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 share 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.
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.
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 flaunting their illegal status with impunity.
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 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, adding further legal complications to radio broadcasting from offshore. These laws also upped 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 times when people were driven to share their music or opinions with the public and 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.
The Three Key Requirements to Start a Radio Station
If you’ve always wanted to start a radio station, the first thing is to know where to start and what is required of you.
Before deciding on the type of radio station (AM/FM) and the broadcasting equipment ideal for your needs, ask yourself, “What does the law require before starting a radio station?” This is the guiding question that will help you start a legal radio station.
That said, there are three main requirements I want to bring to your attention to help you assess your capacity to start a radio station. They include:
Getting the Frequency
Your radio station will only operate if it has an assigned frequency.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), unlicensed broadcasting in the US, including on low power, is prohibited. Therefore, you must apply for your radio station’s frequency and comply with the stipulated regulations.
We’re intentionally discussing frequency application as one of the very first things you want to do for a good reason. The application process is tedious and time-consuming due to the heavy demand for frequencies. Therefore, it may take a long time before you get assigned a frequency.
Here are some of the radio frequencies you can apply for:
AM broadcast radio stations
AM radio stations have frequencies between 540 kHz and 1700 kHz.
To be allocated an AM radio frequency, you must prove to the FCC that your station will not interfere with other stations operating on the same frequency or the adjacent ones within a 30 kHz range.
It’s recommended to consult a broadcast radio engineer to help with this analysis.
FM commercial radio broadcast stations
These correspond to channels 221 to 300 within the 92.1 MHz and 107.9 MHz frequency bands.
Your applications for this frequency band must adhere to the recommended spacing of 70 dBu city coverage. They must also adhere to other technical requirements that apply to commercial radio stations.
Noncommercial FM Educational Radio Stations
These correspond to channels 201 to 220, operating within the 88.1 MHz and 91.9 MHz frequency bands.
Also referred to as the reserved band, these frequencies are only permitted and authorized on condition that they won’t cause interference to other stations. Interference assessment is conducted based on contour protection.
Low Power Noncommercial Educational FM Radio
Operating within 1 to 100 watts, these radio stations cover a radius of approximately 3.5 miles (5.6 km). The FCC’s LPFM Page has all the details you need to apply for this frequency.
Getting a License
As mentioned, it’s illegal to operate an unauthorized radio in the US. Therefore, before going through the entire process of starting a radio station, ensure you’re conversant with the licensing requirements.
According to the FCC, anyone found operating an unlicensed radio station is subject to enforcement actions, including fines, equipment seizures, and criminal and other civil penalties.
The only authorized exceptions include domestic aircraft and ship radios, Citizens Band (CB) radios, and radio control stations.
Establish the Source of Funding
Starting a radio station is not a walk in the park—it’s a costly affair. Therefore, before setting out on that journey, ensure you have a sure source of funding that will get you through.
Some of the capital-intensive startup costs include:
- Frequency and licensing fees
- Paying for studio space
- General liability insurance
- Paying for power
- Buying the necessary equipment like transmitters, condenser microphones, and antennas
- Designing the studio, including soundproofing
- Recruiting broadcasters
- Developing a mobile application for an internet radio
Some funding sources you can rely on include:
- Business loans
- Personal savings
- Personal loans
Once you have these requirements in place, you can proceed to start the radio station of your choice, either AM or FM, as discussed below.
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, which means 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 an 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 an 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.
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,
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. For a seamless transition, this must be similar to how you want it to be presented on-air in the days leading up to flipping the switch and going live.
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 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 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 to put it simply, 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 and 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 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 on their mobile devices.
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.
Online radio is a worthy investment because most people are finding it easier to listen to these radios through their mobile apps.
And just because we’re talking about internet radio stations 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.
It’s worth noting that besides the usual radio licensing from the FCC, internet radio stations require additional licensing to play copyrighted music.
You can get this license from performance rights organizations like the SESAC (the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers), the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI).
Alternatively, you can decide to play royalty free music.
A rule of thumb when it comes to licensing online radio stations is to involve an attorney familiar with internet radio licensing.
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
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.
With most versions of the radio broadcasting software mentioned, 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 a 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 radio studio, either building a transmitter tower or paying to use one, buying an FCC license, 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)
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 smartphones in the world today and 4.88 billion mobile phones. That means some 48 percent of the global population owns a smartphone.
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 smartphones, 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 of 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 radio 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 several content provider-facing software services that will give you valuable information on your audiences.
- 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 provide better results for advertisers using your platform to reach their customers.
Develop a Program for Your Audience
Creating a successful radio programming schedule is crucial to attracting and retaining your audience.
Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to develop a radio program that will cater to your target audience’s needs:
- Define your target audience: Before you start creating a program, identify your target audience. Who are you trying to reach? Consider factors like age, gender, interests, and location.
- Research your audience: Conduct audience research to understand their preferences. This can involve surveys, focus groups, and social media interactions. You can also look at competitors’ audiences for insights.
- Format and style: Choose a programming format and style that aligns with your target audience. Key options include talk radio, music, news, and sports. Consider whether your audience prefers a formal, casual, or entertainment-driven style.
- Content Variety: Offer a variety of content to keep your audience engaged. Mix music, interviews, talk radio shows, news, and other elements to cater to different interests.
- Programming schedule: Create a weekly or daily schedule that’s predictable for your audience and remain consistent to build loyalty. Plan different time slots for various content types to cater to different audience segments.
- Local relevance: If your station serves a specific geographical area, ensure that your programming includes local businesses and news, events, and community-focused content. This helps you connect with the community and build a local audience.
- Balance familiar and new content: While it’s important to have familiar content that your audience expects, don’t be afraid to introduce new and unique segments to keep things fresh and exciting.
- Interactive elements: Engage your audience through call-ins, contests, and social media interaction. This not only builds a sense of community but also provides real-time feedback on your programming.
- Promotions and special events: Plan special programming for holidays, local events, or themed weeks. Promotions and events can boost listenership and excitement.
- Collaborations and guests: Invite relevant guests, experts, and influencers to your shows. This adds credibility and can attract a wider audience.
- Test and refine: Don’t be afraid to experiment with new segments and concepts. If something isn’t working, be ready to refine or replace it.
- Feedback and engagement: Encourage your audience to provide feedback and actively engage with them on your social media accounts or through feedback channels. Show that you value their opinions and ideas.
- Adapt to trends: Stay informed about current events and radio broadcasting trends to stay competitive.
How to start a radio station
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 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 on the highest quality headphones, microphones, and other studio equipment you need to get started and join the new radio revolution!
To inspire and give you an idea, you can also tune into what the leading radio stations are doing today! Here is Your Guide To The Best 11 Talk Radio Stations In Los Angeles and Top 11 Alternative Radio Stations In The USA!
Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.