In 1948 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved a small portion of the FM radio band for 10-watt, non-commercial broadcast by schools and non-profit community groups, granting Class D licenses for such stations. In 1978, National Public Radio (NPR) planned to expand and petitioned the FCC for a rule change. The FCC eliminated Class D licenses by massively complicating the licensing process. Activists protested and in 2000, the FCC relented and started a low power FM (LPFM) service to help LPFM station start-ups. By 2010 there were more than 800 U.S. LPFM stations.
- Skill level:
Things you need
- FCC LPFM station application
- FCC LPFM frequency application
- Professional FM station consultant
- FM transmitter
- 5 unidirectional microphones
- Computer (see consultant for specs)
- 12 channel mixing board
- 2 CD players
- 1 Record player
- 1 Cassette Tape Player
- 3 studio headphones
- On-air Telephone set-up
- Broadcast studio
- FM broadcast antenna
Apply for a low power FM radio station license from the FCC. Contact the FCC's Low Power FM Service to obtain applications and information you need to complete the license application. The FCC prohibits owners from operating more than one station for the first two years and limits ownership to locally based entities and locally originated programming.
Hire a consultant to help you select the type of equipment you will need and to help you set it up. If you are a radio engineer and/or have experience setting up radio stations, then you already know what to do. If you don't, get professional help. Prepare a budget to estimate equipment costs, license fees, potential revenue streams, facility costs and operating and administrative costs.
Work with the consultant to learn everything about music licensing, copyrights and all legal issues related to transmitting. Music licensing, royalties and use of copyrighted materials will cost you money and will need to be part of your station budget. Talk to the consultant about what personnel you will need to operate the station and any special training or licenses they may need.
Purchase equipment. Pay attention to your station set-up consultant. They can save you a fortune by keeping you from buying stuff you don't need for the type station you are running. A LPFM station only broadcasts at a maximum of 100 watts and has a 10 mile range, so you may not need as much of a transmitter as the salesman tells you that you do. You will likely only need five microphones hooked to your computer and a 12 channel mixing board, two CD players, a record player and a plug-in for your phone line.
Set up the transmitter, sound equipment and studios in consultation with your consultant. You'll need to contract for electricians to wire your studio to handle the power requirements of the transmitter and to run electrical wiring for the sound and recording equipment. You'll also need a carpenter for walling off the sound booths, setting up media storage spaces and soundproofing studio space if you need it before you install equipment.
Set up your equipment and operate the station for 2 or 3 weeks without the transmitter while waiting for your license, just to see what sorts of things go wrong and to learn how to handle them before you go live on the air.
Apply for a new frequency for your station once you get your license. The frequency license is a separate application you make once you've got your station license.
Tips and warnings
- If you've never run an FM station before, get professional help. The best way to learn how is on the job anyway.
- Allow yourself plenty of time to learn the ropes. It's better to make mistakes off the air than on.
- Make sure you know where the money is coming from to pay the bills. Do not set up a station without a clear budget.
- You will not be allowed to do commercials although, if you are a non-profit, you may do an on the air pledge drive. You probably can't depend on that though, unless you have a very devoted audience behind you.
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