Micropower radio


What is it?

Micropower radio is a general term for a whole class of activities of underground radio. As opposed to unlicensed "pirate" radio stations operating powerful transmitters, larger stations, and targeting a major metropolitan city for example, micropower radio is instead concerned with broadcasting to a niche community that could be as large as a neighborhood or as small as a campus or city block.

Folks practice micropower for a variety of reasons. It's often cheaper to purchase or hack together a micro broadcasting transmitter system. The equipment is usually smaller and portable. Your investment is therefore less, and you can activate the station as a test or for a temporary purpose. And it may or may not be legal in your area, depending on the wattage as well as other factors.

In college after my roommate first got involved I became a radio DJ at a small college radio station in Massachussets. I DJed for four years with a Thursday night program broadcasting experimental electronic music. I loved the station and had other friends who were also DJs. I invited a variety of guests on the air, but also played all kinds of music. One day I went to the Twisted Village experimental music CD/record/tape shop and there was someone there browsing for music, and they said they were looking for albums they had heard on the radio. It had turned out to be my own program they had listened to. That was really cool.

About a decade ago I operated my own micropower radio station that played exclusively experimental music, consisting of slowed down music and sound art, as well as "chopped and screwed", ambient, new age and experimental classical and electronic work. I DJed and invited other DJs and musicians and producers, who visited the studio and broadcast live. My station could be heard in a portion of my city. I operated with a fairly low wattage transmitter, from up in a church steeple. I had a borrowed radio, and also transmitted live over the internet. My station broadcasted for a while, until the FCC visited me and shut down the transmitter, though I continued to broadcast online.

Micropower radio is a subset of pirate radio concerned with low-power radio broadcasting, usually less than about 100 watts radiated power and sometimes less than 0.1 watt. Micropower radio transmits to a number of recipients ("listeners" or "viewers") that belong to a small local group. Beginning in the early 1990s, there has been an increase in micropower radio because of the desire for such a service in local communities. Micropower radio gives an avenue for small groups and individuals to provide local neighborhood or community broadcasts of information, diverse programming, and entertainment. Micropower radio is usually a non-commercial service. --from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, CC BY SA 4.0

My station brought in no money. It was a personal project. I had a community and audience, and a desire to share, and to spark joy.

I knew what I was doing was not quite legal. Despite making sure that I wasn't transmitting on "top" of another station in my city, and even though I was operating at a low transmitter amount, I still knew it wasn't legal to broadcast except with a national FCC license, which is pretty much impossible to achieve. I had read resources like websites and zines from Prometheus Radio, dedicated to supporting low power radio. I could have operated a transmitter below the legal limit, which would only have allowed me to transmit about as far as a couple blocks, but I decided to go above that limit. What would the worst thing be that could happen?

Well, I did find out. As soon as I got press for my work, I was visited by the FCC and they shut down my transmitter. They had determined I was over the legal limit. I received a warning, which while it did scare me, it did not come with a fine as long as I shut down and kept my transmitter off.

Afterwards, I was involved in at least two more micropower radio stations, but with both of those projects I kept within the legal broadcast limit! For one of these projects I set up a micro power radio station within an art gallery on a college campus. In this case, speakers in the area, and the broadcast booth I set up allowed viewers/attendees to see and hear the live broadcasts. The prominent location on the first floor of a glassed-walled gallery meant that the public walking by could see the broadcast, and could see the listing of the frequency, which could really only be listened to within that city block, or visit the website to listen, or visit in person. This micropower radio station stayed up the length of the exhibition. We used a low power transmitter that was within the legal limit, and we tested its strength! The gallery director did not want to get in trouble.

The second micropower radio station I was involved in was a long running microbroadcast radio station and online radio station called KCHUNG Radio that still operates to this day in Chinatown, Los Angeles. It also pops up on location to broadcast from museums as a form of artist "residency". This station really can only be heard within a few blocks, though there were/are artist studios and art spaces within a couple blocks, so theoretically many folks could be listening through the radio. And because it's in Los Angeles, even though much less folks own personal radios there could be people driving by listening to their car radio that are able to call in.

For both my personal micro radio station as well as the KCHUNG station there were/are also online chat features, which let the DJ communicate with the listening public, which definitely encourages the broadcasting.

The residency idea of KCHUNG broadcasting live from different live events and art museums definitely helped build an audience, and the freeform volunteer-run station also built community among its many DJs and organizers.

Why broadcast from a micropower station?

Broadcast is different from listening to a playlist on a streaming service. It's also different from listening to a major radio station. The broadcasts are personal, non-commercial, and can be totally freeform. Invent your own approach. A radio station of field recordings. Of rebroadcasts of the atmosphere (this was a show on KCHUNG once). An interview show, a joke show, a personal narrative show. It can be any of these things or many more things. In the current streaming and social media era it's something different. A one-to-many medium that can still be personal but different. Communicating with sound is its own thing. It can be inventive. Sound makes space. And broadcasting in the airwaves is a way of extending that space across the city or environment. It is a unique media.

Take note! It's important to remember that despite the advantages of internet streaming, it also has some real disadvantages. One major disadvantage is that while streaming radio is generally cheaper to transmit than "on-air" radio, it's a lot more expensive to receive. Buying a computer and paying for internet service costs a lot more than buying an AM/FM radio. Also, one of the beautiful things about radio (especially low power radio) is that it is inherently local and is a great tool for building local communities. It's easy to lose your focus on local people and local issues when your stream is available to the entire world. For these reasons, we at Prometheus see internet streaming as a supplement to old-fashioned on-air radio, but not as a replacement for it. --from Prometheus Radio, on Internet Streaming

How to do it?

Identify a community and purpose. What's your goal? Where will it be located? What resources do you already have? What will be your identity? It's okay if you don't know all the answers to this. You can treat it as an experiment and find out as you go along. It doesn't need to be a polished thing. In fact, like photocopy zines and DIY punk bands it can be particularly freeing to try out something where you are not an expert but you're going to just go ahead and try it and put your own expression out anyway.

There are many ways to try out micropower radio. There are transmitters to purchase online, even on ebay. You can also re-purpose something like a house radio. These are small transmitters that go in front of a house for sale. They list a FM or AM station that you tune a car radio to and continously broadcast a recorded voiceover about the house you are looking at. You could repurpose this as an extremely local micropower radio station.

Another option is to use a computer with a transmitter, like a low cost Raspberry Pi computer with an added "hat" with an antenna. There are various tutorials and products online.

In all of these cases you'll want to be sure you are aware of your local and country laws, and that you're purchasing and using equipment you are legally allowed to use. Be sure to review your local laws to make sure you're compliant. According to the FCC part 15 laws you are limited to 200 feet broadcast on the FM and AM bands if you are transmitting without an authorized license.

Your next steps will be to plan when you'll broadcast, promote your station, then hook up and operate your radio and transmitter. Flyers, email newsletters, social media announcements can be part of your plan to get the word out. Be sure to let friends know when you'll be broadcasting. You may also want to announce an email address or phone number or other way to contact you when you're broadcasting. You never know who else might be listening and they may want to report back on the broadcast, give you feedback, make a request, or just say "hi."


Prometheus Radio Project

Tetsuo Kogawa's Micro Radio Manifesto

mediageek file: pirate/free/micropower/low-power radio

FCC's Low Power Radio website

FCC: Low Power Radio - General Information

Understanding the FCC Regulations for Low-power, Non-licensed Transmitters (PDF)

Make Your Own Low-Power AM Radio Transmitter

Back to index


Leave a comment by emailing lettuce at the ctrl-c.club domain. You can list "comment" and the name of this article in the subject, and please list if you'd like your comment public here and what name you'd like listed.