’t 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 California challenge.

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 year’s success. Rusty was off to law school and simply didn’t 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 VE7NTT and continues to set CQP records each year.) It is Gary’s 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 today.

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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 can’t 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 what’s happening. If there’s nothing there, they simply forget it. If something is going on, they look more closely and take a stab at it themselves...and if there’s enough happening, they’ll 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. California’s 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 don’t 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 it’s the idea of setting new records that provides the major incentive. When these inducements don’t 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 N6TV’s 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 we’re not sure, but we think the basic outline of the rules put together back in 1975 has served us exceptionally well. It’s truly remarkable that we’ve been able to resist that urge to tinker and have kept the rules nearly the same for 20 years.

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 shouldn’t 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. Since 1997, Al, AD6E, has taken 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. We’re 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 we’ve 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. We’re 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 this scheme.

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 vineyard’s 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 you’re not a politician. So in 1994 we decided to emulate the ARRL’s Sweepstakes coffee cup program by offering CQP T-shirts for $8 to anybody who made 100 or more contacts in the contest. With a special deal from one of our members who does this kind of thing as a business, the $8 exactly covers the cost of the shirt and the postage. Inflation has driven the cost up to $10 today. So far, this has been very well received -- roughly a third of the entrants ask for the T-shirt. But the complaints still roll in: "Why haven’t you cashed my check yet?" "You cashed my check, but now where’s my T-shirt?" "The announcement in QST didn’t say anything about T-shirts!" "If you can’t give me size XXL, please just refund my money." Clearly, we’re still learning. But participation awards are a big motivator, so we feel it’s important to continue, and to get this strategy down right.

As you can see, putting on a contest like CQP is an enormous amount of work, but there’s no question in our minds that it’s 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. It’s 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 to participate.
  • 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!


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Northern California Contest Club
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