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Start a pirate radio station legally

Jim Ellis

Published: January 21, 2004

Before the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruled that low power radio stations were legal on Jan. 20, 2000, FM stations broadcasting as “low power” were considered pirate stations and illegal to operate.

Since that ruling, though, hundreds of “mom and pop” low power FM (LPFM) stations have been cropping up in the U.S. and as more and more would-be broadcasters get the technological know how, those numbers are increasing.

Jon Arthur, PJC alum and LPFM owner, says the ruling makes it possible for the “average joe” to compete with corporate radio.

Before the ruling the only legal FM stations were high powered and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for licensing and operation.  The cost was simply out of reach for most people.   

Arthur owns and operates WXEI 95.3, Crestview’s only LPFM station.  His coverage includes Crestview, Baker and the surrounding area.

While Arthur has spent several thousands of dollars, computer technology now makes it possible for someone to broadcast out of his or her home for as little as $100.

According to Arthur, a listener is unable to distinguish that his station is, in fact, low power. 

“And it is all legal,” said the radio entrepreneur.

Arthur says that low-cost options exist for the casual enthusiast and the person seriously considering a career in radio.

For those people who want to have some fun broadcasting radio to their neighborhood, there is now software on the market ($80-$90).  The only requirement is that a person own a personal computer.  Because the broadcast radius is only a couple of blocks, no licensing is required.

Arthur says that in addition to the software a person may also want to have a microphone ($20) and a four-channel mixer ($29), but those items are optional.

“The downside to using this low cost method is that you are only going to project a couple of blocks, but it’s perfect for someone who is wanting to operate a radio station as a hobby,” said Arthur.

According to Arthur, if someone wants to project further than a few blocks and is willing to invest more money, he or she could purchase a USI transmitter ($1000-$1500) and broadcast on an AM frequency.  The microphone ($20) and the four-channel mixer ($29) are necessary. 

The USI transmitter would enable an AM station to broadcast up to two to three miles depending on the weather.  This too does not require licensing under current FCC guidelines.

“This is the level in which many college radio stations operate. The downside is that you’re on AM,” said Arthur.

Owning an LPFM station is the next step for broadcasters who are interested in broadcasting to an entire community.

LPFM stations are separated into two categories: 10-watt stations (covers a radius of one to two miles) or 100-watt stations (covers a radius of three to five miles).  Arthur’s station is 100-watt.

“LPFM is the real deal.  It enables the little guy to own a real radio station for as low as $5000 – $6000,” said Arthur.

The process from start to finish is two to three years, so it is not necessary to have all of the finances immediately, he said.

Because LPFM must follow very stringent FCC guidelines, there are many steps one must follow and anyone who considers starting an LPFM station must follow the guidelines or risk losing licensing.

The first step is to establish that there is a frequency available in the area, and that can be done by using the LPFM channel finder at,, the official FCC website.

Also, it is important to determine what format (rock, hip-hop country, contemporary, Christian, talk, etc.) your station will be, says Arthur.

“Decide what format there is a market for in your area and one that you’re happy about and go with it.  You don’t want to have a rock station if that means competing against three other established rock stations.” he said.

Arthur defines his station as “conservative talk radio.”

“There wasn’t a talk radio station in Crestview and I knew that there was a market for it,” he said.

Arthur suggests that once a person determines there is an available channel he or she should hire an engineer to file the application for a construction permit ($400-$1000).

This is the second step in the LPFM process and does not necessarily mean that a broadcaster is constructing a new structure. It simply means that a broadcaster is starting the process of buying the necessary equipment to run the station.

“Once you have determined that there is a channel available in the area that you live, you can build the station in a spare bedroom, garage, or a shed in the backyard,” said Arthur.

According to Arthur, a person could file the construction permit himself for free, but if something isn’t done right, it could cost the station clearance by the FCC.

“It took 12 months to have my construction permit approved and had I been denied I would have had to start the process all over,” he said.

Once a broadcaster’s construction permit is approved, the FCC allows 18 months to construct the station.

“That seems like a long time, but it goes by quick when you are trying to get all the equipment together,” said Arthur.

The most expensive piece of equipment is the transmitter ($2500) and it must be FCC- approved.  The FCC also requires equipment to alert listeners of emergencies like bad weather, etc. ($1600).

Other necessary equipment includes: microphone ($20), mixing board ($200), equalizer ($300) and antenna ($125).

The final item, which is optional, is a radio tower.  The tower costs $100 per ten-foot section.  WXEI 95.3FM, Arthur’s station, has a 60-foot tower.

“Bottom line – the antenna needs to be mounted.  So a person can mount it to a telephone pole, flag pole, or some other tall structure if he or she wanted to cut corners,” said Arthur.

Once a person has acquired all of the equipment necessary to broadcast, he or she should notify the FCC in writing stating that the station is doing on-air testing.  Otherwise, the FCC may consider it a “pirate” station.

Another process that needs to be met before being approved for licensing is incorporating ($80).  The FCC does not approve individual entities.  Arthur says this was the easiest step on the road to establishing an LPFM station.

Once a person has constructed his or her station then the final step is filing for a license with the FCC. The two-page form can be filed online at the FCC website for free.

“The government moves slow.  It took an additional year to get my license approved,” said Arthur. 

Once approved, the license does not expire for seven years.

Arthur adds that LPFM stations are not for everybody.  A person must have the desire and determination to be an owner and operator of a business and have an interest in radio in general.

 “After you get on the air, it’s time to take on the big boys like Clear Channel and Cumulus,” he said.  For more information on how to start your own radio station, contact Arthur at (309)218-7778 or visit

Start a pirate radio station legally Reviewed by on . Jim Ellis Published: January 21, 2004 Before the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruled that low power radio stations were legal on Jan. 20, 2000, FM stat Jim Ellis Published: January 21, 2004 Before the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruled that low power radio stations were legal on Jan. 20, 2000, FM stat Rating:
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