Answers to some basic concerns of DIY hobby broadcasting.
Q: What is a hobby broadcaster?
A: "Hobby broadcaster," a generic term used by many people and websites around the world, is simply one who wishes to engage in their own personal radio broadcasting facility. The hobby broadcaster is typically someone who eschews commercial or so-called "public" radio, choosing instead to focus on alternative programming to suit their own tastes or political views. Since few people have access to commercial/public radio facilities, the hobby broadcaster--particularly the pirate hobby broadcaster--has a more DIY approach, and is not afraid to take a few risks to accomplish their goal. If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself, and thousands of people are taking the plunge to start their own microbroadcasting stations. You can too. It's easy.
Q: Why hobby broadcasing?
A: There are lots of good reasons to get into this. Quite often, it's just a desire to transmit your own music around the house, or entertain your neighbors. Many people prefer to broadcast music to compliment their yard Halloween displays or Christmas lights, rather than blaring it on outdoor loudspeakers and annoying their neighbors. Others just want to listen to satellite radio or music from Pandora or Spotify around the house without stringing wires and putting up speakers all over the place. But one of the biggest attractions of hobby broadcasting is that it provides a great alternative to the monotony heard on commercial stations. Choose only the audio you want to hear, and play it on any receiver within range. Some find pirate hobby radio a means to connect with neighborhoods or small communities, present alternative viewpoints, or promote music not usually heard elsewhere on the airwaves. You could even use a portable broadcasting system to organize a Decentralized Dance Party in the streets of your city. Hobby radio provides a voice to under-represented individuals and groups who do not have access to traditional radio outlets. Other hobbyists enjoy the technology aspects and get satisfaction putting together a simple, homemade studio, or even building their own gear. Trust us, it's a lot of fun, no matter what direction you approach it from.
Q: What's the distinction between a "hobby broadcaster" and a "pirate hobby broadcaster"?
A: Basically, transmitter power. The typical hobby broadcaster obeys the rules and keeps his transmitter power very low--within FCC limits for unlicensed operation. The pirate hobby broadcaster doesn't follow those rules, and isn't afraid to live on the edge. This site will try to give information useful to both groups of people. What you do with your micro-station is up to you--we don't judge.
Q: Does it cost a lot to start a hobby broadcasting operation?
A: Not really. A basic micro-power FM transmitter and antenna can be purchased for as little as $100. The source audio can be an iPod, CD player, tape deck, satellite radio receiver, PC audio, etc., one or more of which you probably have already. Check our Gear page for more info.
Q: How much technical skill is required?
A: Virtually none. Today's do-it-yourself transmitters are plug and play. Connect the antenna and audio source, power it up, select a transmitting frequency and you're good to go!
Q: Is this legal?
A: It depends on the equipment you use. There are lots of transmitters available online, some of which have RF outputs that far exceed legal limits, and though they may be legal to buy, they may not be legal to operate. Under Part 15 rules in the U.S., The FCC limits unlicensed FM broadcasts to a maximum signal strength of 250uV/m (microvolts per meter), measured at a distance of 3m--about 10 feet. You also must not transmit in such a way that your signal interferes with licensed radio transmissions. From a practical standpoint, this maximum signal strength will give you a range of about 100 to 300 feet, depending on terrain, obstructions, and receiver sensitivity. With a car radio, you might be able to receive a decent signal up to a few blocks. This should be adequate for covering your house or a small apartment complex.
Hobby broadcasters in Canada enjoy greater privileges. The power limit of legal, unlicensed FM broadcasts is about 4 times higher than that allowed in the US: 100uV/m measured at 30 meters.
Q: How will I know if my transmitter is FCC legal?
A: Two main ways to do this: The easiest and most certain way is to simply buy a transmitter that is certified as Part 15 compliant (the unit will have a label stating this). For non-certified transmitters, you will need to determine the field strength it generates. You can measure this using a meter. Check with a ham radio club in your area, as they may have one you can borrow or rent. Understand that if you buy a non-certified transmitter, you alone bear the burden of making sure it is compliant, or accepting the risk if it isn't. There are many transmitters available which deliver far more power than is allowed for unlicensed operation. Just because you can buy it doesn't make it legal. If you have a higher power transmitter, you will need to lower the output power and/or attenuate the signal before it reaches the antenna.
Q: I heard somewhere that you can transmit with up to 100mW on FM.
A: Not true. While unlicensed AM is allowed up to 100mW of transmitter power, on FM a standard of field strength is used. The FCC limit under Part 15 regulations is 250uV/m (48dBu) at 3 meters. If your FM transmitter generates 100mW power, you will likely exceed the Part 15 limit by a great deal.
Q: My transmitter delivers too much power. How can I turn it down to acceptable power levels?
A: You can attenuate the power between the transmitter and antenna by connecting a 50 ohm RF attenuator pad between the two. These can be purchased cheaply from electronics parts dealers. A 6dB attenuator will reduce the effective power to one quarter of the transmitter power; a 10dB attenuator cuts it by a factor of 10. You can also detune the antenna to reduce the efficiency of the RF signal, and if you're really comfortable with electronics, pop open the transmitter and reduce the power in the output stage (which will probably void the warranty).
Q: If I run at high power, will I get busted by the FCC?
A: Maybe. The FCC doesn't have the manpower to send out people to constantly look for illegal broadcasts. However, if your hobby station exceeds the limit, you might have some unwanted listeners who could report you to the FCC. In which case, it's just a matter of time before they come out to find the source of the signals. If you are running above Part 15 power limits, you can minimize the risk somewhat by broadcasting intermittently, transmitting for maybe a few hours at a time and varying the time of day you are on the air. And discussing or advertising your station on the Internet is a good way to draw unwanted attention.
Q: What happens if I get caught?
A: Once the FCC discovers your station, and has determined its source and made field strength measurements, they will typically send you a Notice of Unlicensed Operation (NOUO) by certified mail. This is a cease-and-desist demand letter, and you have only a short time in which to stop broadcasting. There is usually no fine with this, and you're generally not fucked. However, if you continue to operate, or if your intitial violation was egregious, the FCC has the option to fine you several thousand dollars. They can also execute a warrantless search of your premises and seize your equipment. There are some notorious cases of people running 100 watt (or more) transmitters and being hit with hefty fines after having their door kicked in by jack-booted thugs from the federal government. Don't even get us started on the subject of warrentless searches by FCC agents...
Keep in mind that Pirate Hobby Broadcaster accepts no liability for your actions, and you are solely responsible for complying with all laws and regulations. Visit our Legal page for more information.
Q: How to I find an empty FM channel to broadcast on?
A: One way is to use an FM radio (one with a digital readout is best) and scan across the band. Radio-Locator has a search page where you can enter your location and it will display the available empty channels, and FM Fool is another good site for this. Ideally, you want to avoid transmitting on channels adjacent to local stations, and try to find a frequency that is at least 2 channels (0.4 MHz) away from them. For example, if there are stations occupying 93.1 and 93.9, you should select 93.5. However, ff you live in or near a major city, you'll find fewer opportunities to do this, as the FM band is crowded. But don't ever broadcast on a frequency occupied by a local broadcast station. Radio station operators take a dim view of people interfering with their signal, and if they find out you're doing it, they'll likely give the nearest FCC field office a friendly call.
Q: What's the best receiver to use for picking up my station?
A: Generally, any FM radio will do. But the sensitivity (ability to pull in weak signals) of receivers varies widely, so the effective range of your reception will vary accordingly. Car radios and good communications receivers generally have excellent sensitivity, and will allow good reception out to a greater distance. On the other hand, most portables have relatively poor sensitivity, and will only receive your signal to a fraction of the distance. There are a few exceptions to the rule on portables, with this model being an excellent receiver for under $60.
Q: How far will my signal go?
A: FM signals generally travel "line-of-sight." Thus, in theory, your transmitter's signal should extend to the visible horizon. and there are online calculators that will compute this. The greater the antenna height above the ground, the farther the signal reach. But in the world of micro-power broadcasting, relying on the line-of-sight distance from your antenna is not very useful. There are other variables that will impact the signal range, including transmitter power, antenna efficiency, line losses, surrounding terrain, and obstacles. The power transmitted at the antenna is, of course, a significant factor. Since the power density of electromagnetic waves (per surface unit) is proportional to distance, increasing the power output at the antenna will yield a proportional increase of range, assuming no obstacles. Double the power, double the range. In the case of extremely low power FM transmitters (i.e., Part 15), the effective range will be measured in feet, not blocks or miles. Your signal won't come close to reaching the horizon, no matter where you locate the antenna. Moreover, the presence of obstacles, like hills, buildings, power lines, etc., will further limit your coverage. The range is also governed by the sensitivity of the receiver used (refer to the above question). A Part 15-certified transmitter and antenna may allow reception out to roughly 100 yards unobstructed with a good receiver; 50 to 100 feet, at best, with a portable radio. A 1 watt transmitter with a well-tuned antenna mounted on a rooftop may reach a couple miles with a good receiver.
UPDATE: There is now an online Longley-Rice coverage map generator, courtesy of Communications Research Centre Canada (CRC). The CRC tool is quite simple to use: enter your transmitter and antenna information, select your geographical data, and it displays a predicted signal contour onto a Google map. It factors transmitter power, frequency, antenna height and gain, ground characteristics, terrain, etc. The CRC program requires registration, but is free.
Q: Can I build my own equipment?
A: Absolutely. There are companies that sell decent kits for constructing small FM transmitters. You can also look for schematics online to build your own from scratch. Here's one example of a circuit that can be constructed from a handful of easily-available parts. If you wish to design and build your own external dipole antenna, you can easily calculate the length based on the frequency of your choice.
Q: Can I take my system on the road?
A: Goin' mobile is a great way to use your personal broadcast system. The possibilities are many: broadcast at parties, bars, political events, company picnics, car shows, drive in theaters, wedding receptions, Occupy protests, motorcycle runs, etc. Some people adapt their transmitters to run on batteries and broadcast while traveling around in cars or even on bikes. But if you go to a new location, just be sure to know what empty channels are available there. What may be an open frequency in your home town may be occupied in another city.
Q: I'm willing to take the legal risks and go with a higher power transmitter. Can I buy gear for this?
A: A number of companies sell higher powered FM transmitters and antennas to suit all your pirate radio desires. Check out Fail-Safe (sold on Amazon), and HLLY. You can find good quality transmitters for a few hundred dollars. Many of the higher power transmitters require an external antenna, which will add about $100 to the cost of your system. A cursory search of Amazon and eBay will yield lots of good equipment for the fledgling pirate.
Q: I want to become a professional radio DJ some day. Is this a good way to learn some things?
A: Sure. You can set up a decent home studio in a spare room for a few hundred dollars more. Get a simple mixing board, a few audio sources, a good microphone and you can start mixing voice and music over the air. You can even read the news, do comedy sketches, do play-by-play announcing of neighborhood football games, sell shit, whatever makes you happy. Hobby broadcasting is a great way to learn the basics of control board operation.
Q: Where can I get more information?
A: There are numerous sites devoted to hobby broadcasting, more than we care to mention here. Run a Google search for the generic term "hobby broadcaster" or something like that and you will find all kinds of them. For starters, here is a good one for more in-depth information. A good, like-minded blog to check out is Low Power Radio.
Q: Where can I buy gear?
A: Go to our Gear page for some ideas.