How to start a radio station

Why starting a radio station makes more sense than ever.

How To Start A Radio Station

If you ever listen to the radio and subject yourself to the endless stream of bland, corporate playlists curated by the kind of shrill, unfunny DJs who dominate mainstream airwaves, you might have thought “Hey, I wonder how to start a radio station?”

You wouldn’t be alone. In this era of DIY solutions for everything – especially given how the internet and cheap computers have made communication so easy – there’s no reason why you can’t start a radio station of your own. 

You could put in a little planning and work tomorrow morning and be sharing your awesome taste in music or your opinions by that afternoon if you wanted! 

We’ll go over all the details you need to know for starting a radio station, including the practical considerations, the technical requirements, and the legal ramifications of making a radio station of your own. 

Read on to find out everything you need to know about how easy it is to set up a radio station of your own! 

But first, a little background.

How To Start A Radio Station

DIY vs. ‘pirate’ radio

You can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the long and storied history of DIY radio stations.

Once upon a more revolutionary time, micro-radio stations dotted the FM and AM landscape, with people from all walks of life and musical tastes creating micro-broadcasts to share whatever they fancied. 

They sent out their eclectic tunes or radical talk from apartments, garages, squats, ships off the coast, manufactured islands anchored in international waters, and, famously, abandoned sea forts.

These micro-stations were once rather romantically referred to as pirate radio stations, and there is a kernel of truth in that label. 

In keeping with the rebel ethos of the 1960s and 1970s, pirate radio station operators enjoyed tweaking the nose of authority with their countercultural messages, subversive music, and by flaunting their illegal status with impunity.

Popular pirates

But what really seems to have bothered the establishment is that the pirate radio operators were incredibly popular – in the UK, in some cases they even rivaled the popularity of the official programming of the BBC

An early start-up station in the UK in the 1960s, Radio Caroline, commanded an audience a third the size of the audience that tuned in to the BBC’s official “Light Programme.” 

What’s more, Radio Caroline did it with almost no budget or staff, and with zero advertising apart from word-of-mouth. 

In many ways, Radio Caroline was responsible for the government and the BBC starting up BBC Radio 1, among other alternatives. 

But the BBC waking up to the broad desire among the public for alternatives to their single, tired station playing snoozy, post-war tunes didn’t stop the underground radio broadcasters. 

Indeed, it was pirate radio broadcasters who gave the UK its first soul, hip hop, and reggae stations. 

Legit, mainstream radio stations constantly petitioned governments for stricter sanctions against the upstarts, citing fear of unapproved traffic on emergency networks as a reason to crack down. 

But it’s likely they were also more than a little embarrassed over the massive audiences the pirates drew and the way they mocked the establishment.

And if there’s one thing authority hates, it’s being mocked. 

The UK and US governments passed a series of laws in the 1960s and 1970s that outlawed much urban micro-broadcasting, as well as adding further legal complications to broadcasting from offshore, as well as upping the penalties for broadcasting without a license.

A new kind of radio

Many of the pirate radio stations are still around in one form or another, but these days they’ve mostly morphed into a new breed of micro-radio stations that operate legitimately. 

Gone are the days when people who were driven to share their music or opinions with the public were compelled to reconfigure portable FM radio transmitters, add a new antenna, disable the resistors, and drive around in their cars to evade detection. 

These days a small operator can apply for and obtain the legal right to broadcast on a certain frequency relatively easily if he or she wants to be on FM radio. It’s even easier if you want to start up an internet radio station. 

Before you dive in, however, there are a few things to consider…

Starting your own radio station: Which kind?

There are three basic radio station start-up options:

  • Low-power FM (LPFM): These kinds of radio stations are run by non-profit organizations.
  • High-power FM (HPFM): Radio stations that qualify as high-power are likely to be commercial enterprises.
  • Internet streaming: Broadcasting live online is a third, very popular option these days for a variety of reasons we’ll get into below.
How To Start A Radio Station

How to start an FM radio station

Let’s start with a traditional FM radio station and all the ins and outs you’ll need to know if you decide to start a radio station on the FM spectrum.

Again, the first thing to consider is what kind of license you want to apply for. 

Low-power FM (LPFM) licenses

These are reserved for non-profit enterprises and any kind of advertising or commercial sponsorship is forbidden if you operate one. However, they can accept donations from sponsors as long as there’s no advertising. 

These stations have a limited range and are often harder to find on the dial, depending on where your audience base is located. 

High-power FM (HPFM)stations

These commercial operations that are run for profit, can accept advertising, and have a broader range of options when it comes to funding and programming. Generally, this type of license is harder to acquire and costs more in fees.

Where to begin…

The first thing you’re going to want to do – even before you even develop a solid concept of what kind of content you want to broadcast, even before you drum up a staff and a business plan – is to apply for a license. 

This may sound counterintuitive, but you’ve heard of bureaucracy, right? Getting approved for a frequency is a tremendously, famously tedious and drawn-out process, so you should be prepared to wait a long time. 

While you’re awaiting the news of where on the dial you’ll be allowed to broadcast, you can do the following housekeeping tasks necessary to starting a radio station:

Apply for a license

You don’t want to be one of those pirates of yesteryear, as the technology for rooting out pirate stations is much more sophisticated, and all the fun goes out of it when you get slapped with a heavy fine. Apply early for your license and make sure all your information is correct.

Work on funding

This isn’t going to be cheap. Unless you’ve recently come into a fat trust fund or you cashed out your Gamestop stock at just the right moment, you’ll want to bring investors on board. 

The right level of investment will help to pay for studio space, transmitter fees, equipment like microphones and more, salaries for staff, and also just to keep the lights on and the bills paid.

Choose a type of station

Decide whether you’re aiming for the low-power, non-profit type of station or a commercial high-power one. 

If you’re a little worried about how all this will play out, you might apply for a LPFM license first, and reapply down the road if it looks like you’d rather switch to a commercial format.

Decide how much power you’ll need

Commercial, HPFM stations require tens of thousands of watts to operate, whereas a LPFM station may need only a thousand or so. Either way, watts cost money, so this is another factor to consider as you round up investors and develop your business plan.

Get equipped

Speaking of benefactors: it’s Christmas time, baby! Well, not exactly. But you will need to shop for and round up equipment like transmitter equipment, an antenna, and more. Alternatively, you may opt to rent space on an existing tower for your broadcast. 

Set up your studio

You’ll need to do another round of shopping to get yourself set up with microphones, soundproofing, headphones, speakers, and more.

Get your on-air talent on board

Make sure you recruit enough talent to fill all of your time slots, because guess who has to fill in when no one else is available, boss? 

You’ll want to spend extensive time with your new on-air partners to make sure everyone’s on the same page. 

Have them carefully develop and lay out exactly what they plan to do with their blocks of time, and make sure you and your team spend time developing their skills and comfort level with their chosen format by running multiple practice “broadcasts” off-air before the big day comes around. 

Your goal should be to essentially have your station and the entirety of the schedule up and running off-air just as you want it to be presented on-air in the days leading up to flipping the switch and going live in order to make it a seamless transition.

How To Start A Radio Station

How to start an AM radio station

You’ll find that the same general steps listed above for how to start an FM radio station also apply to starting an AM station, but there are a few important differences. 

What are the differences between AM radio vs. FM radio?

AM radio operates between the frequencies of 540 to 1700 kilohertz, a lower frequency than FM radio, which means the sound quality is lower, but can be transmitted over longer distances. 

To start an AM station you’ll need to apply for a license just as you do with an FM station start-up. 

However, one of the complications to starting an AM station is that the onus is on you to prove that whatever frequency you select won’t interfere with any other AM station that’s adjacent on the dial. It’ll usually require paying an expert to suss this out for you and provide the proof for regulators.

One advantage of AM radio is that it is cheaper than FM to license, set up, and run an AM station. The downside is that you’ll be broadcasting on a weaker signal that’s prone to interference.

The limits of physics

Not only that, in the US, the FCC requires that AM stations power down significantly at sunset due to the AM signals’ interactions with the ionosphere, which changes drastically at night. 

It’s a complicated bit of physics, but suffice to say that during the day, AM waves travel by conduction over the surface of the Earth. At night, however, AM waves can potentially travel hundreds of miles by reflection from the ionosphere. 

If all AM stations were allowed to operate at night, there would be massive and near-total interference between stations, even those hundreds of miles away from each other. 

In truth, the bottom line about how to start an AM radio station versus how to start an FM radio station is that AM is cheaper provides a signal that’s easily picked up by even rudimentary equipment.

The disadvantages in terms of sound quality, nightly limitations on power and reach, and other difficulties make it a last resort – especially in the age of the internet.

How To Start A Radio Station

How to start an internet radio station

So, there are a few advantages to starting an FM radio station, such as a certain legitimacy as conferred on you by the FCC (for a price), a limited field of competitors, a limited range on the FM dial for people to find you randomly, and a few other reasons.

But for most people who are reading this with a sincere desire to learn how to start a radio station, if you factor in cost, ease of getting started, preparations needed, and immediacy, internet radio is likely to be their first choice for making a radio station of their own. 

One thing’s certain: internet radio is the first choice among young Americans. According to Statista, 91 percent of people aged 12-24 have listened to online radio in the last month. 

Online radio listening is also growing at the other end of the age spectrum, with the over-55 group increasing by seven percent in 2019 alone. It’s not like the middle group is out of the picture either; for people aged 25-54, 74 percent reported listening to online radio over the past month.

And just because we’re talking about internet radio where everything is “free,” don’t think this is a charity operation. In 2019 streaming music revenue was $8.8 billion, a number that continues to creep up on over-the-air stations’ revenue of $12.8 billion. 

Advantages of starting an online radio station

Low up-front costs

Times are tight for everyone these days, perhaps even more so for those of us with a passion for music, news, or other information of the kind you might want to broadcast and share with the world. 

If you’re looking at starting an internet radio station, you’ll find your up-front costs versus those of someone who wants to start an FM radio station are drastically lower. 

You can get away with a basic set of tools like this:

  • A computer
  • A stable internet connection
  • Microphones and accessories
  • Content

That’s enough to get you started. 

Down the road, or if you have a little extra money to get your set-up just right before you start, you might consider investing in mic processors and filters, a broadcasting desk, and broadcasting software, but in truth you can get away without them for now if money’s tight.

Automation

With most versions of the aforementioned broadcasting software, you’ll have the option to set up automated blocks of broadcasting quickly and easily. 

It’s even possible with some of these programs to set up a station to run for several months unattended. (We don’t recommend this except in case of zombie apocalypse.)

Reduced operating costs

If you refer back to the section on how to start an FM radio station, you’ll note that the costs included a number of brick-and-mortar expenditures like building an exclusive-use studio, either building a transmitter tower or paying to use one, buying an FCC license, and etc. 

With internet radio, all that’s swept away.

For starters, your personnel costs are drastically reduced. What’s more, the people you do work with can often perform their duties from their own homes, if they have a stable internet connection and a decent mic. 

The recurring expenditures you will have to concern yourself with include:

  • Website hosting
  • Internet service
  • Royalties (for commercial music)
  • Staff

Broader reach

Another distinct advantage internet radio has over radio of either terrestrial band is that you can reach audiences those long-ago pirate radio radicals could only dream of. Your potential audience is the entire internet-connected planet, a group whose numbers grow every day.

According to Statista, there are some 3.8 billion smart phones in the world today, and 4.88 billion mobile phones. That means some 48 percent of the global population owns a smart phone. 

With streaming apps and simple internet access, your radio station in Kansas can potentially reach audiences in Australia, Korea, or Nigeria.  

Access on all devices

A physical radio is really only good for one thing – picking up radio signals from a starkly limited geographic area. 

With internet radio, however, you can reach people on a plethora of devices like smart phones, computers, gaming consoles, car entertainment systems, smart TVs, and smart home entertainment systems like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. 

Get on the podcast train

The explosion in popularity in podcasting is a phenomenon that’s not to be ignored – not by advertisers nor by content creators. Setting up an internet radio station positions you and your team perfectly to get on board the podcast express. 

You can do this either as content creators or as hosts for other people’s podcasts – while of course charging a small fee for use of your equipment and perhaps even getting yourself a cut of their podcast’s revenue.

Better listener data

Traditionally, it’s damned difficult to gather audience data for radio listeners or television viewers, as these devices are stand-alone, and they’re in the person’s house, closed off from the world. 

However, as we all know, the internet is a natural net for capturing user data. There are a number of content provider-facing software services that will give you valuable information on your audiences.

These are:

  • Total listeners broken down by day, month or year
  • Listener location
  • Total listening hours

This kind of information is a gold mine for content providers looking to grow their brand and give their people what they want. What’s more, it’s much more transparent for internet radio purveyors than for terrestrial radio operators. 

It’ll also help you fine-tune and specifically tailor how you spend your advertising dollars – not to mention help you to better provide results for advertisers using your platform to reach their customers.

How to start a radio station

Conclusions

Far from being a dusty relic of the past whose time is long gone, radio looks like it’s here for at least the foreseeable future. 

And with the developments and innovations we see on almost a daily basis for internet radio, not to mention the exponential growth in audience reach across all demographics, there’s no reason why internet radio won’t be an integral part of the media landscape for a very long time to come. 

For those of adventurous, creative spirit, those who have music or words they desire to share, or who simply seek a way to connect across vast distances with like-minded people, the notion of starting a radio station is a project that’s well within reach on even the most humble budget. 

Well, what are you waiting for? Check out some of the reviews in Radio Fidelity for all the best deals in the highest quality headphones, microphones, and other equipment you need to get started, and join the new radio revolution!

Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.