Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Vanity Call Sign Dilemma

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the whole vanity call sign system, despite being the holder of a really cool vanity call, W9HQ. My mixed feelings come from a clash between my traditional and nostalgic side, which loves things which are venerable, solid, tried and true versus my pragmatic side which hates to see a good thing go unused. (The call sign [not a vanity!] to the right is that of a ham who makes some really nice and reasonably priced wooden replications of your call. Check out his Web site. I've put this down on my "gift list", so maybe I'll get one from my wife.)

Let's start with the nostalgia. When I was a kid, you knew darn good and well that somebody who held a one by two call with a "W" in front was a venerable old-timer. You knew that he was an Extra class ham who had earned that license level by achieving a high level of Morse code proficiency (20 words per minute) and had mastered some pretty intense technical material in order to be able to take the FCC's highest level exam. You also knew that he had been in the hobby a pretty long time, because the FCC was only giving out 1x2 calls to hams who had been Extras for at least 25 years and they ran out of the one by two W calls well before I got into the hobby. They were, in a word, venerable.

Nowadays, with the new vanity system, a guy could very easily get an Extra class license after only a very short time as a ham, apply for a W#xy call, and look veritably ancient. I've been in the hobby quite a while (albeit with a pretty long hiatus in between periods of activity), but I really don't feel worthy of such a call. So there's a part of me that wants to keep those "golden oldie" call signs out of circulation, because of what they represent.

But then kicks in the pragmatic part of me. These are good call signs; what's wrong with keeping them in use? Indeed, although its parameters are much broader now than they used to be, the history of "vanity" call signs isn't quite as straightforward and restrictive as one might think:

As older hams became Silent Keys and the number of available 1x2 calls increased, the FCC instituted a program effective in 1968 whereby those licensed for 25 years and currently holding an Extra license would be eligible for a non-specific (sequential) 1x2 callsign. The length of time one needed to be an Extra was gradually reduced, until July 1977, when any Extra Class could apply for a 1x2 . . .

Effective July 1, 1976, any Extra class licensee who had been a licensed Amateur for 25 years or more could select one specific 1x2 call sign. This added the ability to pick a specific call, but did not change eligibility. . . .

Effective July 1, 1977, any Amateur Extra class licensee could select one specific 1x2 call sign. Effective March 30, 1978 this was all replaced by the strict "sequential" system until the advent of "vanity" call sign selection in March 24, 1995 (Amateur Radio History).

So it wasn't like these call signs remained ever out of circulation once the original holder died. They were recirculating them at least forty years ago. It's just that the rules are quite a bit looser now.

So where does that leave me in the end? In the end, I decided to upgrade from Advanced to Extra when my son took his Technician test, even though I'm not thrilled with the loosening of the requirements to do so. And although I was happy with my original call of N0CVR, I live in "9" land now so changing my call sign to a "9" designator made sense. When I looked into what was available on the FCC database in terms of vanity call signs, I saw that W9HQ was coming up very soon. The way the system is set up, that call sign isn't going to be set aside for posterity—somebody's going to get it. So nostalgia gives way to pragmatism and that somebody might as well be me.

But pragmatism has its limits and becomes truly noxious if it ends up rendering us oblivious and careless about the past. There are things that the holder of such a venerable call sign as mine can do to perpetuate its legacy and honor its original holder(s). And that is the subject of a soon-coming posting.

73 DE W9HQ


  1. I had a similar dilemma as you in some ways, except I'm new to ham, even though I've been playing with radio's for work for 20 years, but I felt very undeserving of a "venerable" call. When I was first licensed I never intended to get anything other than the call sign that was sequentially assigned. But, when I investigated the vanity call sign program to see if I can get my initials (this was a naive exercise), but finding nothing available, I put in for what I though was a really cool callsign, N1CCC that just happened to be open... and I loved it.

    However, when i told my wife's aunt about my getting into the hobby, she asked me to look into getting my wife's late uncles call, whom I used to sit with and watch operate with total fascination. I told her I would look into it, but that I doubted it would be possible. Long story short, my first obstacle what that it required an Extra class and I was a General, as it was a 1x2. I asked the FCC if I even qualified under the close relative/family call sign program and they said yes, but that I had to pass my extra before I could apply, so I set off to do just that, and 2 months later I passed with flying colors, and it was a proud accomplishment for me. I put in for the call sign and a few weeks later, it was granted, K6UA, formerly belonging to Dale Hoppe /SK was now my callsign... The biggest problem I have now, is that my late uncle Dale was a bit of a legend in ham radio and the call sign has garnered me some unwanted attention that I didn't bargain for when I set out to do this. I'm sure as time goes by, this will be less a problem, and I'm not looking at this from a short term prospective. Most importantly for me, I've had good reception from his old friends, but I can't help but feel unfit for it still, because I can never fulfill a legacy like his, those times are gone forever anyway. However, the words of my aunt ring in my mind when ever I wish I had an obscure call... and that is "if you don't get it, it's just going to go to a stranger anyway".. If there was a way to retire a call sign, this would have been the one in my view. Alas, it's not that way. I am however working to save his former (now club call) W6VSS, and that is going to require a bit of fancy maneuvering by myself and the VEC at the ARRL as it's about to cancel and he's (the trustee) is no longer with us.

    I like to say.. "Dale was a legend in ham radio; I can only hope to be a footnote"

  2. Great blog. I recently moved from Texas back to my hometown of Stoddard, WI. The 2 meter radio in my truck has been on 146.52 since I used it on the trip to Wisconsin 9 weeks ago. I had forgotten it was even on until I heard the squelch break this morning as I was driving around Stoddard. I drove down to the river to try to get better reception, but only managed to copy your call as you signed off. Which brings me here... I held the callsign KB8YHV for 15 years as I lived Ohio, Guam, New Mexico, and Texas over the years. I never really felt the need to change. I figured after moving back home that I'd probably be staying here a while so I looked into a 9-land vanity call and chose KB9HV as an homage to my my old callsign, plus I worked as a power linesman for a number of years so the HV suffix always seemed to fit. Although the fellow that previously held the call has been gone for quite a while, it's sort of strange to be using somebody else's callsign. I'm still kind of partial to the advanced class license though. I passed the general, advanced, and extra exams in one sitting a while back, but could only pass the 13 wpm code test. Hope to run into you some time. BTW, I'm looking to put up antennas around here, but ain't ready to put one on the silo... :)