May 21, 2022

Building a broadcast station: initial due diligence

So, recently I started giving consideration to building a station… starting of course with how the station might broadcast to an audience. This is in no way a sign that I’ll actually go and do it: to survive I need about AU$30000/year (yeah, I have low overheads at present) and I doubt a dinky little radio station is going to make me that much money.

That said, this is an industry I know little about, so it’s hard to know what the finances would look like.

Content licensing

Irrespective of how the broadcast is done, a station like 4KQ will need a content license for the music broadcast. Not just music though, news updates and even the weather are potentially in the scope of content licenses.

These can be negotiated with individual holders in some cases. I know for small narrowcasting services you can obtain a license through OneMusic, however looking at their offerings they don’t seem to cater to broadcasting services. Turns out there is one that does: the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia.

What this would all cost is a complete unknown.

Radio Broadcasting

The above only lets you use content in a broadcast, it doesn’t let you actually transmit anything on any radio frequency. For this, two things are needed (in addition to the broadcasting equipment). Both come from the ACMA:

  • Broadcast station license: This doesn’t cover transmitters, this is merely the right to have a radio station servicing a given geographical area, irrespective of how it reaches that area.
  • Apparatus license from the ACMA.

I’m not sure whether this is true of DAB+, the transmitters themselves are operated by Digital Radio Broadcasting Pty Ltd, it could be that the stations “piggy-back” on their license the way the do on the actual transmitter itself.

If we did decide to commission a transmitter, that’ll get expensive fast. I don’t expect much change out of AU$1M, in fact, even that may not be sufficient! Then there’s running costs: a 10kW class-B transmitter PA stage will need at least 12-15kW on signal peaks and it will want it now! So likely, 3-phase power is needed, and with a beefy local energy store to smooth out those sharp peaks.

An AM transmitter will also occupy a decent-size land area. If you want an idea; have a look at the 4QR/4QG site or 4KQ’s site as examples. That size area does not come cheap.

Internet broadcasting

This looks to be, in the short-term, the cheaper option if we aim to start small first. We still need the content license, but potentially there are fewer unknowns in the costs. The interesting bit is the content license requirements, specifically I had a look at the forms needed to apply for such a license… this question stuck out:

“What security measures will be in place to prevent downloading or stream ripping?”

This is a tricky-one. In terms of technology my first choice would be something like icecast to manage the audio streams, but this is trivially ripped (possibly using nothing more exotic than wget).

DAB+ can be ripped trivially — qt-dab has both a “frame dump” and an “audio dump”; the former gives you the raw HE-AAC frames, the latter gives you decompressed PCM audio. The same tool can even rip the whole multiplex, recording every single station simultaneously (all 28 stations for the Brisbane DAB 1 multiplex).

Fundamentally, our ears do not hear digital signals, they only respond to analogue pressure waves (travelling through a gas or liquid). To listen to a “digital” station, it must first be converted from whatever on-air format it’s in to a plain uncompressed audio stream, passed through a digital-to-analogue converter, then amplified to electrically drive a speaker transducer which converts the electrical signal into the sound-pressure waves that our ears respond to.

Those sound pressure waves are not protected from being converted back to an electrical signal, having that electrical signal sampled through a analogue-to-digital converter and captured by a storage device.

Years ago, yes, I had some pirated music, and this included a copy of Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh (I now have a legally purchased CD of that song, and the MP3 no longer exists on my equipment), in which you could hear someone gently placing a microphone in front of a speaker and nudging it forward. That method works whether the source material is a Victorian-era wax-cylinder phonograph recording or a Blu-ray disc. It would also work for any streaming service you care to mention.

Indeed, most of the listening devices feature headphone sockets or Bluetooth interfaces — it is entirely possible to sample the analogue or digital electrical signal without the acoustic conversion. Most computer sound devices feature a “monitor” port you can record from, and there’s nothing stopping you plugging in a device that advertises itself to two hosts as a USB Audio class device, piping audio from one to the other.

Yes, there’s signal degradation doing that, but this does not matter in a piracy law suit: it could be downmixed to mono and downsampled to a 2kHz sample rate with a 4-bit resolution, and still be a copyright violation.

So I wonder what “counts” as a security measure. No doubt this was a request put in by the record companies who seem to forget the above limitation. Maybe services like Listener and iHeartRadio have some tricks up their sleeve… who knows? Firefox seems to see iHeartRadio like any other website, and of course, to pipewire, Firefox is just like any other pulseaudio client, so stream ripping is very doable.

Also interesting was the question of: “How will access by countries other than Australia be restricted?” We seem to live in a world where VPNs don’t exist or are 100% detectable by the hosts. If I can stand up a VPN server, and “dial” into it from my tablet from any sufficiently-open Internet connection on the planet: practically anyone can. In doing so, it would look like I’m streaming from my home Internet connection, not from the real connection.

Funding the costs

So, for a station to “stand on its own feet”, it would need to find a revenue stream that pays for the above. The way most do it is through advertising, and there are groups like Commercial Radio Australia that cater to that. No idea what they pay broadcasters, but I’d imagine it’s a function of service area, number of listeners and the listener demographics.

This is hard to know in advance. The station I’m looking at as a model targeted the 40+ market (noting that I myself am not in that age bracket). Some of this group will be less technically inclined to do Internet streaming unless there’s some sort of dedicated streaming client available through their device’s software repositories. Integration into smart speaker voice assistants is a desirable feature to some this group, but many I’ll bet are listening the same way they’ve done for decades: traditional radio broadcast.

I think a “new” Internet-only station is going to struggle justifying the same fee for an advertising slot as an established 75-year old broadcast station.

Asking for donations might be another avenue, but having done work for a few charities in my time, this is definitely not an easy way to raise funds. Staff would essentially be volunteers: this would be at best a side-hustle for me and anyone else that joins me in this venture.

Subscription services for Internet broadcasting could work, but then you’re competing against the likes of Spotify, Deezer, Bandcamp, et all… that’s tough going! They don’t make much, and pass even less on as royalties. Plus, the listeners will likely demand more than just an advertising-free experience, they’ll probably want music-on-demand, which is a whole different class of content-license, and would have to be factored into the subscription fees.

Time will tell on the above, but that at least gives some thought as to what I’d be up for if I decided to take this thought-exercise further.