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How to set up a low power FM radio station

By: Tony Katavich

While the information in this guide deals with a New Zealand example, many of the points are relevant in other countries.

When you come to setting up a radio station, you have two very different options. The first choice is to apply for a full power commercial FM license. This type of license allows you to broadcast over a large area. The drawbacks with a full power FM license are that it is often a complicated process, that no frequency may be available in the area you wish to broadcast, and that ongoing fees apply.

Another option is to set up a low power FM radio station. In New Zealand, there are no ongoing fees to operate this type of station – however you do need to pay nominal annual fees to APRA and RIANZ for music royalties. You do need to ensure however that your transmission equipment is compliant with Radio Spectrum Management regulations. Additionally, as is the case with any radio station, all your broadcasts need to comply with the Broadcasting Act. Fundamentally this means your broadcasts must be in ‘good taste’. The advantages that a low power FM radio station have over a commercial station is that is is much less expensive to set up at the outset, your likelihood of finding a suitable frequency are much higher, and there are far fewer ongoing costs.

When operating a low power FM station, you need to determine who your audience is. If you are broadcasting in an area where there are already a number of resident commercial stations, you may enjoy more success by broadcasting niche programming that appeals to an audience not currently served by the full power FM stations. Alternatively for those who are located in a more rural area or town, you then have the opportunity to set your station up as the ‘local’ alternative to what is already available. Generally a local station competing against a station being beamed in by satellite from one of the main centres will attract a great deal of local community support.

When it comes to setting up a low power FM radio station, you need to bear in mind these points. The studio space should ideally be away from external sources of noise (i.e. not located next to a construction site), and should be a small room. Larger rooms tend to generate echo that can get down the microphone and on air. When it comes to the equipment, there are a few specialist items you will require. These include the transmitter and antenna system, a limiter / compressor, a unit to balance the audio, as well as a device to enable you to take phone calls on air. In addition, ideally your station will also have a mixing desk, microphones, headphones, CD player, audio cables, a computer system and radio automation software. You will also need licenses from APRA and RIANZ that cover your music royalty responsibilities. For the most basic setup however, it is possible to make do with simply the transmitter and antenna system and your music licenses.

In New Zealand, people broadcasting on a low power FM basis must use transmission equipment that meets spurious emission limits, and which has a maximum power output of 500mW. While this is a fraction of the power that a full power commercial radio station would broadcast at, provided you have a good site and the antenna is mounted correctly, you can enjoy coverage of up to 10 square kilometres. The frequencies you may broadcast on are 88.1 – 88.7 FM and 106.7 – 107.7 FM. The factor that has the greatest influence on how far your broadcast will go is the height of your antenna – the higher, the better.

It is also necessary to consider the following points:
- determine that the likely broadcast area of your station will not interfere, or receive interference, from other people broadcasting on low power FM freqencies in your area.
- you must ensure that your broadcast signal is adequately compressed and that it isn’t too ‘wide’
- ensure that the radio automation software you use is reliable and is fully tested to operate trouble-free operation
- your station needs to be logically programmed in order to sound professional
- ensure that all your broadcasts comply with broadcast standards and other regulations

Developing a successful station involves much more than simply obtaining a low power FM transmitter, plugging it in and playing music on air. By carefully setting up your station and ensuring that your broadcasts bear in mind the target audience, you can be assured of much enjoyment, an insight into the fascinating radio industry, and perhaps even a new career.

About the author:
Tony Katavich has set up several low power FM radio stations in New Zealand and has managed a commercial radio station.

[email protected]

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