Brian Robert Callahan

academic, developer, with an eye towards a brighter techno-social life


I write for QEX, and you should too

An amateur radio post. Feel free to share with other hams, post on r/hamradio and r/amateurradio, post to all the other amateur radio sites, as you will. If you want to get a hold of me, my callsign is AD2BA.

I am lucky. I live in a region of the United States that is very well plugged in to amateur radio. The Capital District is the home of This Week in Amateur Radio and I can talk to the producer on my favorite local repeater. There are also three or four clubs within 15 minutes of my house, and I am a member of two of them. There is a large ham convention here every year. The repeaters are active; whenever I want to ragchew there will be multiple people to chat with.

Even so, I understand that mentioning the League can be a touchy subject. So I'm not going to talk primarily about the League. Instead, I am going to talk about one of its publications, which you can receive even if you are not a League member.

QEX is the technical journal the League publishes. If you happen to be a League member, you get the digital edition as part of your membership and can read it both on the desktop and mobile apps.

I have an article in the May/June 2021 issue, have another article accepted, and have several more articles in various state of draft. I could easily see QEX being a venue where I publish a couple of articles every year for the next 20 years. I mentioned before that I feel like I have found my people and my niche in amateur radio in these pages and that has largely remained true. But I've recently had some experiences in the rest of my amateur radio life that make me think that others are missing out on QEX, and perhaps moreso the opportunities to engage with state-of-the-art advancing material. Some of it can be simply remedied, some of it will take some worthwhile work. And I just might volunteer myself to do that work.

To state up front, I do not believe that QEX is at any sort of risk of cancellation. Nevertheless, there is no reason to wait until the risks appear to begin work on growing. This is made most clear by an editorial a few years ago seeking to grow the subscriber base. I cannot comment on any action resulting from that editorial, though if it is true me in my early-mid 30s is an extreme anomaly. But it, and other events, have led me to think about what it might mean to grow QEX and how that can happen, both within the League and outside it. And also, while I am a member of the League and believe that I get value for my money, I am not privy to any inside information.

Today, I want to convince you to write for QEX. Yes, you. And if I can't convince you to write, I at least want you to start reading and sharing QEX if you aren't already. And if I can't do that, I want to spend 3000 words musing about QEX.

It all went over my head

When my first QEX article was accepted, I shared it with other amateur operators who were instrumental in its conception. The most common response I got was some variant of "I didn't understand it/it all went over my head."

If you've ever written anything for publication, you know that's not a response you often want. Yes, it is true that QEX is a specialist publication that appeals to specialists. And yes, it is true that it serves as a forum to advance the state of the (amateur) radio arts. That means the articles have to be of the calibre to do that advancement; the articles will go over heads.

However, we cannot expect all or even most amateur operators to earn their Ph.D.s or work a several decade career at the forefront of radio just to have some QEX articles be accessible to them. There is some work to fill the gap. Steve Ford, WB8IMY, hosts the League's Eclectic Tech podcast. I can attest to at least some of the podcast episodes covering work in the pages of QEX, as in episode 38, he interviewed me about my article. And while I am grateful for the interview and talking with Steve was a lot of fun, Eclectic Tech has a wider interest set than just QEX articles, and only publishes once every two weeks, it would be unreasonable to expect such coverage to be a regular occurrence.

Nonetheless, my interview on Eclectic Tech got me thinking that there can be avenues to pursue to ease interested amateur operators into QEX articles, raising the amateur operators up without lowering the quality of the articles.

I thought they stopped publishing it

At every club meeting, after the club news from the board, they ask if any of us have any news to share. As my Eclectic Tech interview was scheduled to be published the next day, I made the announcement of the interview. After the meeting, one of the other club members was talking to me and mentioned his surprise that the League was still publishing QEX, having thought they stopped some time ago.

I do not know how indicative this is of other amateur operators, but if one person is unaware that QEX is active and available—for free to League members no less—how many others? I admit that I am less certain how to fix this one, as the League's homepage has a very clear link and issues of QST include blurbs highlighting the current or upcoming issue of QEX. Perhaps there is more announcing of QEX that can be done. The League aggressively advertises for On the Air, their magazine targeted to new amateur operators and others who have beginner or novice understanding and skills in amateur radio. OTA even has its own podcast, its own monthly email, its own blog, and its own Facebook group. That's a lot! Of course, the strategy here is to meet people where they're at. And I have no problem with the League's expanded efforts here—the beginner is in many ways a primary target market. There will always be more beginner amateur operators than those operating at the state of the art. Also, there is no way a person could get to the point where they can meaningfully engage with QEX if they never progress beyond the beginner stage. I am very happy for the League to continue its expansion into the new amateur operator sector. It is the right move at the right time.

Even so, a little more self-advertising that QEX exists and is a membership benefit would be nice (with the same courtesy extended to NCJ). It might also be nice to have the OTA audience feel as if they graduate not only to QST, but QEX (and NCJ) as well. Maybe the OTA audience does not graduate from OTA directly to QEX but as they move into QST it comes with a nod that their journey doesn't end with QST but there is even more advanced material for them to aspire to.

Let's not forget too that a little more self-advertising could go a long way towards attracting new people who are technically inclined. I am far from the first person to notice that there is significant overlap between the amateur radio community and the maker community. QEX can become a vehicle through which to attract makers to amateur radio and provide them an outlet to share radio projects with themselves and us. This is a part of the state of the art in radio, amateur radio included, and QEX offers a non-ephemeral, permanent home for their work. We need them.

QEX user groups, part 1

When trying to find a QEX article I was hoping had been reposted elsewhere, I did what anyone might do: googled QEX. To my surprise, I found someone had established a group named qex that, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a group for people to discuss QEX articles. This list description states that it is not affiliated with the League, and that's fine too.

But it doesn't appear too populated or too active. As of this writing, it only serves 122 members and only has 150 posts in total.

Interestingly, there is a thread about how advertising revenue can be bolstered in the publication. The thread really isn't so much about advertising revenue, moreso about how to make QEX thrive through an expansion of content. And to be clear, the QEX editors are soliciting a wide variety of technical content, even content that appeals to amateur operators of a lower skill level. So long as what you are doing falls under the broad realm of communications experiments, it seems the editors are happy to receive and review your article (accepting for publication is a slightly different matter). Even the author of the thread did the majority of the work here: asked the QEX editors if a certain topic would be acceptable, got a positive reply, and now has to write the article. Though that last part has yet to be announced as realized.

Even so, the connection between thriving and advertising dollars leaves me feeling a bit disconcerted.

An aside about advertising dollars

I think that surmising about advertising revenue is perhaps a little bit of putting the cart before the horse. It would not surprise me to learn that the League is publishing QEX at a loss. I don't know the exact cost of things, but let's take the conservative approach: $29 for a one year subscription multiplied by however many subscriptions there are, plus the revenue from advertising sales. That is how much QEX makes per year on the lowest end. If the League said that is profitable, I would believe it. If the League said it is not profitable, I would believe that too. Though in the latter case, I would wonder not how we could increase advertising revenue, but how many eyeballs are truly being laid on the pages of QEX and if there were things we could do to increase that number and how to convert some percentage of that number into subscribers. So long as QEX breaks even there would be no incentive for the League to halt its production, so that is the magic number.

And even if the League were to discontinue QEX, which, again, I don't think they have any intention of doing, we can do some quick calculations to figure out how much money it would take to continue outside the League's umbrella. The important metric here is that authors are paid $50 per page. The May/June 2021 issue of QEX contained 33 pages of material. Let's round up to 40 pages to give ourselves a buffer. At the current author payment schedule, we would be paying authors a total of $2000 per issue. At six issues a year, we are talking about $12,000 per year in author payments. Could we find sponsors to cover that cost? I would surmise so. Everything else would need to be volunteer labor, at least initially, and it is likely a move to an online-only format would be prudent. Yes, what the League produces now would look a lot nicer. But let's not forget that for the first 47 issues, QEX was little more than a leaflet written on a typewriter with hand drawn figures and zero advertisements.

My point being, it does not have to be prohibitively expensive to produce the quality content that QEX provides, all the more leading to my conclusion that if we care about thriving, we should ignore advertising dollars for eyeballs. More advertising dollars will come with more eyeballs, if we even think more advertisements is a good thing, which I do not. In the May/June 2021 issue, there are 33 pages of content in 36 overall pages, excluding covers. I am going to be fair and reduce that to 32 pages of content since there are two less-than-half-page advertisements embedded in the articles. There is also a full-page advertisement on the inside of the front cover, a full page advertisement on the final page, a full page advertisement on the inside of the back cover, and a full page advertisement on the outside of the back cover. That is a total of six advertisements, which to me is the most I think is stomachable. I could do without the two embedded ads.

QEX user groups, part 2

Returning back to the group, reading through its archives leads me to wonder where, if anywhere, actual discussion is taking place. Yes, you can send letters to the QEX editors, and they will reach out to the original author for comment and publish both (it has been done with me, see the July/August 2021 issue). But I have to imagine they must be prudent with such letters and responses, lest they take up an unwelcome percentage of the overall issue.

But all this belies a really important avenue of discussion that goes unseen: direct communication between reader and author. I have received many wonderful emails from amateur operators since the publication of my first article. And they will tell you what they think and in my case have provided quality critique and ideas that I hadn't even thought of, some of which are going to be included in my first follow-up article. I received even more communication from the Eclectic Tech interview. It is the case that these QEX articles generate a lot of healthy discussion, even if not seen by the public. I don't know if that should change. There is good value to that direct reader to author communication.

It brings me to my first suggestion of how you could start writing for QEX: take an article, do the thing it says it does, and report back to us. Or, in the case of an article like mine, write an article that is effectively, "I read this article, here's what I like, here's what I would do differently." We could build a whole conversation around the topic cataloged in QEX. And at the end of it all, we would have a better thing than the original article that began the whole conversation could have ever dreamed of producing.

Talking QEX: Bridging intermediate and advanced skills

After my Eclectic Tech interview, I got to wondering what else could be done to communicate these complex topics to a more general audience. Whether by coincidence or "The Algorithm"(TM), I started getting videos from Wired's 5 Levels playlist, where experts are challenged to explain a single concept at multiple levels, from a grade school child up to and including one of their peers. Perhaps we don't need to explain QEX articles to grade school children, but something where these ideas are explained to a general public audience, somewhere in the range of advanced high school to early undergraduate, might go a long way towards lifting up interested amateur operators to begin to follow along with the articles with the interviews to guide them.

QEX itself has a recent series on a self-paced course to bring interested amateurs up to speed with the math and radio theory necessary to have a baseline understanding of many of these complex articles. What I am talking about would supplement that.

Perhaps we could have a podcast, call it "Talking QEX" (or if you have a better name, please let me know since mine is not so good), where after each issue is published, we reach out to all the authors in that issue to come on and each have a 15-30 minute interview discussing their article at a level accessible to the "average" amateur operator. Of course, not everyone will agree to it. But I bet we could get enough author interest to make it viable. We could always go backwards in time too; it's not like authors forgot what they wrote. And yes, I realize the "we" in this paragraph very likely means "me," at least initially. I would be happy to have the League commandeer the podcast. Or I could go it myself. But it would be nice even from the perspective of having more content between issues, as interviews can be staggered over the interim weeks.

And the cost? Effectively free, modulo my time. That's a difficult to beat proposition. And it can be posted to all the places podcasts are found as well as YouTube and other venues. The sky's the limit in terms of distribution.

If this sounds interesting to you, please let me know. I'll buy a fancy microphone...

Why write for QEX

No one will know the interesting experiments you are undertaking unless you share them with us. QEX can be an ideal venue for sharing. You have the potential for a wide audience, as again all League members have access to QEX as part of their membership. You also get paid to write articles. For those of you not in academia, this is very welcome. In academia, publishing articles costs you money, to the tune of thousands of dollars per article. In my most recently won grant, I had to put in a budget line item for publications. Imagine how much more research could be done if that money could have gone elsewhere. The League wants to pay you to write, so take them up on the offer! A single-page article pays for your League membership for an entire year and then some. Realistically, an article will be at least a couple of pages. Not enough to make a living but enough to help pay for that next amateur radio goodie you have your eye on.

You'll also be able to connect with a different kind of amateur radio audience than you might otherwise. I have even found my way into other amateur radio projects, like HamSCI, because of the connections made with my article.

You will also be able to say that you have permanently furthered the field of (amateur) radio. For all the amateur operators out there, there are surprisingly few who can honestly say that.

QEX is also a great way to get your first technical publication if you are an advanced undergraduate or new graduate student. Instead of having to forge blindly into your new field, you can instead gain experience publishing to people who are already "on your side" and interested in what you have to say. That's experience that is hard to otherwise come by.

This is the part where I offer free help

You don't have to take the plunge alone. I am willing to review all articles from first-time QEX authors. I am not on the editorial board nor am I an official reviewer so I cannot guarantee acceptance. But it'll help. Email me your articles. I look forward to reading them.

I've now spent those 3000 words. Talk to me if any of this sounds interesting.