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 the 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 planning 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, electricity, 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:

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

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:

NomenclatureCost New (USD)Cost Used (USD)Comments
300 watt transmitter and exciter4,400.002,000.00Smaller 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$350.00N/A 
100 foot guyed tower and installation$4,000.00$3,500.00Not 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$1,200.00Can also use software such as Breakaway Broadcast
Misc connectors, grounding kits, etc$1,100.00N/A 
EAS unit$1,900.00N/AFully operational CAP compliant
Processing software, Breakway broadcast$200.00N/AIn lieu of standard FM processor

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:

NomenclatureCost New IUSD)Cost Used (USD)Comments
Streaming Server2,100.001,100.00Includes professional sound card
Audio processing software200.00N/ARecommend software such as Breakaway Broadcast
Audio Processing, outboard hardware650.00400.00In lieu of software
Audio Streaming aggregator 1,200 to 2,400N/AAnnually

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.

All those servers do not run cheaply

Rack Mounted servers in data center
Rack Mounted servers in data center

As Google can verify.  According to the NYT piece: Google Details Electricity Usage, Google said its operations draw approximately 260 million watts continuously to run its online services and office buildings.  That figure includes all of the e-mail applications, Youtube videos, Google searches, Google documents, etc.  That works out to be about 6.24 million KWh per day or 21,292,752,000 BTU per day.  Here are some of the amounts and costs for other fuels:

FuelUnitAmountAverage cost $Cost per day
Natural GasCCF211,8682.335494,712

Those figures do not take into account the efficiency of the generation process.  For example, the average coal fired power plant is 32% efficient, thus the actual tonnage of coal needed to produce 6.24 million KWh is 1,376 at a cost of $215,194.  Other fuels have similar electrical conversion efficiency, with the internal combustion engine being about 19% efficiency for any given fuel.

Some other interesting tidbits from the article:

  • Each Google search uses about 0.3 Watt-hours of electric
  • The average user uses 180 Watt-hours per month
  • Approximately 12.5 million Watts or 30,000 kWh per day are used by search engine traffic
  • 25% of Google’s energy is supplied from renewables
  • Google designs and builds its own data centers using energy-efficient technology

One can assume that other data centers are not as efficient as Google’s.  It would be interesting to do a comparison between the electrical use by AM and FM broadcast transmitter sites and the energy used by data centers that stream radio content.  Right now the data center’s electrical costs are still relatively low because over the air radio listenership far out strips on line listenership.  Eventually, those numbers will flip and I’d think the increased costs associated with greater streaming will be paid by somebody, likely the content generator.

All those webstreams, videos, and search engine queries are not free.

VOA to end HF broadcasting

Several places have reported that The Voice of America will sunset its shortwave broadcasts in the not-too-distant future. Boing Boing reported yesterday, based on a paper titled “Broadcast Board of Governors 2010-2012 BBG Technology Strategic Plan and BBG Technology Update – 2009” received via FOIA last January.

The 2009 study notes that the weekly audience for radio is 101.9 million listeners, TV is 81.5 million, and the Internet is 2.4 million weekly listeners.  I don’t know how much that has changed in the last two years, but I’d imagine some shift towards the internet has taken place in light of recent shortwave transmitter site closings.

There are several interesting aspects of this report, notably the disparity between what is termed “Classic Engineering” and “Classic IT” fields.  This is the concept that radio engineers toil on RF and transmitters, while the IT guys work with computers.

As the dependence on shortwave continues to wane and the distribution focus shifts to third party operations, satellite and other direct-to-consumer methodologies, the skill sets of some engineering personnel become less and less relevant to the agency.

This issue is further compounded by the relatively difficult transition from a traditional RF, antenna, transmitter design, and maintenance knowledge base to the technologies involved in digital satellite and IP-based networking systems.

Perhaps that is how it is done in government circles, but I have found in the private sector, most radio engineers know at least the computer automation systems that run the stations.  Of course, everyone has preferences and we tend to gravitate toward things we like to do, especially in a field as diverse as broadcast engineering.  When I was in the military, somebody posted the “Eleven Rules of Success.”  The only one that I can remember now is this: “Pick the thing that you hate and become proficient at it.”

In order to stay relevant, broadcast engineers have to keep up with the technology while remaining proficient with RF and audio skills.  Computers and automation programs are not terribly hard to understand, but each one is different and operates differently.  Most, if not all automation companies offer some type of training, which is fine.  Nothing can beat hands-on installation and troubleshooting for learning the important details, however.

The report also mentions that morale is an issue for several reasons.  First, it is noted that:

Despite several recent high profile station closings, the organization continues to employ shortwave as the most important transmission mechanism to many of the target areas around the globe. Often surge activities are enabled byvadditional shortwave transmissions that end up as an integral part of the ongoing schedule. Effectively, this diminution of transmission resources accompanied by no reduction or even an increase of reliance on this transmission methodology creates overburdened schedules and often the deployment of less than optimal assets for transmission into target areas.

This additional operational burden likely extends to other disciplines within the agency where programming staff must expend substantial additional effort to produce or adapt content for a multiplicity of transmission methods.

In essence, the decision process for station closing does not appear to follow an overt decision and stated plan to reduce shortwave usage.

That is known as the “more with less” paradox.  In the private sector, more with less has been going great guns since the first loosening of the FCC’s ownership rules in 1994.  For those that are used to working in optimum conditions, anything less is a shock to the system.

The issue of low morale is palpable and often present in conversations that address historical perspectives on a particular station closing, transfer of technologies around the network and any other such topics. Precipitated by the long periods of employment that are relatively standard in the Engineering area and perfectly understandable, this grieving process is a natural consequence of the pride involved in creating a state-of-the-art technical facility only to see it being dissected piece by piece as technology continues its relentless creative destruction.

An interesting statement and it shines a light on several things heretofore unsaid in broadcast engineering.  We love our transmitters, as strange as that may seem.  We love our towers and antennas.  Parting with something that has become an integral part of our working environment is difficult, to say the least.  Watching something be signed off for the last time and then hauled to the scrap heap is very disheartening, especially if there is no replacement.

On the IT side, things are not so good either.  The main concern is the infrastructure of the IT backbone.  Several deficiencies are noted in the cabling and router; the cabling is in serious disarray and there is only one router for the facility.  There is also other problems noted with personnel and lack of project management experience and/or IT department goals.

Overall, moving into new media fields makes sense.  There are, however, many places where new media is unknown or at best, mostly unavailable.  Moving content delivery from over-the-air broadcast to IP-based distribution may be far less expensive to operate, that is true.  It is also far more susceptible to being disrupted by accident or design.  In those areas where the internet is spotty, shortwave radios are abundant and relied upon.  If the VOA is not on the air, then some other station will be.

Comparison: Over the air listening on FM vs. streaming audio on Android phone

I have had my HTC Android phone for just about a year now, which is enough time to learn the device’s strengths and weaknesses.  I have done a fair amount of listening to the audio, watching youtube videos, and playing .mp3’s to give me some idea of the technical quality and operational issues.  Like anything else, these are general observations.  Some radio station’s streams sound better than others due to the effort those stations put into audio quality.

The listening test was done with a set of Sony earbuds, which sound far better than the small speaker built into the phone.  For ease in streaming audio, I used the TuneIn Radio application for Android by TuneIn Inc.  For this test, I only listened to FM broadcast stations, both streaming and over the air.

The over-the-air tuner is the stock factory radio in my 1997 Jeep Cherokee.  I would rate the radio average in every way.  The actual tests were done driving around on interstate highways and other major roadways.  There were a few instances where I had to give up on the Android phone due to traffic and driving considerations.

My Android phone has an FM tuner installed in it, however, it is really useless.  I get only local stations, and then their audio is all hissy and for the most part unlistenable.  The HTC FM tuner uses the headphone wire for an antenna, which may be a part of the problem.

Here is a chart of my observations:

Category evaluatedAnalog FM radioStreaming via Android
Overall Station SelectionOnly those stations that can be receivedAny station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Almost unlimited, worldwide*Can press the preset or scan buttons on the radio without taking eyes off the road*Only those receivable signals limit it to a few well-programmed stations, the rest being garbage
Available formatsOnly those stations that can be receivedAny station that is listed in TuneIn Radio App*
Ease of useVaries depending on location, and can be quite annoying, especially in mobile environment.  App also occasionally locks up and needs to be restartedRequires squinting at a small screen and pressing several little boxes to get to the desired station
Annoying commercial avoidanceSee above on preset and scan buttons*Very difficult to change stations quickly
Quality of soundGood to excellent, depending on the station’s signal strength*Fair to good, depending on the bit rate and network congestion, some stations sound very good and some can sound very bad
Drop outsOccasional picket fencing with distant stations, otherwise, non-existent*Requires data plan with smartphone, some plans cap data amounts, can be fairly expensive
ExpenseFree, radio came with the vehicle, no paid data service needed*Requires data plan with smartphone, some plans cap data amounts can be fairly expensive
Overall enjoymentGoodGood

*Wins category.

I am having a difficult time assigning the overall enjoyment as well as an overall winner.  On the one hand, it was very cool, driving down I-84 in Danbury, CT listening to Howlin’ Wolf on New Orleans’ non-commercial Jazz station, WWOZ.  On the other hand, it was a right pain in the ass to get to that point, in rush hour traffic.  By the way, WWOZ’s web stream is excellent, audio-wise.

From safety and ease of use, the FM radio in the Jeep wins hands down, I just don’t know how many more times I can listen to the same Led Zeppelin song on i95 (that used to be I-95, frankly I thought Steve Jobs copyrighted the lower case i).

The dropouts were also a concern, mostly taking place in the section of I-84 going through Putnam County, NY.  I don’t know if my cell carrier needs to beef up its data coverage in that area, or if there were just a great many users on the network checking their e-mail, etc.

If they could sort out the ease of operation problem and get rid of the dropouts, streaming audio over HTC Android would win hands down.