Cost of Starting a LPFM vs Cost of Internet Streaming

I have been watching the LPFM proceedings with some interest. The FCC has not exactly promised to have a filing window by end of 2012, but indicates that it might try to do that. In comparison to such evolutions in the past, this is moving pretty fast. Those that want an LPFM station need to start planing now.  As in previous LPFM windows, the availability is for non-profit organizations only.  This does not mean all hope is lost; NPR stations are all non-profits and most of them are very successful.

One of the biggest questions is: How much will it cost?  Like all things, it varies greatly.  If I were to put an LPFM or internet radio station on the air, there would be certain minimums, such as the use of professional audio equipment, a new antenna, and some type of redundancy.

Generally speaking, radio stations and internet stations both need some type of office/studio space.  This can range from large and opulent to a closet.  The costs for these would depend on the type and quantity of equipment installed, whether the equipment is new or used, the building, the area, etc.  Those facilities also have monthly reoccurring costs such as rent, electric, telephone service, internet service, etc.

Since internet radio stations and traditional terrestrial over the air radio would use the same type of studio equipment, those costs will be similar.  Here is a breakdown of the studio equipment:

Nomenclature Cost new (USD) Cost used (USD) Comments
12 Channel professional audio console $6,000.00 $2,500.00 Analog, 4 buss, telephone mix minus
Studio Furniture $5,500.00 $1,000.00 Can also be fabricated locally
Microphones, RE-20 or SM-7B $250-350 $100-150 Per unit, several required
Monitor Amp $250.00 $100.00 Can also use consumer version
Monitor speakers $500.00 $200.00 Can also use consumer version
CD Player $500.00 $200.00 Professional unit with balanced outs
Computer w/ professional sound card $1,500.00 $500.00 For automation and sound file storage
Computer, general use $700.00 $300.00 General information web browsing
Computer, Streaming w/sound card $900.00 $400.00 Sound card should be good quality
Studio Telephone system $1,900.00 $300.00 Used for call in/on air
Barix remote box $240.00 (x2) N/A Used for IP remote broadcasts
Comrex Matrix POTS codec $3,200.00 $700.00 Used for telephone line remote broadcasts
Misc wiring, hardware, ect $1,000.00 $800.00 Connectors, mic booms, wire, etc
Total $21,780.00 $7,930.00

Some equipment is not available used such as Barix boxes.  Of course, not all of this is required for a radio station, however, most local radio stations would want the capability to do remote broadcasts, take phone callers on the air, have multiple guests in the studio, etc.

For a traditional LPFM station, the transmitting equipment would entail:

Nomenclature Cost New (USD) Cost Used (USD) Comments
300 watt transmitter and exciter 4,400.00 2,000.00 Smaller transmitters with higher gain antennas can also be used
2 Bay ½ wave spaced antenna $1,900.00 $700.00
125 feet ½ inch coax $350.00 N/A
100 foot guyed tower and installation $4,000.00 $3,500.00 Not needed if station is on tall building or leased site
STL; IP radio w/ barix boxes $850.00 In lieu of standard 950 MHz STL
STL standard 950 MHZ $6,500.00 $3,500.00  Used in lieu of IP STL
STL antennas, transmission line $2,500.00 $1,500.00
FM Processor $10,000.00 $1,200.00 Can also use software such as Breakaway Broadcast
Misc connectors, grounding kits, etc $1,100.00 N/A
EAS unit $1,900.00 N/A Fully operational CAP compliant
Processing software, Breakway broadcast $200.00 N/A In lieu of standard FM processor
Total $12-24K $8-12K

This is a generic station, most will be somewhat different due to antenna supporting structures, transmitter powers and antenna types.  For the best possible signal, a circularly polarized antenna should be used.  A two bay, 1/2 wave spaced antenna will give the maximum signal density, while minimizing downward and upward radiation.  The upward radiation is simply wasted energy, as no one in space is listening to FM radio.  The downward radiation reduction is key if located in congested areas.

For internet radio station, the following would be required:

Nomenclature Cost New IUSD) Cost Used (USD) Comments
Streaming Server 2,100.00 1,100.00 Includes professional sound card
Audio processing software 200.00 N/A Recommend software such as Breakaway Broadcast
Audio Processing, outboard hardware 650.00 400.00 In lieu of software
Audio Streaming aggregator  1,200 to 2,400 N/A Annually

While LPFM’s are much more expensive than internet only stations, LPFM’s have the advantage of built in marketing, which is the on air signal.  If it is broadcasting on the air, word will get out.  On the internet, some other type of marketing will be needed to spread the word.  Also, LPFM’s should also be streaming, which would incur the same costs above.

The long and short of it is, to put a technically viable LPFM on the air is not an inexpensive proposition.  It is worth the effort, however, because the advantages of an LPFM over an internet only station are great.

SOPA/PIPA protest

Yesterday, January 18, 2012, I blacked out engineeringradio.us for the day in protest of the internet censorship bill working its way through congress colloquially known as SOPA or PIPA.  There were some 17,000 or more others that did the same.

SOPA PIPA protest screen shot
SOPA PIPA protest screen shot

If the internet is indeed the new media, destined to replace the old media, then having in place draconian restrictions that allow the government to block websites and content with no due process for the website owner is censorship, plain and simple.  Imagine a country where the government can come in and shut down any newspaper, TV station or Radio station, give no reason other than some weak statement about copy write laws.  See also: China, North Korea, Cuba, Soviet Russia, etc.

It is important to check the corporate power in this country.  It is widely reported that Congress has a 9% approval rating.  It is also hard to imagine their approval rating is actually that high.  While signing petitions and writing senators and congressman may provide some relief, the shortest path to ending this is to boycott the corporate sponsors of the legislation.  Hitting companies bottom line will speak louder than any internet protest, petition, letter writing campaign, etc.  Thus, if so inclined, here is a list of producer companies that like the idea of internet censorship.

The Relentless Drive to Consolidation

In this blog post about the NAB radio show, Paul McLane (Radio World editor) discusses the reduction of technical people in attendance at the conference.  Consolidation has brought about many changes in the broadcasting industry, engineering has not been immune to these changes.

Because of consolidation, engineering staffs have been reduced or completely replaced by contract engineering firms.  Since the Great Recession of 2008-09 this trend has picked up speed.  Expect it to continue to the point where large broadcasting companies employ one engineering staff administrator at the top, several regional engineering supervisors in the middle and the bulk of the work performed will be done by regional contract engineering firms.

There is no reason to expect the media consolidation process to stop any time soon.  It will continue in fits and starts depending on the congressional mood and the awareness or lack thereof of the general public.  The NAB itself seems bent on removing all ownership regulations and eventually, with enough money spent lobbying congress, they will get their way.   Thus, the majority of radio stations will be owned by one company, the majority of TV stations will be owned by another company and the majority of newspapers will be owned by a third.

There will be some exceptions to that scenario; public radio and TV, privately owned religious broadcasters and single station consolidation holdouts.  If funding for public radio and TV gets cut, which is very likely if the economy collapses further, they will be up for grabs too.

Cloud based network diagram
Cloud based network diagram

For the future of radio and radio engineering, I see the following trends developing:

  1. National formats will be introduced.  Clear Channel already does this somewhat with it’s talk radio formats.  Look for more standardization and national music formats for CHR, Country, Rock, Oldies, Nostalgia, etc.  These were previously called “Satellite Radio” formats but I am sure that somebody will dust of and repackage the idea as something else.  They will be somewhat like BBC Radio 1, where a single studio location is used with local markets having the ability to insert local commercials if needed.  Some “local” niche formats will still exist and major markets where the majority of the money is, will continue to have localized radio.
  2. Audio distribution will move further into the Audio Over IP realm using private WANs for larger facilities, public networks with VPN for smaller facilities.  AOIP consoles like the Wheatstone Vorsis and the Telos Axia will become the installation standard.  These consoles are remote controllable and interface directly with existing IP networks for audio distribution and control.  Satellite terminals will become backup distribution or become two way IP networked.
  3. Cloud based automation systems will evolve.  File and data storage will be moved to cloud base servers using a Content Distribution Network topology.  Peers and Nodes will be distributed around the country to facilitate backup and faster file serving.
  4. Continued movement of the technical operations into a corporate hierarchy.  Technical NOC (Network Operations Center) will include all facets of facility monitoring including transmitters, STL’s, automation systems, office file servers, and satellite receivers via IP networks.  The NOC operators will dispatch parts and technicians to the sites of equipment failures as needed.
  5. Regional contract engineering and maintenance firms will replace most staff engineers in all but the largest markets.  Existing regional engineering firms will continue to grow or consolidate as demands for services rise.  Those firms will employ one or two RF engineers, several computer/IT engineers and many low level technicians.
The most important skill set for broadcast engineers in the coming five to ten year period will be IP networking.  Everything is moving in that direction and those that want to keep up will either learn or be left behind.

Say goodbye to 192.168.129.x

Data Center, courtesy Wikimedia
Data Center, courtesy Wikimedia

Happy IPv6 day!

Today, June 8th is the day the major internet companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Verizon, Microsoft and a few others migrate to IPv6 for a 24 hour test.  The migration to IPv6 will eventually be permanent as the number of addresses available for IPv4 is running low.  Considering that there are about 4,000,000,000 IPv4 addresses, that is sort amazing.

IPv6 addresses will look substantially different than the IPv4 example used in the title of this post.  A typical IPv6 address looks something like this:  2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334.  In 32 bit, that format can generate 340 undecillion unique number sets, or 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 written in non-scientific notation.  Most new operating systems, routers, and switches come with IPv6 protocols installed.  IPv4 and IPv6 can operate side by side and often do.  That is the good news.  The bad news; much if not all of the inside IP addressing schemes and subnetting will not work with IPv6.  Even so, it may not be necessary to rebuild entire networks using IPv6 until some sort of major upgrade or replacement.  IPv4 will work well into the future.

From a user standpoint, the transition should be transparent.  For IT guys, the change means typing in a few extra digits when configuring an outside IP address.  Networking bubbas may have their hands full.

One advantage, depending on one’s point of view, of IPv6 is that internal IP address schemes will not be needed, theoretically.  Thus, for example, a toaster or other appliance can communicate over power line to the cable modem, which will then establish an IP tunnel to the toaster manufacturer or some other party of interest.  Smart electric meters also have this capacity and use it to communicate directly with the utility company.

Homeplug computer network
Homeplug computer network

From the standpoint of IP streaming audio, IPv6 is more efficient than v4 in multicast operations.  This will hopefully reduce latency somewhat in web streaming audio.