$100 Broadcasters: How They Do It

Just how cheaply can you operate a radio station?
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Radio Birdsong "broadcasts" live from a moving vehicle

Radio Birdsong "broadcasts" live from a moving vehicle

Quentin Howard is a man with a mission: To work out if he can run a fully-featured radio station on hardware that costs less than $99.

Quentin, who was chief engineer for the UK’s national Classic FM and instrumental in the UK’s adoption of DAB Digital Radio, is running his own radio station as a bit of fun — deliberately using cheap hardware.

“I wanted to run a fully-functional radio station — with a completely automated music schedule, station IDs, encoding and streaming, and pulling in external audio sources. I wanted it broadcasting the time signal at the top of the hour; and for me to be able to broadcast live if I wanted to,” he said.

The system that does this? A £70 (US$94) tablet computer, running Windows 10. The challenge that Quentin has set himself is to ensure that the system runs reliably, and the touch software remains responsive and usable on a 7-inch screen.

A cheap SD player

A cheap SD player

Keen to experiment, Quentin is testing this using a classical music format. 

“Classical titles are more complicated to music schedule — extreme durations, multiple artists, composers, different versions of same piece, segues in different keys, screeching sopranos, non-English alphabets — so it’s a good stress test of music rotation and playout, which is really what this is all about. If it can do all this well, any pop/rock format station is a doddle!”, he says.

“Announcer breaks are done on my mobile phone, uploaded to Dropbox from anywhere and played out a few minutes later which is, in effect, a one man live-assist OB.”

Playout is handled by PlayIt, a low-cost suite of radio software produced in Cambridge, England. 

“I’ve watched this product evolve over the last few years and I’m still impressed. It’s very stable and resource light. Standard playout software is free (non professional use), voice tracking and more sophisticated networked systems cost literally a few pounds. There’s lots of low cost playout systems of course — I’ve tested over 60! — but I rate this one highly.”

Radio Birdsong

The station, which Quentin has christened “Radio Birdsong,” is streaming live on the internet. “You could hook this up to a £28 (US$37) FM transmitter, and have a fully-functional radio station for less than $140 — no larger than a hardback book,” he adds.

Elsewhere, low-cost radio solutions are already on the air. Ash Elford, manager of the small-scale Portsmouth DAB multiplex in the south of England used a small SD card player — costing less than $5 — to air one simple radio station for three months. The service, Sleepyhead Radio, was a set of looping programs for babies and their parents. The SD card player was purchased on eBay; the micro SD card was “just lying around,” he told me.

Ash also ran a set of automated radio stations called Weather 24/7, which broadcasts the weather forecast on DAB multiplexes in parts of the UK, using reconditioned laptops.

At the other side of the world in Australia, radio technologist Anthony Eden has recently compiled a collection of over 20 pieces of free broadcast software.

From studio clocks, to silence detectors, DAB encoders or playout systems, there are a lot of freely-available pieces of software to assist radio stations. Anthony’s list includes many open-source projects, which enable individual radio stations to add more features to the software or integrate it into existing services.

Meanwhile, Quentin Howard continues to experiment with his service: taking his entire radio station mobile. “I used a Bluetooth data connection to a mobile phone, and was able to stream the station uninterrupted from a moving vehicle,” he said.

“One application I’m developing it for is disaster emergency broadcasting. Pre-programmed FM radio in a tiny box, ready to go and cheap enough to throw away.”

“You could do all this on an Intel core i7,” he adds. “But where would be the fun in that?”

James Cridland reports on international radio trends from Brisbane QLD, Australia.

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