To highlight the importance and value of radio as a tool for humanitarian communication, we’re using the opportunity presented through World Radio Day 2018 to share our practical experiences around getting started with radio.

In this article, we’ll take you through a number of things to consider when using radio to communicate with affected communities, and then unpack the different aspects around technology, licensing, and station governance that you’ll need to think through to make your radio a reality. There are quite a few comprehensive guides (like this version from Internews), but we wanted to succinctly focus on the aspects that we found the most important in our experience.

Where to begin

As always, it is imperative to develop an understanding of the information ecosystem. After undertaking an information and communication needs assessment, you’ll get a clear picture about the appropriateness of radio as a channel, whether people were using it in their country of origin, and whether there’s potential for it to have an impact in your current situation. Generally, we find radio to be a very powerful tool in many different contexts due to its pervasiveness, ease of operation and how it inherently overcomes literacy barriers. You don’t need to know how to read and write to listen to the BBC World News. Additionally, it straddles a generational technology shift; radio has been around for long enough so that it is still used be even elderly members of communities, but not so old that it’s been abandoned as a channel by younger generations entirely, with internet radio becoming ever more prominent. The call-in show – a popular concept in many cultures – also provides a good opportunity for people to interact with topics, express opinions, and have their voices heard.

Following the assessment, try and ascertain the nature of the challenges around using radio: there’s quite a difference between not being able to access radio because you don’t have a radio set as opposed to having one, but not being able to tune a programme in a language you understand. Are there linguistic differences that would require multi-lingual programming? Are host communities also part of the potential audience? You’ll need to develop a strategy which addresses all the challenges faced.

Parallel to thinking developing strategies to address these challenges, you need to work out how to practically implement – basically, setting up a radio station. This can often be a stage that intimidates practitioners if they’ve never connected an antenna to an FM transmitter. If you’re not familiar with using radio, the technology or legal aspects behind broadcasting, it’s completely understandable that it is a daunting position to be in. We’re going to try and remove some of these fears, bust the myths and provide some practical steps forward so that you can embrace radio as a tool to communicate with communities (if appropriate!).

Lay of the land

Before getting into the specifics of setting up a radio. One of the main issues organisations face is trying to do too much, too last-minute with not enough information. While you can’t necessarily predict with accuracy the channels you’ll need to use; you can nonetheless prepare. It is important to preposition relationships with important counterparts across a number of organisations, but most importantly the government, specifically the communications regulator. By ensuring authorities are on-side and supportive of the initiative in advance, and that the route forward with the legal procedures for the inevitable licensing process have been laid out (more on that later), you can avoid serious headaches trying to coordinate while responding to an emergency.

The good folks at First Response Radio have a great track record in pre-positioning relationships, and it has become a matter of course for their organisation to do this now. They’ve aimed to prepare enough with regulators in advance in the countries they operate in so that they can legally get a radio station up and broadcasting within 72 hours of a rapid-onset emergency. Pretty impressive, right?

Even if it’s not possible to match that speed, there’s no reason why a conversation cannot start today with the regulator where you are. Here you can find a list of all the telecommunication regulators. Each regulator will have a varying amounts of information available on their public web portals regarding radio licences. Most have copies of the relevant legislation, and many also include aspects around licensing stipulations including the requirements of the entity applying, and also fees for the different types of licences.

These can be anything from extremely straightforward, and affordable, to extremely expensive utilising complex algorithms to calculate cost based on listenership, transmitter wattage, frequency bands etc.   

Taking a step back: ‘Radio’ without transmission

In parallel, regardless of how conversations go with the regulator, it’s possible to get started on some other related items. Firstly, it’s possible to get response teams thinking more strategically about using audio as a tool. Whether this is going to be broadcast over FM or not, plenty can be done to maximise the efficiency and efficacy of our communications through audio recordings. By capturing audio locally, messages can be defined, re-used, shared and this can be done with relatively simple equipment – for example: any simple computer and/or smartphone. These can be broadcast locally through PA systems or even on mobile units like these small motorcycles.

A second point that applies regardless of whether FM broadcast is on the cards or not is ensuring communities have access to devices to listen on. Most radio reception devices now also include options for USB or SD card input that means locally recorded audio can be played back – hence FM transmission not being an absolute deal-breaker. Nonetheless, a deeper understanding would need to be developed regarding devices ownership. This would help determine whether devices simply needed to be provided to specific listening groups, or to the wider community depending on the budget available and what sort of impact on the market and supply/demand of devices this would have locally.

There are companies that specifically manufacture radios for humanitarian situations that come with many of the above features, including Freeplay Energy, Lifeline Energy, which boast solar charging features and robust frames. There are also many lower-cost FM radio device manufacturers that are reaching local markets in humanitarian settings (which can be sometimes more isolated) – simply check in the local markets and you’re bound to find at least some radios available for sale. It’s worthwhile thinking about the added benefits of solar devices, not only due to its ability to mitigate environmental impact, but also to reduce the cost barrier to charging devices.

So now you have some devices in the hands of communities, who may be tuning into local stations in the host community, and humanitarians are already utilising audio to support information provision to communities through PA systems and the like. Time to take this to scale and set up that FM radio station, building off our aforementioned discussions with the telecoms regulator.

Radio equipment isn’t rocket science.

To make it a little more digestible, we’ll break radio broadcasting down into three components. 


There are more or less three areas of hardware to consider: FM transmission hardware, general audio hardware for a station, and energy to power it all.

FM Transmission Hardware

While there is a great range of transmitters, antennas and associated equipment available on the international market, some equipment had been developed to be specifically designed for humanitarian response organisations and as such is relatively suitable for what you might need. The individual needs of each organisation will be different, so you’ll need to compare the solutions. While UNHCR’s Innovation Service doesn’t endorse any particular manufacturers, here are some that might be worth considering:

Pocket FM – This is a custom designed FM transmitter packaged together with an antenna for quick deployment, and fits in a backpack. It includes a number of extras compared to standard FM transmitters including a SIM card for 3G connectivity, satellite input option and Wifi and GPS. Broadcasting power: up to 25W.

First Response Radio: Radio in a Suitcase – Previously a custom kit designed for First Response Radio themselves, the kit is now available for purchase through First Response Radio. It includes all that you need to get going quickly, and laptops etc. come pre-loaded with all the relevant software you might need (See below). Broadcasting power: up to 600W.

AAREFF – AAREFF work out what you need, so you don’t have to. Essentially taking off-the-shelf components, they package together what you might need for broadcast across a range of wattages, keeping portability in mind.

The wattage of the transmitter is one of the most important factors in determining the range of your transmission. There are lots of other factors such as topography, line-of-sight etc. but a 25W system (expected to broadcast approximately 8 km radius more or less) is more modest compared to multiple hundred watts where you’ll be covering a much wider sub-region of a country. Boosting the transmitter power will, though, have a knock-on effect on the specification of other equipment; you’ll need more power from the solar array to meet the energy needs of a higher wattage system.

By the way, I’m aware I’m only mentioning FM transmission here as it’s the most common solution for radio in humanitarian settings. I have absolutely nothing against shortwave radio and it could be a solution worth exploring if its unique capabilities as a technology fit your challenges. If you do want to try this out I’d recommend getting in touch with the HFCC, who are big on shortwave and have trialled its use in humanitarian settings.

You’ll need to think about customs regulations in the country where you are setting up the radio. FM transmitters are a type of specialist radio equipment and sometimes cannot be found on local markets and as such international options might be easier. Be careful though, there can also be restrictions around import/export that need to be adhered to. You’ll need to familiarise yourself with the appropriate legislation and protocol; ask your supply colleagues for help.

Oh, and you’ll also need a tall building/tower. Often there will be towers put in place by responders – predominantly for HF/VHF communications (standard protocol in many areas). In some areas a minimal elevation would be required, potentially meaning a building on elevated ground will suffice. It could also be that you simply need to erect your own. A standard Gin Pole method with guy ropes/wires would usually suffice and there are various how-to guides available online that can help you with that.   

Professional Audio / Studio Hardware

So while you’re now ready to transmit, there are other pieces of pro audio kit you will need to get to start broadcasting. These, combined with software we’ll discuss later, are essential to get your audio source perfect for transmission.

Generally this will include commercially available products that are readily available in most countries. This will include analogue/digital mixing desks, microphones to for presenters and guests, headsets, mobile audio capture devices, smartphones, laptops, soundproofing gear, relevant furniture, and even a lovely ‘on air’ light!

While we don’t endorse any particular commercial products on the market, we’ve utilised Behringer’s line of Xenyx analogue mixing desks and have found them to meet our needs. Additionally, make sure you don’t forget different cables and adapters: mics will often use XLR but if you’re using a 3.5mm jack you’ll need an adapter. On the smartphone(s) and laptop(s): these don’t require state-of-the-art specifications and even older laptops can run the relevant software perfectly fine.


An obvious one, but all this equipment needs power. If you’ve are connected to the electricity grid, lucky you! Otherwise, in many of the contexts where we see such radio in use, you’ll most likely be off grid with unpredictable energy access. You’ll want to diversify your energy sources and we commonly see solar power with generator backup as the way to go. The specific requirements for each system or selection of hardware will differ, but make sure you don’t underpower your system. It may be that additional upgrades are needed, or that further equipment is required as the station develops. Try and spend time thinking through this and try and calculate potential future power needs as many will want to use the power source for other items such as their own mobile devices. As well as your usual panels, inverter, batteries, and controller, don’t forget: 1) any extension cables you may require to make your power travel further (but not so far as to suffer power loss), and 2) to ground the entire system – lightning strikes can be disastrous!


You know it’s possible to broadcast radio from a mobile phone? When your transmitter is broadcasting, you can quickly hook up the transmitter to the line-out on your mobile and broadcast anything that is playing on your phone. However, usually, you want to do more than simply play tunes. You’ll want to design and plan content for broadcast and this requires a couple of different pieces of software for recording and editing material, queuing it up, switching between presenter and recorded content, and occasionally other software i.e. to normalise the volume, to encode in a particular format etc.

There is great free and paid-for software out there that can get you started with radio broadcast. A simple Google search will help you find some of the tools, and there are quite a number out there. The most important type of software you’ll need is a playout system. Essentially this pieces different content together within the software and turns it into one audio stream for broadcast.

For the First Response Team, they have been using ZaraStudio reliably as a playout system for some years. What is particularly great about this software is its simplicity. It doesn’t have all the features of more advanced tool, but enough to allow for comprehensive broadcast. They offer a free version, but also a paid for (170 EUR) version that has additional features.

For recording and editing pre-recorded audio content, our go-to open source tool is Audacity. While paid-for tools like Adobe Audition can help you achieve pro-grade production, Audacity offers enough settings and options for the basic user. If you kit your machine out with these two pieces of software, you should be able to do most things required. There are a number of smartphone apps that can also support – mainly audio recorders – and these are easy to find and utilise.

Licensing and making everything legitimate

This section we think warrants a bit more of a detailed focus. So beyond reviewing what the web has to offer, and making contact, the first step is to look at what types of licence there are and what might be applicable. For some regulators, they allow temporary permits, even to organisations that are not registered in country. There are then lots of different types of licences from individual ‘ham’ amateur radio licences, through to licence for community organisations, NGOs, and larger commercial licences. Find out which might be most suitable or applicable to the context. Often the best way to do this is in partnership and cooperation with the regulator. It may be that certain liabilities are incurred by the organisations holding licences; this is particularly pertinent when organisations are applying on behalf of refugee groups. Is this something that can be taken-on by community groups or your organisation? If in doubt, contact your legal team to see what the implications might be in this regard. Don’t be afraid also to work in partnership; others may have experience with this procedure or maybe able to support you through it.

When you determine fully where you’ll be broadcasting, and who will take on the different roles and responsibilities, it’s time to start looking at the application procedure. When going through this process, it’s important to ask questions and scope out potential bumps in the road ahead. For instance:

  • Do they require all equipment to be in place and functional before the application is processed?
  • Does the application require somebody with good technical knowledge to complete it, or is it more general?
  • Does an application require a field visit from the regulator?
  • What is the payment modality? How does this fit with your organisational processes?
  • Does the equipment used for broadcast need to be inspected? If so, by whom?
  • Does the application itself carry a fee?
  • How is the licence fee calculated? Is it a one-off sum or a calculation based on a number of variables?
  • What is the duration of the licence?

Lots of questions but by trying to answer them as quickly as possible to make the process smoother and straightforward. Ultimately compromises may need to be made, and the first time going through the process will bear lessons. The challenges are not insurmountable, as many humanitarian radio operations demonstrate.

We’ve also created a checklist for all the major items:


Download our Checklist

5 steps to get started:

  • Working in Partnership

Sometimes it’s great to do something yourself. But there’ll most likely be other actors working in local/regional/national radio. There are international organisations – many which are members of the CDAC Network – that have expertise in radio such as BBC Media Action, Internews, International Media Support, Fondation Hirondelle, MiCT, and more. Regardless of how you decide to set things up, there is value in working with local media. This could be on anything from establishing dialogue with the local communities, to training of refugees in radio journalism and production, or sharing content between refugee community media groups and formal stations. Depending on the circumstance, it may even be that these organisations would like a closer partnership and may be able to take on a certain degree of responsibility in the establishment of community radio amongst refugee groups.

TIP: Have the conversations with potential partners early and make sure you’re timely about how it fits into your organisation’s programme management cycle.

  • Licensing: The willing and able.

Sometimes a sheer interest won’t be enough. One of the critical aspects of setting up a radio station is about having everything above board. As per the section above, you’ll need to develop an understanding of the licensing obligations and how that might impact your plans.

TIP: Kick off a conversation with the telecommunications regulator today. You can work out what sort of licence you need, what the costs are, stipulations around who can apply, and what the application procedures are.

  • Bringing in the gear.

Based on ‘who will do what’ you’ll get a clear idea of what you will need to purchase. We find there’s no time like the present to start getting the pieces together. In general, start with using audio in more creative ways before building-up to transmission. Leverage all opportunities locally and internationally to find what you want. Sometimes there are long-term agreements between organisations that can be utilised to get goods in quickly – try and find out whether these exist!

TIP: Start with finding a basic laptop and a cheap microphone and load them up with Audacity. Start recording and editing some content that would be relevant for communities and find a way to play it back; usually, you’ll be able to find some playback devices locally.

  • Governance.

Any station to be developed needs governance. Programming would need to be reviewed to make sure it makes a coherent whole, and editorial values determined in liaison with the community and – potentially – acknowledgement and endorsement from local authorities. A good place to get started is to think about some Terms of Reference for the different roles that are required, ie. Station manager, stringer, presenter etc., a ‘who-does-what’ chart and drafts of ownership and sustainability models that could be applied. These Terms of Reference will also stipulate how inbound calls/contributions are managed (i.e. direct to air, pre-recorded).

TIP: There are plenty of examples already out there. Internews have a wealth of content regarding radio station setup/governance with examples of these different aspects that need to be developed. More information on this can be found here.

  • Listening and Outreach.

As and when you can, listening groups – a group of individuals coming together to listen to and discuss radio/audio content – can be formed to discuss topical and current affairs issues. As noted above, there are tools out there that can support you with this. As part of the same package, Internews have guidelines regarding establishing listening groups. Also consider how these listening groups will be linked to the radio station – for example through call-ins – so that they can meaningfully contribute to the programming.  

TIP: Reach out to the community early on – perhaps during humanitarian assessments – to see who has interest in being involved, and even more importantly those that have skills / background in media/journalism work. Keep in touch with these individuals and develop your relationship with them to maintain their engagement as things progress. Through your assessments, determine the community’s existing practices for engaging with radio stations (for example call-in shows); as well as providing listening sets you may need to take into consideration how to better facilitate this two-way interaction.