Internet Radio DIY Basics

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2448, 2006-12-01, as the cover article, in both their print edition (on pages 10 and 14) and their website.

The concept of a pirate radio station should be familiar to most residents of industrialized countries — especially to people who are willing to put up with a weak radio signal in exchange for a strong mix of eclectic music, not watered down by commercials or DJ chitchat. These so-called "bootleg stations" are even more rare nowadays than they were during the 1970s, during the heyday of citizens band (CB) radio and ham radio.

Nonetheless, a wide range of do-it-yourself (DIY) shortwave radio efforts can still be found operating here and there. To learn more about such pirate operations throughout most of the world, call "ahoy" to the salty dogs at TDP. To find the scurvy mateys willing to walk the FCC plank in the United States, set sail at Pirate Radio Central.

All of these amateur radio broadcasts were made possible by the increasing availability of short wave radio transmitting equipment, and the declining costs for purchasing fully assembled transmitters, or purchasing the parts to build one. In either case, these unsanctioned music broadcasts are sent out in analog form, at frequencies within the shortwave radio spectrum that can be discovered through trial and error by happy music enthusiasts, and unhappy government and industry watchdogs.

DIY DJ-ing Goes Digital

What amateur radio stations are in the analog world, Internet radio broadcasts are in the digital world. The proliferation of the Internet has opened up countless possibilities for anyone interested in creating their own audio broadcasts.

The digital category is much easier to get started in; it is certainly a lot cheaper to obtain a broadband connection to the Internet than it is to put up a radio tower in your backyard. Besides, your neighbors might not appreciate the Jolly Roger flying from the top of your radio tower.

Internet radio can take several forms, but in all cases it consists of distributing multimedia content — audio, video, or combinations thereof — over the Internet, for the purpose of playback by the recipient, who has subscribed to that particular Internet radio service.

The two most common forms of Internet radio are podcasting and streaming. Podcasting consists of distributing a multimedia file as a syndication feed, in a format appropriate for any feed reader that is designed to accept feeds in an RSS or Atom format, and to play the content immediately, or to save it for later playback.

Streaming is distributing the multimedia content in pieces ("packets") to an application such as a Web browser plug-in, that is capable of reassembling the packets upon receipt, without the use of an aggregator. The streaming application or dedicated device buffers the content as it is received, and begins to play it as soon as the application detects that enough content has been buffered so that the download speed is sufficient to keep the buffer full as you listen to or watch the stream of content.

Which form of Internet radio broadcasting you choose will naturally affect how you should go about setting up your own online radio station. In this article, we will focus on the podcasting approach, as it has several advantages.

Invasion of Pod People

At the same time that more people are subscribing to the text feeds syndicated by an increasing number of websites, those same Internet users will be more comfortable with listening to your audio presentations offered in the form of a podcast.

Those users will enjoy many advantages, should you choose to go the podcasting route. All it takes for them to listen to your audio feed is some type of MP3 player — either a dedicated device, such as an iPod, or a computer program, such as iTunes.

The hardware and software that you will need to actually produce that stunning podcast, is a bit more involved; but it is certainly doable. Firstly, you should decide if you are going to limit your content to MP3 files that have already been created. If not, and you wish to fill the virtual airwaves with your own silken voice, then you will need to obtain a microphone.

You could choose the hands-free headset style, which would allow you to use your keyboard and mouse during your recording sessions. This might be especially valuable should you want to easily switch from one computer application to another, so that you can read your "impromptu" comments without frantic mouse-clicking. The same capability can be had with a more traditional handheld microphone if you also get a microphone stand.

Mix and Match

Even if you decide to not try to generate your own audio content, and just combine that of others, then you must still obtain some sort of audio mixing tool. There are many audio recording and editing programs available, and some of them are free. For Windows, you could try 3D MP3 Sound Recorder, Audacity, MP3myMP3 Recorder, or River Past Audio Capture.

If you mix MP3s created by other people, make sure that you are not violating any copyrights in doing so. Such "podsafe" material can be obtained from resources such as AudioFeeds.org, PodSafe Audio, and podshow.com. All of these sites offer material that is freely available for reuse within your own podcast.

After you have exported your audio content in MP3 format, and made it visible on the Internet (such as uploading the file to your website or blog), you will need to make it available to your listeners' podcast aggregators. To do so, create a podcast RSS file that points to your uploaded MP3 file, using its Internet address (its URL). If you are a programmer familiar with XML or RSS, then you will have no difficulty in locating and following the guidelines for creating a valid podcast file.

But it is easier to have an application generate the RSS file for you, instead of trying to craft it from scratch. There are many such tools out there, some of which run as programs on your local machine. Others can be accessed on the Web, and will generate the RSS podcast file for you, which for most people would be more convenient. A bare-bones example of the latter category, is the Podcast RSS Feed Generator.

Once you get the hang of combining audio elements into an impressive broadcast, you may discover the creative satisfaction enjoyed by the swashbuckling pioneers of pirate radio stations.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.