Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Skywaves Story

I didn't particularly want to write an essay about this, but I would like to take this opportunity to explain a few things about Skywaves and clear up a few points. I am often asked about Skywaves and how it began and, more recently, what is happening to it now, particularly since I stood down as Group Owner. 

First, a little history: "Skywaves" was the name of the monthly publication of the "British FM & TV Circle", a hobby radio club I started at the end of 1995. I was a member of other DX radio clubs but none of them catered for the FM (band 2) the TV or MW DXer in any great depth, other than publishing a few loggings on an irregular basis, so after consultation with a couple of other FM & TV DX enthusiasts, namely David Small and Ian Kelly, we got together to plan how the group would operate. Initially, David was co-editor of the satellite TV and TV DX columns while Ian Kelly took on the role of membership secretary and edited the Mailbag section. Skywaves was compiled in Microsoft Word. 

Printing was done on my Hewlett Packard computer printer. Each bulletin was collated by creating separate piles for each page and stapling them together - all lovingly hand crafted! Each editor produced their columns using a variety of software, Wordstar comes to mind as one of the earlier DOS programmes, then the editors posted their columns to me on a floppy disc! This may seem very primitive by today's standards but it was all very exciting and 'cutting-edge' technology in 1995! 

In its first month, the club had just 18 members but this figure exceeded 100 in just a few months. The Skywaves bulletin was sent to members via the traditional postal system. That's right - sticking stamps on envelopes and popping them in the post box in town! The post could take several days to arrive as we had a two-tier system. Some of the members opted for first class post and others opted for second class. Remember those days? 

In 2000, I opened the first Skywaves Yahoo group. It seemed to be a good idea to embrace the latest technology and use the system of posts which appeared on our Yahoo web page almost instantly! Never before had such up-to-the-minute DX news been seen in the DX world. 

Membership soon grew into the hundreds as the British FM & TV Circle quickly became established as one of the world's leading FM & TV DX clubs and, right from the beginning, we operated the club on a non profit-making basis. Everything was done to promote the hobby and encourage newcomers. Any surplus funds were kept in the bank account and used to keep the membership rates at a constant level. 

Printing soon became a lengthy and more complex task in the early 2000s and we looked around for a more professional level of printing. Mark Hattam took this on and produced the bulltin from London. A new 'pdf' format of the bulletin was created which would then mean that Skywaves could be downloaded and read online - free of charge! Members were given the option to continue to have their printed Skywaves bulletin posted to them or have the new downloadable pdf version. After a year or so most members had opted for the pdf version and only a couple of members continued to opt for the printed bulletin. Shortly after this the printed bulletin ceased. 

After some time we found that our regular editors wanted to stand down from editing their column due to various reasons and new editors became more and more difficult to find. Ultimately, each editor had stood down, one by one, but were not replaced. The Yahoo group seemed to be providing all the information club members wanted and there was no need for any kind of bulletin or newsletter with complicated editing methods. Why this happened is unclear but there was some thinking that the pdf made people lazy and we all wanted to do everything online. 

I still wonder if we should have stuck to the printed bulletin and not gone down the pdf route, but other DX clubs who had not taken advantage of electronic versions of their bulletins at the time were also struggling with lower contribution rates and a need for editorial replacements. I don't think there is a simple answer which could explain the demise of the Skywaves bulletin, but I tend to lean towards the more popular opiinion and rather cruel assumption that most people are just lazy these days. "If it's not freely available on the internet then it's too much trouble to bother with". I think this is further backed up by the fact that we have twice tried to re-instate the Skywaves bulletin. On both occasions, there was enthusiatic support for this. Skywaves was downloaded many times on both occasions, each bulletin download running into three figures within the first couple of days with subsequent comments being very supportive and encouraging, but the lack of editorial volunteers has meant that we could not sustain the production of the Skywaves this way. There has never been a shortage of interesting content to include in Skywaves, but I think most people simply want to get their DX fix from internet forums these days. It does seem as if the traditional DX club and their printed bulletins are on their way out. 

Since the demise of the bulletin I decided to get rid of the name "British FM & TV Circle" and just use the name "Skywaves". I never felt comfortable with the use of the word "British" or even "Britain". Skywaves had a global membership, which was another reason I thought the word ought to go. The word "British" also has less favourable connotations, not least because of our shameful and unnecessary involvment in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries over the years. Oooops, I am getting political! 

During 2006, I had begun to think about standing down from Skywaves and passing the whole package over to a new 'controller' ... somebody who would be able to devote more time and develop everything further. My own web skills were not quite up to scratch to achieve the goals I wanted and I was always needing to enlist the help of others . I wanted the site to become more interactive, with online logbooks, useful databases and various sub-sections, each with the abiity to be editited by the members. What I was probably trying to achieve was another online version of the Skywaves bulletin, but using a simple data entry system which everybdy would be able to use. Ultimately, some of the members were reluctant to embrace the existing online logbooks we had already put together, but the Skywaves Yahoo groups continued to flourish. 

Skywaves faced several problems over the years. One year, when the domain name came up for renewal, the hosting company locked it and refused to release it. It seemed clear that they wanted to steal the domain for themselves and sell it on for profit. I reported the company to InterNic, who acted on our behalf and ordered them to release the domain. 

The website was also hacked into twice! The first time was by a hacker who claimed to be from Iran and the second time, around the end of 2008, by malicious hackers who appeared to be from the far east. The second time was the last straw because, not only were we having problems with hackers, but our hosting company were also becoming unreliable. We lost a lot of data the second time, both on the server and on my own computer which fell victim to the hackers and the website had to be rebuilt from scratch due to a virus which the hackers had dplaced on the site. 

We were also experiencing a degree of unpleasantness from certain individuals who seemed determined to cause problems for Skywaves. It was all getting too much and I had to think seriously about the future of Skywaves. 

So, during April 2009 I stood down and passed Skywaves over to someone who I thought was going to do more justice to the general running of Skywaves, I did not expect many people to volunteer for this because of the size of the task at hand! In the end, only one person came forward and I seized the opportunity to hand over the reigns, albeit rather hurriedly. It felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Sadly, the person who took on the group did not appear to be interested in Skywaves and selfishly used it for his own web-development purposes. In the interests of Skywaves, control had to be seized rather brutally and the entire FM/TV database was maliciously deleted, resulting in the loss of around 40,000 posts, not to mention articles and loggings, etc. 

Today, Skywaves is run by a committee of Moderators, with one person holding the keys, so to speak. My heart is still with the group and, once again, things are growing under the new ownership. 

The 800 strong membership of the three Skywaves Yahoo groups are clearly the focal point of the organisation today. I personally doubt that the website will serve any major function in the future, other than to serve as a useful page to promote the Yahoo groups and the hobby in general. I am sure the new owner will be able to breathe new life into the group and keep everything running smoothly. 

So, from April 2009, I am just an ordinary member. I have left all the stress behind me and I am enjoying the DX hobby once again, partucuarly various amateur radio aspects.