How to Call CQ

…or even answer one!

by Steve Katz, WB2WIK/6

It seems impossible, but it’s very true that most new hams don’t know how to call CQ. And a lot don’t know how to answer one, either!

We’re all to blame for that. There just isn’t as much “CQing” as there used to be, except during contests. One reason might be that we’re mostly using transceivers with VFO control – as silly as that sounds. Here’s the explanation: Back in the good old days (for me), we used mostly crystal controlled transmitters with separate, tunable receivers. The odds of having a crystal on exactly the same frequency as someone else who was on the band, and within range, at the same time was pretty slim. So, it was common to call CQ, then tune around, looking for answers.

Well, today, we needn’t tune around looking for answers, any answers will be right there on the same frequency we’re on. Experienced operators know it’s easy to break into an ongoing QSO, if you know how and when it’s appropriate to do so. I make a lot of my contacts like that: Just overhear an interesting conversation, wait for a pause, insert my callsign, and join the group. But many newbies, as well as some old-timers, are too shy to do this, or maybe just not very good at it. And it is frowned on by most to break into a conversation when you’ve absolutely nothing to add to it.

So, I only break in when I do think I have something of value to add. It’s also acceptable to break into a non-emergency contact (which is about 99.9% of all QSOs) to simply ask for a report, like, “Hey guys, Steve in L.A. here, with a new antenna. How’s the signal?” Nobody with a heart can begrudge another ham a signal report when he’s using a new antenna. Ditto goes for a new rig, microphone, or a new almost anything.

Still, tuning the bands reveals a lack of CQs, especially on “phone.” On CW, the common way to garner a contact is still by calling CQ, and it’s very common. But on phone, it can seem like everyone already knows each other, everyone’s already in a conversation, and nobody’s calling CQ. So, how do you make a contact?

Simple. When you don’t hear any CQs, call one! Problem is, if you don’t hear many good, experienced operators calling CQ, how do you know to do it right? This obviously is a problem, since most newbies calling CQ really aren’t doing it right, at all. No sweat, we were all newbies once. Here’s a good way to call CQ and actually get answers:

  1. Pick what you think is a clear frequency, within your licensed band limits. (Always stay about 4 kHz clear of any band edge (or license subband edge), as using standard bandwidth SSB, it’s easy to have sideband energy at least 3 kHz from your “carrier” (center) frequency of operation – there may be no carrier with SSB, but your dial usually reads the frequency where the carrier would be, if there were one.)
  2. Transmit, and ask, “Is the frequency in use?” Stop transmitting, and listen for an answer. If you hear no reply, after about five seconds ask one more time, “Is the frequency in use?” If you still hear no reply, consider the frequency fair game for a CQ. If you hear a reply like, “Yes it is!” or more politely, “Yes, thanks for asking,” tune to another seemingly clear frequency and start again.
  3. Call CQ. Always include your callsign and your location in the CQ. And always make a CQ last at least 20 or 30 seconds. Enunciate clearly, and use phonetics at least once or twice. Although it seems silly, it’s common to also announce the band you’re on when calling CQ. This really isn’t so silly when you think about it: You’re actually calling “the band,” since you’re not calling any station in particular. So, don’t laugh when, on 20 meters, you hear someone calling, “CQ 20 meters.” It makes sense. Here’s a good CQ format, for general purpose work. (Note: None of this pertains to contesting.)

“CQ, CQ, CQ calling CQ 20 meters. This is WB2WIK calling. Whiskey Bravo Two Whiskey India Kilo, WB2WIK in Los Angeles calling CQ 20 meters. Hello CQ, CQ, CQ 20 meters. This is WB2WIK calling. Whiskey Bravo Two Whiskey India Kilo, WB2WIK in Los Angeles calling CQ 20 meters and standing by for a call.”

Perfect. That CQ takes exactly 30 seconds for me to say crisply and clearly, not too fast and not too slow. It announced my callsign six times, including twice phonetically. It announced my location twice. There should be little question, for anyone who tuned across my signal, who I am or where I am.

It’s important to give your location during a CQ, unless you happen to be in, for example, a very small country. If I were operating from Liechtenstein, and had a local call there, I probably wouldn’t bother announcing my town or city – it’s a small place, and the same beam heading for anyone, anywhere, regardless of what town I’m in. But operating from the U.S. or Canada, or other large country (China, Russia, Brazil come to mind), the distance between one town and another can be thousands of miles, and require vastly different beam headings. Another reason to announce your location: Many hams tuning the bands are County Hunters, or looking for a new State for WAS, or whatever. The more information you provide with your CQ, the more likely you are to receive an answer – period.

On the VHF bands, weak signal enthusiasts (using SSB) call CQ, and usually include their grid square in lieu of other location data. This is because the grid square tells anyone listening all they need to know about your approximate location, and whether they “need” your grid or not, for an award or contest point, or whatever. Because 4-digit grid squares are quite large (1° latitude by 2° longitude) and VHF antennas quite sharp, when I call CQ on VHF or UHF, I include not only my grid square but other location information as well, to help a station hearing me weakly determine which way to turn his antenna to hear me better. It helps.

Important note: Repeat Step (3) above if you receive no reply to your CQ! If, after five or six tries (CQ calls) on the same frequency, over a period of a few minutes, you still have no replies, try tuning up or down the band a little bit, and try again. It sometimes happens that even though the frequency sounds perfectly clear to you, and no one answered your “frequency in use?” call, the frequency may indeed be busy for listeners in other areas, and might be tied up by a very strong signal emanating from a station too close for you to hear via sky-wave (and too far to hear any other way).

Now that I’ve taught you how to call CQ, do you really know how to answer one? Many hams evidently don’t, as I can tell by the answers I receive when I call CQ, myself!

How to answer a CQ: First, use the callsign of the station you’re calling. Follow that by your own callsign, and your approximate whereabouts. If the station you’re calling is very strong, just once will do. If he’s very weak, you might double up the call. If you’re calling in a pileup, timing, frequency and articulation are more important than signal strength. I’ll explain.

Typical call:

“WB2WIK this is K2OWR, Kilo Two Oscar Whiskey Romeo in New Jersey calling.”

Bingo! Perfect. He told me his call, twice, once phonetically, and also where he is. Can’t ask for more than that. His call took six seconds, and gave me all the data I need.

If I didn’t hear him well, I might say, “QRZ? Is someone calling me? Try again please; this is WB2WIK.” And he could try again, maybe twice this time, that is, doubling up on the call, like this:

“WB2WIK, this is K2OWR, Kilo Two Oscar Whiskey Romeo, K2OWR in New Jersey calling. Copy now?”

That takes about 2-3 seconds longer, but repeats the call once more. If his signal’s weak or I have a high noise level or other distraction, that should still be sufficient.

I might not hear him because I’m beamed towards the Pacific, and poor K2OWR’s off the back of my beam. So I’ll usually say something like, “This is WB2WIK in Los Angeles, beaming Pacific. Weak station, where are you?” To which he should reply, “New Jersey, New Jersey, New Jersey, New Jersey, QSL?” or something like that, to advise me that I’m beamed the wrong way.

For those who don’t have beams, remember it usually takes 60 seconds to rotate a beam all the way around, and 30 seconds to go 180 degrees. If you make your transmissions too short, we’ll never be able to peak you. Those with Fluid Motion SteppIR beams can change directions 180 degrees in about five seconds, but the rest of us take longer.

Now, in a pileup, as often occurs on any “rare” station (DX, or maybe not even DX, but a special event station, rare IOTA island, whatever), it is very poor practice to make a long call. So poor, in fact, that if you are actually heard by the rare station making a too-long call, he might “blacklist” you, to be sure to never work you the entire time he’s operating, just as punishment for your crappy operating. Don’t be blacklisted.

Many pileups operate “split,” of course, and I won’t go into a whole seminar on working DX and split frequency operation. But assuming you’re able to transmit on a frequency where the DX (or rare station) is listening, timing and articulation are everything, and certainly more important than signal strength in most cases. Your call must be timed precisely to when the other station’s listening. Make your call very short and sweet, don’t use any fancy phonetics, and although many successful DX operators use “last two” for a callsign, this really isn’t good practice and I wouldn’t suggest it. (“Last two” means saying only the last two letters of your callsign, omitting everything else, just to get through; for example, if your call is KG1ABC, you’d sign “BC.” Don’t do it.)

When calling in a pileup, your transmission should be very short, but properly timed. The average call that actually “gets through” and makes a successful contact is probably in the 1-2 second range. Practice saying your call articulately (very clearly) in just one or two seconds. Crispness counts. If you use phonetics to make a longer call because it seems that’s what everyone else is doing, use appropriate phonetics. If you’re calling a DX station who has an accent (sounds like he’s from a non-English speaking country), try “international” phonetics, rather than the common American ones. International phonetics are often the names of cities or countries: W1ABC might be W1 America Brazil Canada. J is Japan, and Y is Yokohama, especially if calling a Japanese station! I is always Italy when calling an Italian, and G is always Germany when calling a German. Make it make sense.

Great practice: Use a tape recorder, or a digital voice recorder, and listen to yourself. Only when doing so will you know how you really sound. Most people don’t sound nearly as good as they think they do. Which is why many people cringe when they hear their own voices played back!

When calling in a pileup, follow a few simple rules:

  • Be really sure you can actually hear the station you’re calling! It makes no sense to call someone you can’t hear.
  • If it’s a split operation, be sure you have the split frequencies tuned in or programmed properly, so you’re really calling the station where he’s listening, or approximately so.
  • Become adept at listening to both the DX station causing the pileup, and the pileup itself. If you have “dual receivers,” perfect. If not, use the “A/B” switch on your rig to switch quickly between the DX and the pileup, trying to hear the last station the DX worked and getting a feel for whether the DX station is sticking with just one receive frequency, or tuning around. If he’s tuning around, you might note a trend, like, “Hey, he’s tuning up the band, and every station he works is 200 Hz higher than the last guy.” Follow the trend, and beat others to the “new” frequency.
  • Follow the protocol that seems to be working for others, but by all means remember that a 2-way contact is only made when you and the other station exchange callsigns and another piece of data, such as a signal report. Considering the contact complete because you think you heard the DX utter your callsign suffix is lunacy.

Get really good at it, and you don’t need to have the strongest signal in the pileup. Having a moderate signal with great articulation, no background noise and no distortion will get right through, if you time your call right.

So, there you have it. How to call CQ, and how to answer one. Simple, eh?

Now go practice it! See you on the bands.