Create Your Own Free Internet Radio

Why Independent Internet Radio Is So Screwed

When internet radio first became practical in the 1990s, many folks thought this would be a new dawn in radio creativity. Many commentators compared it to pirate radio, given that no license from the FCC or other government agency was required.

This was all fine and good for a few years, until the recording industry set its sights on all these stations playing music without tithing a penny to their deep collection plate. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act set the stage for the recording labels to collect royalties for every song played to every single listener, whether or not an internet station was commerical or generated any profit or revenue.

For a while the rates were low enough for small webcasters that it was feasible to set up and maintain a hobby station, provided you didn't generate much money. Services like Live365 provided a basic and easy platform to get up and running.

Then, in 2016 the Webmaster Settlement Act of 2009 expired, causing these royalty rates to skyrocket. Around the same time the original Live365 went out of business. Thousands of small webcasters were left in the lurch. And while new owners took over Live365 to provide a reliable turn-key platform to start your own internet radio station, the higher royalties make this much more expensive than it was before 2016.

These days in the U.S. it's hard to get an internet station going for less than a few hundred dollars a year, especially since most streaming services either bundle in your royalty payments or want you to certify that you're paying them separately by yourself. The real irony is that you can stream thousands of hours of video – which requires way more bandwidth than radio – for free on YouTube, but there's really no way to stream audio for free.

The Case for Independent Internet Radio

If you want to start an independent internet station to play moldy classic rock hits and all the Led Zeppelin tracks supposedly ignored by commercial stations, then few tears should be shed for the fact that the RIAA expects you to pay up.

But what about internet radio that exists to share unsigned artists, spoken word programming, music that's been released into the public domain and other sounds that aren't owned lock-stock-and-barrel by major recording companies? There ought to be room and opportunity for internet radio that's created with an underground spirit, in the tradition of true freeform and pirate radio.

This guide is for this breed of broadcaster, who wants to set up a station that doesn't need permission or license from the recording industry just to exist.

There's Another (Cheaper) Way

Turns out, it's not that difficult to set up your internet radio station. Thanks to open source software and low-cost server hosts, it can be really cheap, too.

If you're not planning to play label-distributed music to millions of people, then there's no reason why you need to pay for songwriter and recording royalties. If you're going to play music, the key is to play tracks that are royalty-free, which means they are in the public domain, have a Creative Commons license or which an artist has explicitly given you permission to use (be careful with this last option – even if the Rolling Stones say you can play their music without paying royalties, their label might have a different opinion). The Free Music Archive is just one tremendous source of music that was uploaded by artists explicitly for the purpose of being used and played without royalties.

If you're playing talk programming without using any copyrighted music (even as bumpers or fillers) then you're also in the free-and-clear when it comes to royalties. You shouldn't owe a thing, provided it didn't come from a record, CD, audio book or other type of spoken word release.

Once you've chosen this royalty-free path, then you no longer need to use an expensive internet radio provider. No shade thrown their way, by the way. Companies like Live365 provide a user-friendly service for the vast majority of broadcasters who want to be free to play conventionally released music on major and indie labels. We just think there should be lots more space in the margins.

Set Up Your Own Internet Radio Server

Before we get started, be warned that setting up an internet radio server requires a small degree of skill. You don't need to be a programmer, web developer or server admin. However, it does help to be comfortable using a command line in Linux, along with tools like sftp.

Even if this isn't your strongest suit, consider this a good learning opportunity. Knowing how to build a server makes you just a little less dependent on large borg-ish companies like Facebook and Google to do all your internet for you.

Step 1: Find a Cheap Server Host

You might be surprised to learn that most internet companies don't actually have their own server rooms anymore. These days they use cloud services like AWS and Rackspace. They're cheaper to get started than having to build out your own servers and connectivity, and they let you scale up or down quickly. That's the spirit of what we're going to do, only not with one of these big companies.

Luckily there are a lot of small companies that provide cloud services aimed at individuals and small businesses, with prices starting at just a few bucks a month. As the cliche goes, you can have your own internet radio station for less than the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee.

Your author has used Vultr, which as of this writing has "SSD Cloud Instance" servers available for as low as $3.50 a month. This includes a half-terabyte of bandwidth per month, which amounts to over 8000 listener-hours of 128kbps MP3 audio. To put this in more concrete terms, this is equivalent to 33 people listening to your station 8 hours a day, every day, for a month. While that doesn't seem like a lot, in reality it's not likely many listeners would do this. Instead, figure on maybe tens of listeners tuning in at once, maybe for only a few hours at a time. You'll likely find that a half-terabye is plenty of bandwidth.

We're not necessarily endorsing Vultr – it's just the one we have experience with. There are plenty of others out there.

What you don't want to get is a web host. That's something like Dreamhost, Bluehost, Hostgator or GoDaddy. These are all designed around hosting websites, and aren't well suited, or may even prevent you from running streaming server software. Even if you can make it work, you'll probably pay more than you would with a simple cloud server host.

Step 2: Set Up Your Server

Your new cloud server host will likely give you choices of where your server will be geographically, and what flavor of Linux you want automatically installed. For location choose somewhere nearby where you'll be streaming from – that just makes life easier. For Linux, we suggest Ubuntu because it's a well supported and well documented, especially for setting up a streaming server. Specifically, we suggest 64-bit Ubuntu 18.04 because it's stable for Icecast, the open source streaming software we'll use.

Then you'll enter in your credit card info and click "deploy."

Step 3: Install Icecast

Icecast is open source streaming audio software that just works, and is free. In fact, we found Vultr in the first place because they had posted a very clear help document explaining step-by-step how to install Icecast on Ubuntu 18.04.

We suggest you follow their guide, which should be good for any server running Ubuntu, not just one hosted with Vultr.

You will need to log in to your cloud server using SSH in a terminal window. These are built-in to MacOS and Linux. On Windows use the open source app Putty. You can also use Putty on MacOS and Linux.

More coming soon....