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Radio Station

Explore the fascinating history of the radio station.

The FCC received 30,000 inquiries from individuals interested in starting a radio station in 2008 alone. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
The FCC received 30,000 inquiries from individuals interested in starting a radio station in 2008 alone.

In the early 1900s, anyone with broadcasting equipment could set up and operate a radio station without being subject to government regulations or licensing requirements. Amateur radio station operators were ubiquitous until December, 1912, when licensing regulations were first introduced. Owners and operators were then, according to the legislation, required to be licensed by the federal government due to concerns that amateur stations were causing potentially dangerous interference with government and military radio signals. What occurred after the sinking of the Titanic placed even greater emphasis on keeping airwaves organized, according to the United States Early Radio History Web site. After news broke of the disaster, numerous wireless operators began transmitting, making communication garbled and inaccurate and undermining relief efforts. Even after regulations were put in place, amateur and commercial radio stations coexisted until the United States entered World War I, at which time the government banned all amateur stations. Following the war, civilians regained control of the airwaves.

Types of Radio Stations

Both AM and FM radio stations operate on limited radio bands. The AM band spans from 540 kilohertz to 1700 kilohertz. The FM band begins at 88.1 megahertz and cannot expand above 107.9 megahertz because higher frequencies are used by aeronautical operations. The types of FM radio stations include:

  • FM noncommercial education stations, which broadcast on frequencies between 88.1 megahertz and 91.9 megahertz
  • FM commercial stations, which broadcast on frequencies between 92.1 megahertz and 107.9 megahertz
  • Low power FM stations, which have a limited broadcasting range, typically about 3.5 miles
  • FM translator stations, which rebroadcast the content of another station to smaller areas


In January 2000, the FCC recognized the need for noncommercial low power FM radio stations. Such stations cannot be powered by more than 100 watts, which translates to about a 3.5-mile broadcasting range. A low power radio station must be used by noncommercial educational entities or transportation and public safety organizations. Low power radio stations are intended to foster localized radio for specific communities that are often underrepresented.

Starting a Radio Station

New radio stations can be licensed only when there are available frequencies in the area of operation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversees FM and AM radio stations, ensuring all stations are licensed and comply with decency standards. The FCC reportedly received 30,000 inquiries from individuals who were interested in starting a radio station in 2008.

Individuals who are applying for a broadcasting license should consider hiring an attorney and a broadcast engineering consultant to assist in searching for available frequencies and preparing the application. The FCC is not available to answer specific questions during the application process. The application process, approval and regulation of a radio station vary depending on the type of station.

In general, applicants must demonstrate that their radio stations will not interfere with any existing stations. When more than one applicant is seeking a frequency for a commercial station, the FCC holds an auction to determine who is granted the license. When two or more applicants are competing for the same noncommercial frequency, licenses are awarded based on a point system. The FCC recommends waiting to purchase broadcasting equipment until after a license has been granted.

Illegal Radio Broadcasting

Any AM or FM radio station that operates without an FCC license is an illegal station, also called a pirate station. A license is required for radio stations operating at even the lowest frequencies, with the only exception being stations that broadcast within a 200 foot radius. For example, drive-in movie theaters that broadcast sound to movie-goers are exempt. Individuals operating an illegal radio station have few rights under the law. The FCC has the authority to seize the broadcasting equipment being used by the illegal station, impose fines and seek criminal prosecution. Radio stations that continue operating after the expiration of a license are also in violation of the law.

Famous American Radio Stations

The Radio Corporation of America, better known as RCA, played a large role in the transition from government radio to civilian radio following World War I. RCA took over the sale of American broadcasting equipment from General Electric, ensuring that broadcasting patents would remain in the United States. Westinghouse, a manufacturer of RCA radio equipment, secured the first commercial radio broadcasting license in 1920, and within days KDKA was on-air.

Major television broadcasting stations, including CBS, NBC and ABC, began as radio stations. Meet the Press was originally a radio show broadcasting on NBC, and eventually became the longest running radio show in history. NBC also made history when it broadcasted a live account of the Hindenburg disaster. CBS Radio, ABC News Radio, and NBC Radio continue to operate today.

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