Kicking around the germ of this article with Sebastian led me down a rabbit hole that seems worth sharing. None of it really seems actionable for musicians, but it was definitely interesting. This is definitely not intended to convince anyone to go start a radio station. If anything, it should deter the idea.
At the very bottom of the stack is streaming software. These are software packages that live on a server and transmit audio to the world in a real time stream. ShoutCast Server is the big one, with both free and paid versions. Its cousin, IceCast comes in second, followed by a bunch of smaller players. Buy a server, install one of these packages, pay whatever software license is required (ShoutCast is $9.90/mo for the Premium package), and start talking into a microphone. Anyone in the world who has the IP address can tap into the stream and listen to you ramble. The upside: it’s infinitely easier to start one of these than terrestrial radio. The downside: it’s still fairly difficult, it requires dedicated hardware and maintenance, and you can’t legally play music you didn’t release yourself without getting involved with licensing.
To address the hardware problem, there are companies that stream radio the same way SquareSpace or a web hosting company serves your site. Generally inexpensive ($5/mo seems common), they handle all the hardware, software, and internet uptime, and may offer rudimentary station management tools. Not surprisingly, ShoutCast (the company) offers this service, as a well as a directory of stations using it. But many of these services require stations to stream from their computer, requiring a solid internet connection to the server, hard drives full of music, and tools for managing playlists, schedules, ads, bumpers, etc. And stations are still limited to talk radio until they acquire the proper licenses so the songwriters get paid.
The next tier up is something like Radio.co, a professional broadcasting platform. They do everything the servers companies do, but station managers and DJs work with a robust suite of broadcasting tools hosted on Radio.co’s servers, and they offer storage. DJs log in, build their playlist, record segues, schedule ad breaks, and let it run. It’s really impressive, especially for the cost ($20/mo and up), but stations still have to acquire their own licenses to play music legally. Radio.co’s philosophy is that licensing is too unique per station to offer as a blanket, and stations should DIY that bit so they only pay for what they need.
If licensing music sounds like too much work (and it’s neither cheap nor trivial), Live365 offers everything Radio.co does, plus a big blanket license for all the music, as well as targeted monetization options to help pay the bills, and placement in a stations directory that powers their app for end users. It’s the costliest service I ran across ($60/mo and up), but it’s still surprisingly affordable considering how easy they’ve made it to start up.
In the old days, launching a radio station had huge barriers to entry, was full of legal caveats, and offered extremely limited reach. Today, anyone can start broadcasting whatever they want to anyone on the internet in less than a day, probably before lunch. It’s an intoxicating proposition to any music fan, but once started, a station needs to be programmed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Always on, always running, always demanding your attention and fresh content. Music licensing is no small matter, and the station has to be marketed heavily, because there’s no point if no one’s listening. And all that requires money, which means selling ads or subscriptions. Internet radio directories are littered with the corpses of dead stations, proving how difficult they are to maintain. My hat is off to anyone who can keep one of these running for more than a couple months, much less years on end.