Setting up a Radio Station

January 8th, 2003 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

An introductory guide by Andrew Ó Baoill – February 2002 (revised and expanded October 2002)

Introduction

This guide provides a short, introductory, overview of the issues which have to be addressed in developing a radio station for a college or community. The impetus came from many questions I have received over the years both from those starting plans to set up stations, and students completing projects which involve preparing ‘dummy business plans’ for starting a college radio station.

My background lies in college radio. I was intimately connected with the process that led to the founding of Flirt FM, one of Ireland’s first permanent college radio stations in 1995. This document outlines some of the major areas I believe need to be addressed in the set-up stage. Some of the points are presented in quite a terse fashion here, as I wanted to keep to a short, bullet point, format as much as possible. I believe that there may be room for a longer text on setting up a radio station, but this is not it.

In the case of Flirt FM the set-up process began in 1993, almost two years before we went on air. This is not an unusual time-scale – the main factor surrounds regulatory issues. In general, 18 months is considered a reasonable time-scale, though you can do it in six at a stretch (and if you are lucky). The point of mentioning this is to emphasise that, though community radio is often largely based on transitory volunteers, the setup phase requires substantial commitment and dedication. If this appears disheartening, I could alternatively say that if you have commitment and dedication you will be able to overcome any of the obstacles which seem to block your path.

Setting up a radio station isn’t rocket science – you can do it if you want to. This document, if not acting as a cheat sheet, will hopefully show that ordinary people have travelled this way before, and that the issues you encounter can be broken down into smaller, manageable problems. As mentioned at the end of the document, I am always happy to assist any person who is interested in more information or clarification, or just a discussion on related issues.

I would also appreciate if anyone who makes use of this document, either in a real life project, or in a simulation for a project, were to let me know. Your feedback on which parts you used, and which could do with more development, would be of great benefit to me.

General Issues

  1. Management structure

    This is very important to get right, and not as easy as might be first imagined. There are a number of different management functions which must be incorporated into your structure:

    • Trustee/Remote Oversight
      • The legal holders of the licence, the body that guarantees the proper use of funding to the station, the body that employs your staff and looks to the long-term station development. In Flirt FM, this is the board of directors.
    • Administration
      • Could also be called ‘sundry’. Deal with BCI correspondence. Keep station finances in order. Sundry correspondence. In Flirt FM, primarily station manager, with certain tasks taken by chair of board of directors (some BCI correspondence) and another member of the Board of directors (keeping books in order).
    • Planning and development
      • schedule development (should be proper process for this – applications in from volunteers and those interested in running specific shows, mockup of overall desired schedule, put proposed shows into blanks). Also planning other developments, such as equipment purchases, extra station services etc. In Flirt FM the Station Manager brings proposals to the Board of Management or Board of Directors as appropriate. It can also be useful to encourage a more active Board of Management/Management committee level, as proposed in my thesis.
    • Direct Oversight
      • Minding the station premises, ensuring programmes go out, dealing with volunteers (queries, ensuring they seem happy in their roles, which feeds into training and schedule development). In Flirt FM shared by station manager, and, recently, by 2 part-time assistants.
    • Programme Production
      • Preparing specific programmes, done by individual programme producers.
      • Overseeing areas such as sport, news, music programmes, to ensure co-operation between programme teams. Providing assistance to programme teams. Done, in Flirt FM, by Editors (Arts editor, news editor etc).
    • Non-programme activities – training, recruitment, promotion. In Flirt FM, this task is shared by the station manager, the board of management and the radio societies in NUI, Galway and GMIT.
    • There are also tasks such as engineering etc, which can be filled by volunteers, or on a contract basis by professionals, or a mix of the two. (ultimately, you will need to contract professionals on occasion in any event).
  2. Finance
    • Costs – Capital
      • I’ve dealt with capital costs in the engineering section below. In short, you can spend as much as you like on your capital, and your outlay depends on a variety of factors, such as what you want to be able to do, what minimum standards you are willing to accept, and of course how much money you have to play with. Which reminds me: sound equipment can be awe-inspiring, and there will be no shortage of people looking either to off-load equipment (some dud, some not) on you, or to encourage you in invest in equipment that they want to play with. While you want to create a good working environment for volunteers, do you really need a sound system that can double up for full-scale gigs?
    • Costs – Application Process

      • Costs listed here relate primarily to the Irish situation.
      • A small cost, relatively, but its as well to account for it.
      • You may need to pay someone to calculate your anticipated coverage area (unless you find a knowledgeable, helpful radio engineer, as we did, thankfully, for Flirt FM). I don’t know the going rate for this, but it is a simple job, so budget EUR150.
      • Copies of application, phone calls, postage etc. Budget EUR50.
      • Application fee. This used to be ¬£100. Probably about EUR150.
    • Costs – Current
      • Wages for any staff are likely to be your biggest single cost. Most stations have at least one full-time staff member.
      • Insurance. Professional indemnity, to protect against libel cases etc. Public/employers indemnity, to protect against personal injury. Expect to pay EUR1000 and EUR500. JC Collins in Dublin can quote for the former, any insurance company for the latter.
      • Music rights. In Ireland: IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation), about EUR500. PPI about EUR150 (Phonographic Performance Ireland). You need both.
      • Studio Premises: rent, electricity and phone costs, if applicable. Your college may provide these for free, or for a set fee.
      • Office costs. You’ll need paper, pens, coffee, disposable cups, possible cleaning implements…
      • Station promotion budget. As big or small as you want.
      • Volunteer training and development. Flirt FM has an annual media law lecture for volunteers, a regular volunteer-led training programme, and occasional external workshops on specific topics. You may also want to do research (surveys etc) on volunteer satisfaction and desires. For some of this you will be able to get volunteers/professionals willing to do a good deed. For others you will need to provide a budget. Meetings with other stations are also important, and will have a cost.
      • Studio/programme costs. You’ll need to provide blank Minidiscs, and to replace headphones every few months. Mics may need to be upgraded every year or so (get a new presenter mic and move the ‘best mic’ to ‘second best’ etc). CD players will need to be fixed/replaced every year or two. Do you want a budget for special expenses for volunteers?
      • Music – most stations rely mainly on volunteers: popular CDs in station libraries tend to disappear. However, record labels will also supply free copies of many new releases – especially artists that are not yet high profile.
      • Depreciation. Expect to replace everything once every 4-5 years.

    • Revenue

      When I completed the first draft of this document, I realised afterwards that I had not mentioned anything about revenue – only costs. Mind you, that’s often the way it feels in community radio.

      Flirt FM gains its main revenue from capitation in NUI, Galway (the station gets EUR2.50 from each student, following a referendum in 1997, two years after we went on air), and from a grant from GMIT worth half the NUI, Galway amount (this comes directly from the college). Our set-up costs were met by allocations from the two colleges. The station is allowed sponsorship (essentially “this programme is brought to you by …”). However, this is not a major source of revenue at the moment.

      • Those involved in community radio have noted that the cost of producing advertising (in terms of scripting and recording 30 second slots, having them approved by advertisers, and making sure they go out) make it a relatively unattractive proposition for a small operation such as a community station.
      • Sponsorship is easier, but may be more difficult to sell to businesses as it sounds like charity rather than a business proposition
      • Wired FM in Limerick contracted a company to attract sponsorship, but it wasn’t successful, as they were too small a client for it to be worth the company’s time chasing potential customers.
      • In 1995/1996 I set a basic rate of about ¬£10-15 per hour exclusive sponsorship, with 5-6 mentions per hour. I then created various discount packages (10 weeks of 1 hr, 1 hour per day, 1 half hr per week, etc) discounting liberally (up to about 50%).
      • Advertising is usually based on Cost per Thousand listeners. Since you won’t have listenership figures (you, like all community stations, will be too small to afford to be part of the JNLR consortium) you should use data on how many students there are, where the station will be played, the special affinity students will have to the station.
      • You could reasonably propose a base rate of EUR20-30. Never discount over 50% (people think there’s a catch, or it mustn’t be worth it). Propose a small (4-6) number of packages. The rule in advertising is never to expect over 70% fill.
      • If your budget is (say) EUR30,000 you would need 1000 charged hours at EUR30. This would be 5 hours per day, on a 200 day year (i.e. college term days). This would imply aiming to get sponsorship for 7 hours a day, and getting 70% fill.
      • Chasing sponsors is time consuming and depressing. Look to get a few big sponsors. Say 4 at EUR5,000, another 5 at EUR1,000 and another 20 at EUR250? The smallest sponsors can often take the most effort.
      • Consider having ‘station sponsors’ who get regular mentions throughout the schedule, as well as getting sponsorship credit on a ‘second tier’ programme. [You will want to leave your flagship programmes free for separate sponsorship deals]. No more than 2-3 station sponsors, at EUR5k-8k a piece?
      • You could make gathering sponsorship be part of you manager’s remit, and move other tasks to other (voluntary) units to leave the time free for gathering sponsorship. Have a process for how you chase sponsors (prioritise them) and collect money (more difficult than getting promises or half-promises). Assume 1/2 day’s work for each potential sponsor (spread over preparing and mailing documents, ringing up, visits) and a further day for each sponsor. Assume something about 10:1 or 40:1 success rate – i.e. you will need to approach a rew hundred potential sponsors.
      • For your report you might want to do up a draft booklet which would be used to ‘pitch’ to sponsors. This should include a brief description of the station and your audience, a separate page with packages available, and a page with your schedule. Focus on ‘what is the sponsor gaining?’. You might be able to come up with ideas of incentives for sponsors – logo on station flyers/posters, using their products (e.g. using a mobile phone for incoming sms makes money for the mobile operator you use). Can you get (part-)sponsorship of goods/equipment? A local business gave us a discount on our video recorder in return for on-air credits.
  3. Engineering and technical matters
    There are two major engineering tasks involved with setting up a radio station. One involves the sound studio – the place where most of your output will be produced. The other involves transmission.

    • Studio Outfitting
      • (primarily soundproofing, but some other things such as ducting).
      • how long is a piece of string? The cost depends almost completely on your budget. From EUR500 upwards (depending on studio size).
      • Flirt FM’s soundproofing cost about ¬£1000 plus labour (was provided by college authorities). We have insulation covered with a framework of 2x2s, covered with hardboard, covered by hession. Its not bad.
      • In terms of premises size, you probably need a minimum of 400sq ft. You need a small office, a programme preparation area, and studio. You studio can either be self-op (the main presenter operates the desk, min size about 150sq ft) or have separate control room (with equipment and technician, min size about 80sq ft) and studio (with presenter and guests, at least 100sq ft). Your transmission equipment must be easily accessible and secure. Some stations don’t have this on-site, but have a link to the transmission site. You can probably ignore this in your proposal.

    • Audio Equipment
      • You’ll need a sound desk (this should be a broadcast control console – its quite different to the type of desk used for live gigs), at least 3 microphones, headphones, an amplifier and speakers, CDs, Minidiscs, and possibly record decks. As headphones are, in reality, current costs (they break/disappear with disturbing speed) some community stations have a policy where volunteers must bring their own headphones, but its useful to have one or two pairs around the place, for guests if nothing else.
      • You’ll need several portable recorders (minidisc recorders are very popular and useful) with microphones for interviewing etc.
      • Flirt FM has just replaced much of its audio equipment, for a total cost of in the region of EUR10,000. Portable recorders are EUR250 upward, including mic. Desk EUR3000 upward for what you need. Professional CD/MD units EUR500 upward each. Mics, EUR50 upward.

      • In Ireland, radio stations must record all broadcasts and retain copies for 3 months. Most community stations do this using the audio channel of a VHS recorder set to long play. Tapes can be reused a small (1-3) number of times.
    • Transmission equipment
      • You need a radio transmitter, a limiter and an antenna (aerial). Your regulatory authority may also insist on some form of limiting equipment, and it can be useful in any event.

      • here’s how it works: an audio signal is passed from your sound console (mixing desk), possibly through your limiting equipment, to your transmitter. Here the audio is mixed with a radio signal, and sent out, through the antenna. The strength of your radio signal (the output power of your transmitter) is one of the main factors determining how far away the station can be heard. Another is the height of your antenna – the higher above ground level, the further the signal will travel. Of course, if your ground level is low compared to other areas in the vicinity (e.g. if you are situated in a valley) this will also be a (negative) factor, just as situating your antenna on a mountain top will be a benefit.
      • The antenna will be sited on a mast. The distance from the transmitter to the antenna must be less than 100m, to prevent loss (of power) in the signal. The mast must be sited to get as good coverage as possible (i.e., the antenna must be high up, not be obstructed by buildings or mountains, and provide good line of sight to as much of your proposed coverage area as possible).

      • The figure below shows an antenna from the side, and gives an indication of the way that a radio signal radiates from a dipole antenna. The signal is not exactly circular in nature, and there will be one direction with a poorer signal (the signal type shown follows what is known as a hypercardoid shape).



        Note that the top of the antenna is slightly below the top of the mast – for the antenna used in Flirt FM, the top must be 0.3 wavelengths below the top of the mast. However, the requirements differ depending on the antenna used – make sure that your antenna is properly installed. Poor installation means that your output will not be as strong as it should be – in effect, you are throwing electricity into the air/ground, with nothing to show for it. A very poor installation can, needless to say, damage equipment in the long run.
    • Financial issues
      • Any professional audio supplier should be able to quote you prices for audio, and possibly transmission, equipment.

      • You will probably need to arrange your rigger separately.
      • Total cost will be about EUR4500, plus mast/riggers fees. Expect to pay at least EUR1500 for this, for a total of EUR6000-EUR7000.
      • Suppliers in Ireland: BTS, Broadcast Technical Services, in Dublin should be able to provide an estimate, though they usually deal with larger stations. Check in the phone book for local antenna/aerial erection services (riggers).
  4. Content and Programming
    • Meta-schedule and constraints
      • In Ireland, by law all stations licensed by the BCI must have 20% news and current affairs and you also have to have a programming policy statement.
      • Most stations commit to a certain percentage talk content, as this is easily measured, and allows to BCI to monitor station performance. Flirt FM has a 40% talk quota.
      • In the second part of this document I include some tips regarding programming which will be useful to anybody who has to produce talk-based programming.
      • Listeners don’t like having to switch over when a station goes off air, and may not switch back.
      • Your programming must reflect your policy statement, and should also reflect the station philosophy/target audience. For most college stations this means focussing on students. Dublin Weekend Radio, which was based in DCU, was produced by students and staff but served the surrounding geographic community.
    • Schedule structure
      • Most stations try to have a mix of specialist music, mainstream music, news/current affairs, special interest (arts, sci-fi, ecology, books etc).
      • You may want to have the same type of programme on at the same time each day (specialist at 3pm etc).
      • There are a small number of services which provide programming for free via satellite, such as the World Radio Network. They take programming from a range of talk based broadcasters (NPR and PRI in the USA, an hour from RTE each day, BBC etc) and allow stations to rebroadcast it free of charge. You can use any mix of the programming provided, to supplement the talk programming produced in-house.
      • If you have a talk quota, taking external talk programming such as WRN will increase the total hours you can broadcast. The investment in satellite receiver could well be worth while in terms of the extra broadcast hours available, which would incidently lower the amount of sponsorship needed per hour (note this is internal hours – you cannot get sponsorship for the external hours), while raising the potential audience.
  5. High tech options

    There are a number of ‘extras’ that can be added to the basic station model, which add functionality, though at a cost:

    • Station Automation, to allow programming without a technician/producer in studio. Professional versions of this can be expensive. However, a college station in the US has cobbled together a system, based on software they wrote themselves and an apple computer. One constraint is that US stations don’t have a talk quota, so an Irish station using this approach would need to amend the software for use here. However, the point is that this could probably be done by a talented/enthusiastic IT/computer science student.
    • Stream the station on the web. This requires a computer with a soundcard with an ‘always on’ link to the internet. In a college this usually requires a sympathetic professor or post-grad, or an internet link from the station premises.
    • Not so high-tech, but: mobile phone in the studio building, to take sms messages – prepaid phone is better/cheaper for this, as it won’t generally be used for outgoing calls. email address for requests/audience feedback (preferably with internet link in studio/station premises).

Setting up a college radio station in Ireland

  1. Licensing Process
    • The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland authorise broadcast stations in Ireland. The process is, generally, that they look for Expressions of Interest in certain types of station. You return a relatively short document outlining your area of interest (area, station type), outline financial plans, corporate structure, main people.
    • Then, hopefully, the BCI tender for applications to operate a station of the type you suggested, in the relevant geographic area. Anyone can apply, so at this stage you need to put together an application that will persuade the BCI to grant the licence, and to grant the licence to you. For college stations, having the official backing of the college pretty much removes the risk from other applicants, but still leaves you having to get the licence. Flirt FM’s application in 1998 ran to 70+ pages.
    • You want fairly detailed financial plans, including guarantees of initial finances, a reasonably detailed programme schedule, some technical information and a detailed management structure, with bios for your main staff (don’t worry, college stations are expected to have mainly students, but you do want some college reps on your oversight board etc – see below).
    • After the application is submitted, the BCI may (and probably will) call for public hearings. Here you make a short presentation highlighting the main points in the application, and, in essence ‘pitching’ you application to the BCI. You will then face questions from the members of the BCI. You should have a small number of core members responsible for the presentation and most of the responses. However, it can be useful to have a sizeable, representative, group with you, to show the spread of your support base (I am always in favour of having a good number of students present – at the table and in the audience – and it has served us well in the past).
    • The final part of the process is, hopefully, getting word from the BCI that your application has been successful, and entering negotiations regarding the wording of your contract with the BCI.
  2. Station Philosophy, and links to other bodies
    • College stations in Ireland are licensed as community of interest stations. This means that they are grouped with community stations by the BCI, but serve a community defined by a common interest or background (being students) as opposed to serving a geographic community. The BCI should be able to put you in touch with the Forum of Community Radio stations, which provides various supports and links for licensed stations in Ireland.
    • The BCI has decided that community stations in Ireland must abide by the AMARC community radio charter for Europe (see www.amarc.org or appendix A to my MA thesis. AMARC is a world body of community radio stations.
    • There are a number of issues that you must be clear on when setting up a station – why do you want a station? Who is the station for? How can students get involved? What are the criteria for getting on air? How will airtime be allocated? What will the relationship be between providing an outlet for students, providing a service to listeners and providing experience to volunteers? You might want to look at NEAR FM’s volunteer handbook (http://www.nearfm.ie/handbook.html).
    • Jack Byrne’s NooAge is also relevant. Jack is one of the founders of NEAR FM, and a pioneer of Irish community radio.
  3. News and Current Affairs obligations

    Under Irish law, stations must produce a minimum of 20% news and current affairs. This can be difficult for a volunteer based station. However, the following points may assist in complying with requirements in this regard:
    • News is current news items, current affairs looks more at feature pieces and the flow of events. For example an item on a fight at a nightclub last night is news. An item about violence in clubs is current affairs. News is generally more resource intensive than current affairs, but a certain mix is desirable.
    • Training. Provide regular training for your news/CA volunteers. Specific areas include journalism, equipment use (such as portable recorders), law (volunteers in this area should get regular refreshers, as they are likely to be dealing with sensitive topics, and may need to be reminded of the appropriate balance), and possibly primers in history, current affairs and politics (for those interested but without detailed prior knowledge).
    • Web resources can be very useful for fleshing out current affairs content. The Panos institute in London provides daily world news headlines by email, along with regular short feature pieces, which can be inserted into CA programmes (www.interworldradio.org). The various indymedia sites (including the Irish version) often have news stories, sometimes with audio, which are not covered elsewhere, but care should be taken when using these on Irish radio, as they may not be balanced enough to comply with Irish law. Always, always, listen to pieces before using them on air. www.rte.ie and www.ireland.com can also be useful for generating news bulletins, but be careful of copyright issues.
    • It may be useful to generate links with other news outlets, but you should be aware that this may inhibit the station developing as an independent news outlet. Ultimately, each station must reach its own balance point. Useful for links: other community radio stations, college societies/media, local newspapers. IRN used to sometimes provide news bulletins for free to college stations, don’t know if they still do. You may be able to get complimentary newspapers from Irish Times, Irish Independent – contact their distribution manager/editor – though now they’re so easily available on the web, this is of less benefit. Regarding other community/college stations, ringing up, say Flirt FM in Galway, once a week, and talking to someone about news stories in Galway that week, can be an interesting regular feature. For a quid-pro-quo, you could provide someone to talk to someone in Flirt FM about events in your area.
    • There are a variety of programme types used. Most use one or two anchor presenters as ‘ringmaster’. You can have inserts by other presenters/journalists, with the anchor doing the intro (Today at 5 on RTE 1 often follow this format). You can have the presenter with guest interviewees (Morning Ireland generally follows this format). You can have the presenter with regular interviewees (Eamon Dunphy on Today FM often follows this format). You can have the presenter and a panel of guests discussing a list of topics (The Sunday Show on RTE 1, and Q and A on RTE TV are of this style) – note that guest may be once off or regular. Different formats require different types of resources, and produce very different results. Regular people in studio is the easiest, if you can get the right people. Lots of short packaged items is more difficult than a few live interviews.

Micro/Low Power radio links (US centric)


Prometheus Radio Project

Micropower Broadcasting – A Technical Primer

Low Power Radio Coalition

FCC/MMB/PRD/Low Power FM Radio

FCC News Release (out of date)

Further queries


Should you have any questions in relation to setting up a college or community station, or to do with the concept of participatory and community media in general, you can contact me at andrew@funferal.org. I am always happy to help interested individuals or groups in any way I can.

  1. 3 Responses to “Setting up a Radio Station”

  2. By reynold on Dec 22, 2003 | Reply

    i will like to listen music on the net

  3. By maribel lanticse on Mar 3, 2004 | Reply

    good day! i would to inquire about a computer based-radio. What are the equipment needed for a professional broadcast radio? Your inputs will highly be appreacited. Thank you

  4. By lerato on Apr 26, 2004 | Reply

    I would like to get a brief of a business plan to start a community radio. please forwrd it to my e-mail address.

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