The Zero Bias editorial in the September 2023 edition of CQ Magazine includes a frequent admission that things aren’t all peachy in the magazine publishing world. Editor Rich Moseson, W2VU is a straight shooter and I’d say ‘fair and balanced’ in his view of our hobby. He begins by detailing the recent moves made by ARRL with regard to membership dues, the cost to print and distribute QST Magazine, and the digital alternative. Lest you think he’s gloating over that sad situation, he points out that CQ Magazine has also been seriously impacted by the disruptions in that industry and acknowledges the publication hasn’t been able to properly service its readers since before the pandemic. That’s particularly interesting because the edition of CQ Magazine I was reading was a free digital download from their web site. I haven’t been a paid subscriber for several years due to the very problems he detailed.
Moseson described how the pandemic hurt his business, but it’s obvious the magazine publishing industry was in a lot of trouble pre-pandemic. Especially for a niche market like amateur radio and even more so when there aren’t alternate streams of income. CQ Magazine strictly sells books and a magazine subscription whereas the folks in Newington at least have member dues to back them up. The problem is, while ARRL has for decades touted membership as being so much more than just QST, and I agree that it is, the magazine showing up in the mailbox each and every month is what attracted so many members for so many years and this couldn’t be a secret.
While there are problems with the rapidly rising cost of paper, printing, and postage, a more formidable challenge is that reading habits have changed rapidly too. I’m tempted to call this generation of hams non-readers who are less literate than those of another era, but that wouldn’t be fair. People simply don’t read like they used to and this has hurt the entire publishing industry. Count me as one of those. I used to devour each edition of QST from cover to cover as soon as it arrived. These days I tend to catch up on that reading months later unless there is some pressing matter or a review that I’m anxious to learn about. While days in the 21st century contain the same number of hours as they did in the 20th century, we seem to suffer from a time deficit and reading a hobby magazine has moved far down the list of things to do with whatever “free” time can be found.
I admit this even as a big fan of QST — I firmly believe it’s the best amateur radio publication available. I’ve no complaints about the articles which I still find to be interesting, educational, and just the right mix of technical and informational. If I were to complain it would be about the silly “staged” cover shots intended to fool people about our hobby. It doesn’t work. Putting photos of minority groups enjoying ham radio on the cover is intended to send a message of diversity, but we remain a hobby of mostly old white men. ARRL would better serve the hobby by making actual changes that make amateur radio more inclusive. Ours could be such a large and marvelous international tent…
The periodical publishing problems will continue to strain ARRL resources unless something is discovered that has yet to be discovered by that entire industry. I stopped buying general magazines off the newsstand when they hit seven bucks and now some are more than ten dollars for a single copy. These publishers can shout into my face about their rising costs and how they are losing money, but I’m not paying that much for a throwaway magazine. ARRL members who don’t consider the other services the League provides will react the same way to the increased cost of receiving a printed copy of QST in postal mail. It’s a death spiral for ARRL membership and the disruption this will cause over the coming decade will be Titanic in its scope and reach.
I don’t believe ham radio can survive in the US without ARRL and radio hams who frequently cheer its demise aren’t clear thinkers. US government officials who regulate the airwaves were bought and sold long ago and the commercialization of every femtometer of RF bandwidth is coveted by someone with eventual plans to take it. At a minimum, ARRL serves as a speed bump against this kind of encroachment.
And don’t kid yourself, ARDC isn’t going to replace the ARRL and fix everything, that level of naïveté isn’t encouraging for any future vision for amateur radio…
Unable to offer any solid advice for how all this can be repaired and ARRL restored to its former glory, I’ll end this with a comment about CQ Magazine. I want them to succeed. We need a vibrant, independent voice for amateur radio and CQ has provided that since its founding in 1945. The hobby needs it to thrive, but the challenges are many and the habits of its potential readers continue to evolve. People who work at CQ and at ARRL would probably appreciate your suggestions and feedback on how they can improve the situation, though I will tell you, if the best you have is for “all content to be free” and unencumbered by any kind of restrictive license, you might keep that to yourself.
No one who sells magazines for a living will hear that.