Do-It-Yourself Radio

You probably don't have the $65 million that Evergreen Media spent in 1996 to buy WEDR-FM (99.1), one of the most popular radio stations in the Miami area. And even if you have money, why waste it? For less than $1000, you can bypass the humdrum commercial mainstream and broadcast your own ultrahip sounds on the airwaves.

Of course, opening a radio station is illegal without a Federal Communications Commission license, which is expensive and virtually impossible to obtain in a major city. But high quality, low-power broadcasting equipment is so cheap these days that you might be tempted anyway. Tell yourself it's just to practice -- while you're waiting for the FCC to get back to you.

First, you have to choose a band. We recommend FM. The other option, AM, requires a huge tower and vast amounts of power. Even low-power FM signals can travel up to 50 miles and require only the power available from a wall outlet.

Next, you need to find a location for your station. Perhaps where your sofa is now. That's all the space you need for the gear. For example, 20, 40, and 100-watt FM transmitters -- popular sizes among microbroadcasters -- are approximately the size of a stereo receiver. Even a 500-watt unit is no larger than a file cabinet.

Then decide whether you can afford it. You can get a decent low-power FM transmitter for as little as $100 and an antenna for $20. Of course, it's not that easy. You'll need a few other things: a power booster, cables, gadgets to ensure a good signal. And your studio will require a microphone, a CD player, and maybe a turntable. But you can keep the damage below $1000.

Two other items are critical to the success of your venture: a filter, which ensures that you transmit only the desired signal, and a limiter, which regulates excessive volume and minimizes distortion. The filter reduces the risk that your transmissions will disrupt another station. Costs range from $10 to $25. The limiter is slightly more expensive -- one sells for $60.

Now it's time to go shopping. You can do that on the Internet. Two of the most prominent and least expensive sources of microradio equipment are seasoned broadcasters. Stephen Dunifer, founder of Free Radio Berkeley, sells radio gear "for educational purposes only," according to his Website (www.freeradio.org). He peddles transmitters ranging from $105 for a half-watt device to $210 for 40 watts. His antennas cost from $20 to $115. For the novice, Free Radio Berkeley also offers an "On the Air Quick!" package at a price of $595. All you have to do is a little soldering, then plug it in. Tampa radio enthusiast Doug Brewer, whose station was busted by the FCC last year, offers similar kits. His plug-n-play packages range from $700 for a 20-watt assembly to $1475 for a 150-watt set. He also offers a wider variety of equipment, including more powerful transmitters -- up to 500 watts for an unspecified price. You can tour the "Broadcaster's Candy Store" at his Website (www. flanet.com/~ldbrewer/fmkit.html).

You can also shop at a local radio supply store, though they tend to be pricier. One popular store, OMB America at NW 31st Street and 72nd Avenue, sells a 20-watt Spanish-made transmitter for $1800.

When you finally get the stuff, you might want to enlist a sympathetic audio engineer to help set it up. Or you could get a copy of Dunifer's Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook, published by AK Press (888-425-7737). Other sources of information on microbroadcasting can be found on the Internet at [email protected] and www.radio4all.org.

"Probably the hardest thing is putting the antenna in the right place," says Mark Christopher, creative director of the Womb (107.1 FM), which ceased local broadcasts in July. Adds University of Miami broadcasting professor Paul Driscoll: "What you would need to do is put the antenna up as high as you possibly can to get the signal out as far as you can." Balconies on high-rise buildings are excellent locations for antennas, he notes. They are, however, visible to your nemesis: the FCC.

-- Kirk Nielsen

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Kirk Nielsen
Contact: Kirk Nielsen

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