My name is Gavin Watson and I’m the founder of autopo.st. I’ve been in the broadcast and radio industry for over 20 years and will be writing articles here at autopo.st on how to help you set up your radio station and get the most of it.
So, setting up a radio station, huh?
There are a few options for you to consider regarding setting up an online radio station, firstly how are you going to use it? Will it be just to play music, like a jukebox? Will you be playing mostly music and a small number of live shows? Will it be mostly live shows?
The answers to these questions will determine the best route to take when setting up your own radio station.
Now, just to confuse you, let’s start at the end!
Regardless of how you actually broadcast (live, recorded, voicetracking, just music, etc) you will always need a streaming server. This is what sends your content to all your listeners. Without going into a huge amount of technical detail, you create your content, whether it be a live show or just music and you create this content only once and send it to your streaming server and then the server sends it on to your listeners. You would need a ton of Internet bandwidth and processing power to do this yourself, that’s why streaming servers exist.
Hang on! Can I not do that myself? Well, no… You will create one stream of music and this needs to be distributed to all of your listeners. It is highly unlikely that your home/office internet connection will be able to cope with this. This is why you create one stream of music and then send it on to your streaming server to serve to your listeners as and when they want to tune in.
So, to get started, you will definitely need a streaming server. We’ll narrow your choices down to just three things to consider.
Which type? The first thing to consider is what ‘type’ of streaming server will you be using. There are. In my opinion, two main types, Shoutcast and Icecast. While there are some differences, their job is the same, to get your broadcast to your listeners. Personally I prefer Shoutcast but that could simply be because I have had more exposure to using it, both work perfectly well. The user panel is slightly different as is the way you connect to the server, but they both perform the same task
How many listeners? The second thing to consider is how many listener slots you need. This part of the decision making has always proved to be slightly confusing. When choosing a streaming server, you will nearly always be asked ‘how many listener slots’ you want. What this means is that you have to decide how many listeners you want to be able to handle at any one time. It doesn’t refer to daily or monthly limits, only how many simultaneous listeners you can serve at any given moment. The reason this is relevant and nearly always asked is because streaming server hosts pay for bandwidth and depending on how much bandwidth they need, they pay more. They also need to reserve this bandwidth for you so that if you get a surge of listeners, then can cope with it. Unfortunately it is quite common for stream hosts to ‘oversell’ their bandwidth in a hope that not everyone will use their maximum slots at any given time. Beware of streaming server hosts offering ‘unlimited slots’ this is very misleading! Not only do you ‘have’ to specify a maximum number of listeners for your server, no streaming company could be able to honour this offer if all of a sudden your station became globally famous and you had thousands of listeners tuning it.
Another common problem here is that some streaming companies charge for bandwidth usage. In my opinion, beware of this. Unless you are a mathematical wizard, you really don’t want to be worried about how much bandwidth on a daily basis, what you really want is to be able to broadcast your radio station without any nasty surprises in case you go over the bandwidth you use. Just go for a ‘maximum slot’ monthly option and don’t worry about how much bandwidth you use.
So, your best option here is to start small, get the station launched, make sure your streaming server provider is happy to grow with you as you need more slots (some stream hosts do not allow these changes). I’d say a reasonable amount of slots to get started with is 50 or 100 and see how it goes from there. You’ll be able to monitor the statistics via your control panel so you can see if you are reaching your maximum listener slots at any time and simply upgrade when you do. Again, this does not mean that you’ll only be able to have 50 or 100 listeners per month, it just means that at any one time you can only allow this many listeners to tune in.
Quality? The final consideration for your streaming server is the actual level of quality of the stream. This will depend on what you are going to broadcast, will it be voice only (talk radio), will it be a combination of both, or will you be looking to stream high quality music content? In basic terms, the higher the quality you want, the more bandwidth you need. This is where, on purchasing a streaming server, you will probably be asked how many ‘kbps’ you require, or they will be marked as ‘maximum kbps’.
Breaking this down, generally you have three options. Talk Radio (speech only) is typically 48-64kbps, speech and music is typically 128kbps and high quality audio is 192kbps. Please note I say ‘typically’! You can get decent speech down to 24kbps and you can get decent music content in 64kbps, but these have been seen to be the standard choices.
We could go on to discuss a newer type of stream (AAC+) which is being used to serve content to mobile devices and allows you to better serve content to mobile devices, but this could confuse matters even more!
So, your three choices : Server type (Shoutcast or Icecast), Maximum listener slots and audio quality. The standard starter pack is typically a Shoutcast server with 100 slots at 128kbps. This is more than enough to get you started.
OK, back to the beginning!
If you will only be playing your own selection of music in a jukebox style station, then you probably have two options, either use a feature called AutoDJ which allows you to upload all your songs to your streaming server and play them from there, this means that you do not need a computer dedicated to playing your music or connected to your internet using up bandwidth, you do all the administration online via your control panel and make any changes there. The advantages of this option are that you don’t need to be permanently connected to the internet (using bandwidth), you don’t need a dedicated PC and you don’t run the risk of your station being down if your PC crashes or your home/office internet line being down. The disadvantages are that you have to pay for storage space on the server which will limit the amount of songs you can store. Another consideration is the limited amount of configuration and scheduling you can make.
Another option is to do the same thing, but from your own computer. The advantage here is that you are not paying for storage space on your streaming server (hard drives are relatively cheap these days), you can choose your own playout software and make as many configuration changes you want. The downside is that you need a dedicated PC and a decent internet connection.
So, what about if you want to host your own live shows every now and then?
Well, actually, the above two options are still valid. AutoDJ allows live connections to the server whenever you want and if you host on your own PC, then you can simply hook up a mic and you’re away. Again, both options are valid.
The main differences here are that if you want to connect up to your own AutoDJ server, you will still need another PC to send the stream to it, in fact depending on how well you want to do it, you will need an audio source (another PC with all your music on, CD players, Turntables or any other source of music) and of course you will need your own microphone, it is more than likely that you will need some kind of small mixing desk to hook all these up to and then into your encoding PC and then off to your streaming server or AutoDJ.
This is somewhere in between the options of having a mainly live radio station. You move away from the AutoDJ system and more towards having the station content generated from where the studio is going to be located.
AutoDJ does, however, prove very useful if you want to have a station whereby you have a number of remote DJs and no physical studio location. Each DJ would be allowed to broadcast on your station at their allocated slot time and connect and disconnect via a set of rules and a username and password. When no DJ connects to the server, your AutoDJ takes over and simply plays music.
Another option is where you want a more professional approach to your station and have a physical studio located somewhere (your studio, office or home studio). This would typically comprise of a decent microphone, a small mixing desk, an audio source (CD players, turntables, PC with a database of music, etc) and finally a PC which would encode your music content and send it off to your streaming server.
Quite how complex this set up is greatly depends on your requirements. You could have 3 or 4 microphones for talk radio and guests, a number of CD players, some turntables if you’re playing vinyl or a laptop with your favourite MP3’s stored on it. Your mixing desk could be analogue or digital with a number of inputs. When choosing your missing desk, always try and think how your setup may grow and buy one with enough inputs but while sticking to your budget.
So, we’ve covered streaming servers and your studio setup, but we still haven’t covered how to actually get your live show delivered to your streaming server.
If you will only be playing music from your server via AutoDJ, then all your music is already on your server so you do not really need to worry about this part as it doesn’t apply, but if you will be producing your live shows or sending music to your server from your studio then you need a way of getting it there.
If you are just sending music from your PC to your streaming server then you can do this from the same PC and depending on what software you are using to play the music it may have a built in encoder.
If you have a small studio with a mixer, then you will need to take the output from your mixer into your encoding PC (line input) and set up some encoding software on the PC which will then send your audio to your streaming server. Essentially it takes analogue audio and coverts it into data to send over the internet to your streaming server.
There are a few options for you here, you could use Winamps DSP (free) which allows you to connect up to your streaming server or a more professional approach and use RadioBoss’s ‘Caster’ which give you many more options.
Whichever approach you use to get your audio from your studio to your streaming server, you’ll be needing some important details, which are the IP or hostname of your server and the port number you have been allocated. You will also need to specify whether or not you’ll be using MP3 or AAC encoding and also the bitrate (audio quality) you will be using, this will have been decided when you chose a streaming server. All you need to do is enter these details into your encoder and hit connect and you’ll be streaming to your server!
It is important to remember that if you do broadcast from your studio, office or home studio, that your encoding PC will have to be left on permanently and connected to the internet using bandwidth. This is a consideration if you have capped bandwidth on your broadband plan as audio streaming uses a lot of bandwidth!
So, what have we learned?
Well, you need to decide what type of Radio Station you want to set up first and plan it out, are you just going to play music, will you be doing the occasional show, will you have remote presenters or DJ’s, will you have a physical studio somewhere, how will you get the audio to the streaming server and what type of server will you be using, how many listeners slots and what audio quality?