Many years ago I bought and absorbed The Complete DX'er by W9KNI. If there one overriding lesson from that book was the importance of listening. Of course there was no global DX spotting network -- just pockets of friends who would let each other know when a rare one appeared on the band -- making listening, and lots of it, an absolute must for the DX enthusiast.
Although I had been around long enough by then to not learn much from the book it put what I was already doing into perspective , therefore enabling me to better understand the strategy of good listening. When I returned to air a few years ago after a long hiatus from ham radio I soon learned that too much listening could actually be detrimental. While I listened someone else spotted the rare one and those receiving alerts from the spotting networks got there first.
Since I was QRP at the time showing up late was often no better than not showing up at all. I updated and honed my pile up skills to overcome this handicap, and I seemed to do pretty well at it. However the value of listening is still there, if you understand how the game is now played. Listening is a way to catch the DX before the horde arrived, especially the majority who would only stir when there was a spot. The majority have, in effect, delegated the listening to others, including the skimmers.
The why of listening
There is of course the operating awards benefit of listening, that of getting there first and not having to contend with the pile ups. Modern pile ups are like the phenomenon of flash mobs, growing from nothing to a large crowd in a minute -- spotting networks are a kind of social media. Years ago it took time for the pile up to build since there was no instant communications to one and all about where the DX was located, or that a rare one was active.
That is not the only reason to listen. Listening is in itself a pleasure. When I was very young and first discovered the magic of short wave radio I liked to listen to signals coming in from all over. But I didn't have a receiver. Instead I would "borrow" the family 5-tube AM radio from the kitchen. I had learned that by unscrewing the slug in the local oscillator coil I could lift the coverage to well above the end of the broadcast band at 1,600 kHz.
There I heard AM broadcasters, commercial operations such as ship to shore and the odd pulsations of RTTY as heard through an AM detector. I also came across the rhythmic thumping of CW and the unintelligible squawk of SSB. That was how I first discovered the existence of amateur radio and hams. A ham license was still several years in the future.
After my listening sessions I would screw the slug back down, making sure to calibrate the dial to a local broadcast station, and return it to the kitchen. My parents were very tolerant of my burgeoning hobby. That is, as long as there was no harm to what was to them an expensive appliance.
My listening habit carried over after I was licensed. Some of that was out of necessity since I did not have much of a station: an 807 to a dipole 3 meters high. I enjoyed it immensely nonetheless. In a way I found more pleasure in discovering DX on the bands than calling and, sometimes, working it. As time went on my DXing, and then contesting, became more intense so that my listening had an objective: I was hunting more than listening.
Why do it now
I am happy to say that I have rediscovered some of that early magic. At times I find myself tuning the bands for no other reason than to hear what is out there, having no inclination to transmit at all. With the new Beverage antenna I can listen in on far more distant DX on 80 and 160 meters than before. Without a decent transmit antenna I cannot work them, so listening to them is all I can do for now.
With the return of the equinox comes propagation over the pole from south and southeast Asia. I enjoy tuning the bands from 40 meters on up to catch the openings and hear what I can hear. Often the signals are very weak and not easily workable. Either I don't have enough power or they are hearing others far more strongly than from this part of the world.
Of course I do sometimes come across some moderately rare DX, and that's all to the good. Just this morning I tuned across V85TL calling CQ on 20 meter CW and getting no callers at all. No one had yet spotted him. I worked him without much difficulty. Then I listened as his subsequent CQs went unanswered. The band was busy, with stations all around, yet none seemed to be listening. After a couple of minutes I spotted him and that drew in callers.
I think it's a shame that too many hams nowadays don't listen. This is not about getting there first or sharing the burden of hunting down the DX and spotting it for others. What I find unfortunate is that too many seem to have lost the simple pleasure of tuning the bands and listening, and perhaps finding the unexpected. Not for awards or points but for the thing itself.
Do newer hams feel the magic of radio? Perhaps not in the same way, and that's a shame. Some of my own generation seem to have lost the magical feeling that drew them to amateur radio in the beginning, yet others I know still have it. There are hams I know who in their single-minded pursuit of DXCC Honor Roll will only stir to turn on the rig when a new one appears on the bands. That leaves me cold -- to me amateur radio is much more than that.
This is not to be critical of anyone or to make myself out to be a curmudgeon. Radio still has magic to it and I regret that some may have lost that feeling or perhaps have never had it. All I can do is shrug it off, feeling that they are overlooking something of value. I will keep listening.