Saturday, May 17, 2008

Set Up a Pirate Radio Station, Tell the truth about Nukes

Set Up a Pirate Radio Station

From Wired How-To Wiki

Photo by  believekevin on Flickr
Photo by believekevin on Flickr

Ah, Christian Slater. In 1990 you hijacked your local airwaves (and our hearts) in "Pump Up The Volume." Now thanks to the free flow of information on the web, anyone can start their own pirate radio station. Here's all you need to become your city's favorite underground shock jock:

A Word on Legality Issues

Depending on where you are in the world, there are a few different things that make pirate broadcasts illegal. The cardinal sin stateside (as far as the FCC is concerned) is broadcasting on unlicensed radio spectrum. Although the FCC is often a buzzkill, in many ways its rules regarding pirate broadcasts make sense. If a high powered transmitter lands in the hands of a reckless amateur, all sorts of havoc can be wreaked on local radio communication. This can not only cause problems in the public safety sector (fire, police, emergency services), but it's also likely to disrupt the transmissions of legit broadcasters who actually paid for their chunk of licensed spectrum.

Also, there's the issue of royalties. Setting up your own "All Aqualung, All the Time" station might sound great, but if your transmission is located it's likely that the record industry will want a piece of the action. Depending on how flagrant the offense, pirate broadcasters can be hit with a combination of back royalties and fines -- and that's on top of financial beating the FCC dishes out. Naturally, we wouldn't condone illegal conduct of this type, but we imagine that this information might be useful for hobbyists.

Yes. Hobbyists.



Step 1: Develop a Broadcast Format

Having a general concept for the content you're going to broadcast is not only important for sanity's sake. Knowing whether you'll be broadcasting voice or music can have a bearing on how you develop your studio. Want to run a music-heavy show? You're probably going to want to broadcast in stereo and on the FM band. Punditry and talk radio more your speed? You'll be able to get by on AM transmissions, but you're going to want to pay special attention to properly equalizing your equipment for voice.

TIP: Does the notion of a live mic and listeners make you antsy? You might want to consider recording your broadcast ahead of time to avoid some of the headaches of live broadcasts. This may prove a boon if you're new to mixing and audio production. It not only gives a mulligan for misspoken words and awkward transitions, but you can also perfect little mixing tricks like smoothly fading between songs.

Step 2: Assemble Your Studio

With a general format in tow, you should be ready to start collecting equipment. The technically inclined can go the distance with a DIY kit, but rookies are probably better off hitting up amateur publications and websites to find the right gear. Although there's lots of room for customization, the outcome is basically the same -- you're looking to chain together components that filter, convert, and broadcast your audio signal. Your gear will breakdown into three categories:

2a. Audio Sources

Photo by  celesteh on Flickr
Photo by celesteh on Flickr

Choices can run the gamut here. Everything from 8-tracks, tape decks, turn tables, mics, CD Players, and MP3 players fit the bill. Practically anything people used to play music in the last 30 years should work, as long you're able to plug it into a mixer. In terms of size, programming playlists, and capacity, the MP3 player is an ideal quick and dirty starting point.

2b. Mixing Equipment & Filters

Love the sound of your own voice? Rest assured, it probably doesn't sound as great over the airwaves. The best way to clean up your audio signal is by employing a combination of mixers, filters, limiters, and compressors. It's a little daunting with the number of accessories on the market, but the goal should be twofold. On one hand you want to clean up your overall sound, but you also need to do so while keeping broadcast harmonics in check. Without both of these issues attended to, you're liable to sound like crap, interrupt neighboring frequencies, and attract unwanted attention.

2c. Transmission equipment

Photo by  Unhindered by Talent on Flickr
Photo by Unhindered by Talent on Flickr

Transmitting equipment is like the pulse of your rig. In fact, the transmitter itself is what 'modulates' audio over your chosen frequency, effectively making it fit for broadcasting via an antenna. Ideally, you're looking for a transmitter equipped with a Variable Frequency Oscillator (VFO). The advantage of this feature is being able to move your broadcast to any frequency supported by the transmitter. It might sound extraneous now, but having the ability to change broadcast frequencies can come in handy if you're prone to moving your studio, or running from the FCC.

You're also going to want to be on the lookout for gear like radio frequency amplifiers, coaxial cable (RG-8 or RG-58U), and antennas -- at least if you want your broadcast to be heard beyond your neighborhood. The amateur radio market is flooded with options, so finding equipment that suits your desired range shouldn't be too difficult. Be careful though -- if the FCC goes looking for the source of your transmission, the first house they're going to check is the one with the 40 ft. antenna in the backyard. Buy smart, and if possible, operate discreetly.

TIP: Getting all of this equipment to work perfectly on the first try is close to impossible. Your best bet is to do extensive research on the equipment combinations you've chosen, and chain the components together one at a time. Joining an online broadcaster community like the one at Free Radio Network isn't a bad idea, especially if you think you'll need a sounding board.

Step 3: Find an Open Frequency

Photo by  celesteh on Flickr
Photo by celesteh on Flickr

Finding dead air is extremely important. After all, the moment you start interrupting legal transmissions is the moment other broadcasters start asking questions. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as turning on your ghetto blaster and finding static. The best way to dig up some open frequencies is to hit the web. Radio-locator is one of our favorite search tools, but if you're prone to getting your hands dirty, you can fire up your rig and do some recon of the local frequencies. Keep in mind that even though there's tons of traffic flying through the air at any given moment, only a specific range is designated for 'regular' radio broadcasts. For AM this spans 540kHz to 1700kHz, and for FM, 88.1 MHz to 107.9 MHz. If you pick a frequency outside this range, you're likely to interfere with television, or even air traffic control broadcasts. After you find a few open frequencies within the specified range, be sure to listen in regularly for activity. Pirated shows are known for hopping around, so make sure your prospects don't butt in on another pirate's, er...hobbyist's turf.

Step 4: Test Out Your Broadcast

Once you've found a couple of candidates, it's time to take your broadcast for a test run. While running a test broadcast make sure that all input levels are within a reasonable range, and that you're achieving the desired tone. It's not uncommon for there to be some residual hum, but you should be able to track its source by checking your components one by one and using deductive reasoning. Once your test is running smoothly from the helm, you might want to check out your frequency range (and possible interference) by grabbing a radio and doing some traveling around town. If you can hear elements of your broadcast coming through on neighboring stations, then you've got a problem. Otherwise, you should be all set.

Step 5: Keep the Authorities Guessing

For a lot of radio pirates, gaining exposure through loyal listeners is the big draw for setting up a station. But keep in mind that the more exposed you are, the more likely you are to garner unwanted attention. Long and symmetrically scheduled broadcasts on the same frequencies can be a recipe for trouble, so make sure to mix things up. Never give out any personal information, location data, or landmarks over the air. If you were savvy enough to build a mobile rig, even better. After all, it's harder to catch a moving target.

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