What it will take to get on the air

Obstacles: There's much more to broadcasting than plugging in a microphone.

January 31, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

So you want to be a radio star? Although the Federal Communications Commission has opened the airwaves to low-power broadcasters, it doesn't mean getting on the air will be easy.

The first hurdle will be the toughest: putting your hands on a low-power license, which the FCC could make available as early as May.

The problem is that the FM airwaves in most major metropolitan areas are jammed. And, according to new FCC regulations, low-power broadcasters must be at least two channels away from the nearest station on the dial.

The upshot: Baltimore may have only one opening for a new low-power station. Cities such as New York may have none.

People who live outside big cities should have a better shot at stardom. To find out whether there's room for a low-power station where you live, try REC Network's new online search engine at www.powerpuff.com/rec/lpfm.

The second challenge, especially for budget broadcasters, will be piecing together a station.

In the last two weeks, companies that sell commercial radio transmitters have been bombarded with questions from would-be DJs, many of whom assume that getting airplay will be as simple as raiding their local Radio Shack for a transmitter and antenna wire.

Think again, says Josh Milton, a sales representative at Bradley Broadcast in Frederick. "Most of the people who call don't have a clue what they're getting into."

Broadcasting an FM signal requires three components: an "exciter" (as FM transmitters are known in the trade), an amplifier, and a stereo generator.

None of these come cheap. Since low-power broadcasting has long been illegal here, few U.S. companies make inexpensive systems geared toward novices. "There are no cookie-cutter setups like you find with stereos," Milton says.

The cheapest system Bradley Broadcast sells, an all-in-one unit made by Crown, costs more than $4,000.

Of course, there are ways to cut corners. Radio pirates often order cheap transmitter kits from overseas and solder them together in their bedrooms.

But that's not always a good idea, says Peter Morton, a broadcast engineer in Granville, N.Y., who created a Web site (www.lowpower.net) to advise new low-power broadcasters. That's because the FCC requires license holders to use only FCC-certified equipment. Most kits aren't.

You'll also need an antenna. Will your station be sitting atop a mountain or will it be wedged between high-rises? Is there an airport or a commercial radio station nearby? All of these could affect the antenna you'll need and its price, which could be as much as $1,000.

You're still not done. There are microphones and mixers, cassette decks and headphones to think about. Since the FCC will require low-power broadcasters to be on the air at least 36 hours a week, you may need automated equipment for the hours when your DJs need to head for their day jobs.

Finally, like their commercial cousins, low-power broadcasters must join the national Emergency Alert System, wich requires an EAS decoder that could tack another $600 or more onto the start-up bill.

"It's potentially a minefield," says Milton, who recommends that prospective radio moguls consult a broadcast engineer and a communications lawyer.

Still, neither Milton nor the FCC thinks these barriers are going to prevent hundreds of new voices from reaching the airwaves.

For information on low-power FM, visit the FCC's Web site (www.fcc.gov/mmb/prd/lpfm), or call 888-CALL-FCC.

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