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Just how cheaply can you operate a radio station?



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

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.”

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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Digital radio listening in the UK now stands at 50.9% up from 47.2% a year ago


LONDON — In the United Kingdom, the use of digital sources for radio has reached 50.9%, up from 47.2% a year ago, accounting for the majority of all listening for the first time, according to RAJAR Q1 2018 data.

“With the 50% digital listening threshold now met, it is anticipated that the UK government will undertake a review to assess digital radio progress and determine next steps in due course,” according to a Digital Radio UK press release.

Digital listening share is comprised of listening across all digital platforms: DAB in homes and in cars, apps and online (which includes the growing number of smart and voice-controlled speakers) and DTV — and this is the first time that listening to digital has been greater than analog platforms — FM and AM.

Other measurement data provided by RAJAR show the following:

  • Overall, in the UK digital listening hours grew by 7.8% compared to Q1 2017
  • The greatest amount of digital listening takes place on over-the-air DAB radio which now accounts for 36.8% of all listening and 72.2% of digital listening, with hourly growth of 8.9% year over year
  • Online and Apps now accounts for 9.3% of all listening and 18.3% of digital listening, with the greatest percentage hourly growth of 17%
  • Listening via digital TV meanwhile accounts 4.8% of all listening and 9.4% of digital listening
  • 63.7% of adults now have access to DAB digital radio at home, and more are listening via the expanding range of smart and voice-controlled speakers
  • Digital radio is in over 11 million cars on the road, equating to 33% of all cars in the UK, and 90% of all new cars registered have digital radio fitted as standard equipment [Source: CAP/SMMT Q1 2018]

“Across the UK the success of digital radio has been driven by industry investment in DAB coverage; the availability of DAB in cars; the development of mobile and online apps along with the proliferation of smart and voice-controlled speakers with IP radio capability; combined with a huge expansion in the number of digital stations available,” according to DRUK. “This growth in availability has been matched by an expansion of national and local DAB coverage which is now available in over 90% of the UK due to the launch of an additional 435 digital transmitters, as part of a program of work supported by government and broadcasters.”

The UK’s three leading radio broadcasters — the BBC, Global and Bauer, which collectively account for over 90% of UK radio listening — are “fully committed to delivering a digital future for radio and look forward to working with government and the supply chain to continue the transition to digital radio.”

Go to Radio Magazine Online

DAB expansion is completed in the UK

VIENNA and LONDON — The first regular broadcasts of DAB + have started in the Vienna, Austria region. Twelve radio stations can be received on the channel 11C multiplex. Many of these are not available on the FM band, according to radio.nl .

The multiplex is operated by Radio Technical Center, which received a license from KommAustria at the beginning of this year. For the last three years, Radio Technical Center has been handling the test broadcasts in Vienna. Recently the test broadcasts were converted into regular broadcasts.

Across the UK, the program of work to increase the coverage of DAB network, either with new transmitters or modifications to 221 local DAB sites, has been completed. Local DAB coverage has gone from 72% to more than 90% of UK households. An additional 10 million listeners have been brought into DAB coverage for the first time, and over 4,000 miles of roads are now also covered, according to WorldDAB.org

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Ofcom weighs in on Absolute Radio’s plans to reduce medium wave coverage across the UK

LONDON — While some U.S. broadcasters lament how strict our own FCC is on the broadcast rules, many other countries have far more involved rules and procedures. For example, if you were shutting down an AM station here temporarily, you would need to obtain an STA from the commission; if you were shutting down permanently, you would do so and turn your license in.

It’s a bit different in the UK though, where the regulator, Ofcom, has a lot more to say about the way things are done. Absolute Radio is seeking to reduce its medium wave coverage across the UK, from 90% to 85%, and Ofcom has published a consultation on the proposed variation to Absolute Radio’s national analog radio licenses, according to southgatearc.org . The program would continue to be available to listeners in the affected areas via DAB, via television on the Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media platforms, and via the internet.

“We are now seeking views from interested or affected parties which must be submitted by Feb. 26, 2018. We will take all responses into account before reaching a final decision,” writes Ofcom.

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