Sunday, 25 January 2015

You want to do radio? Well, what's stopping you? Here's how to do it for free

OK, here's a challenge. How cheaply can you get started doing your own radio shows? How low-cost can you go? I ask because I'm always looking for workable, simple approaches that let people who want to learn the trade get some serious practise. At this stage I'm not concerned with perfect sound; I am concerned with learning the ropes. The more you do, the better it gets. 

Why? Well, for radio to grow and survive, we need great broadcasters, and we need them fast. And that's just for starters.

There is already a generational imbalance with many young people shunning conventional radio. When all the boomers and greyhairs finally retire or get kicked out, there's going to be a hole to fill. Whoever fills that hole, and from wherever they come, they will still need craft skills: presence of mind, judgement, a good delivery, interviewing technique, programme building, pacing, script-writing, editing.

Putting the hours in

The barriers I faced when I started out were very different from now. Then, you had to find a real studio, and beg time to work on things. Now, we have a flood of digital tools, many of them completely free. That can take you a long way. Long enough to be able to have a go, and then listen back to your work, and build from there. And that just might help you hurdle the 21st century barriers. New tech has helped musicians no end in honing their craft cost-effectively - there's no reason it can't do that at radio. In fact it already has.

I'm thinking this way because right now I'm teaching a lot. There's still fifty-somethings around who heard me on air in prehistory while they did their homework; they ask me to come and do stuff. So I give talks, and I teach radio on their media courses. It's a nice thing to do, especially when there's talent to work with..

I push the idea that to do good radio in our trivia-soaked internet age, you really do need to talk to your audience, and not recycle the same material everyone else uses. And you need to know what you're talking about. You need to be informed.

So I'm strong on coming up with good, original ideas and finding ways to deliver them in a direct way as part of a show. We idea-bash and brain-storm. We research. Out of that can come transferable skills students can take with them wherever they go, at radio or anywhere else. Craft skills, the ones I mentioned earlier.

Hey, Mr DJ!

But of course lots of guys want to do music shows. They want to be DJs. I get that. Now, there's not a lot I can teach anyone a third of my age about cool choices of music, and nor would I want to. All I can do here is work on technique and get them in to good habits. And have them practise, practise, practise.

The DJ learning process is especially brutal. You do a show. You let everyone listen to it. You get razzed mercilessly by your mates. You spot your mistakes. The next time, you try hard to fix these. It's just like gaming. You fail better each time.

To really make this or any kind of radio work, you need to practise, a lot. It's hard work sounding effortless. Luckily, there are lots of ways you can do this completely free, or for a very small outlay, before you venture out to show your wares to the world. Your contribution is time...

This may be heresy to some, but I'm perfectly happy for someone to practise throwing shows together using the most outlandish kit combinations they can cobble together – especially if it's all free. You don't, you really don't, have to work in a full-on radio studio to make progress, especially when you're going up that learning curve.

What you can do before you get into that real radio studio is to cover the basics. If it's a DJ show, think about your music, and who this music matters to, and work on your delivery. If it's a documentary, you've got to add in research, scripting, interviewing and more. If it's storytelling, you especially need to get your delivery on point.

With any of these, getting in front of a big-ass mic with a pair of Beats headphones on your head may make you feel great. It may make you think you sound fantastic - but all you're really going to do is start booming away like the worst cliched jocks you've ever heard. But if you can sound approachable and human on a tinny little smartphone speaker, you're laying some proper foundations.

The kit you've already got, and free software to go on it

At more than one cash-strapped place, I've rigged up production chains where music comes off a laptop or tablet, fed to a mixer with a separate mic feed, with the mix going out to a computer or digital recorder. The first time I did this using completely recycled kit: old computers, a basic 4-channel mixer which had been gathering dust, and a borrowed microphone. Outlay: zero pence. Result: lots of shows and some good fun.

In fact, if you pass up the live element, you can do this with a laptop. Record the audio links, grab the mp3s you need, throw in jingles if you really want, and mash the lot together in a freebie multi-track editor.

If you're even more of a cheapskate, or the computer is tricky to record on, do your voice links on your smartphone, again using free software. Or beg borrow or steal a portable hand-held recorder. Then copy or email the links and mix them with your music on your laptop or tablet, still using free software. Don't expect brilliant audio quality or that fresh live spontaneous vibe, of course. You'll still have to put in time working out what you need to say.

A more sophisticated approach – still dirt cheap

Not needed. Really.     BillyV on Flickr

I'm not going to go too far down this path, because the permutations of kit spiral up and out uncontrollably the moment you lay out a few quid, and the whole point of this post is to emphasise how cheaply you can get your practise time in, while you get ready to take your shows out to the world. But here's a few steps along the way: 

Voice: You need a way to record yourself.
Music: You need to play out the music you're using.
Mixing: You need to put these two elements together

For voice work, the cheapest option, if you have one, is the mic on your laptop, but it's fraught with difficulties,. If you're mixing live on the same machine you'll get keyboard and processor noise, and most of these combos are unhappy compromises. But if you want to get started with a free-standing mic, super-basic gaming mics start from around a fiver. But doing it live is a different kettle of fish. And that's for a separate post.

For music, a big question is: how do I cue stuff up? And how do I take levels? Well, here's a 
compromise solution to a problem that may not even exist anymore. If you want full previewing, you need to get into sound cards with multiple outputs. I'm not going there in this post. But consider this: the whole process of cueing up a song has been massively simplified from the days of vinyl. The song now comes in a file, and you can trim silence off the file before you play it, or cue it up visually. Some software will do this automatically. So the need to cue goes away, and with it the need for separate preview channels. And because you're mixing later, you can adjust the levels of all your audio in the mix so everything balances properly.

And mixing? See the freebies below. They work just fine.

Putting it together

The steps are: 
Work out what you want to say
Work out the music or other material you want to incorporate, and source it.
Record your links
Mix the lot on your laptop
Export the finished file.
Leave it for a week, if you can. 

Then listen, take stock, and start planning for the next show. 
If it's any good, send it out on MixCloud and big up your work up on social media.

Good luck! 

Software suggestions

Voicing kit for smartphones - there are freebies to be had in the Apple Store or Google Play.
Mic recorders: Lo-fi cheapos start from £20 or so; quality can be iffy. I like the Zoom Range, but check out Roland as well. And here's a useful review site
Freebie Audio Playout controllers for your tablet or laptop: Mixxx works on all platforms, and lets you use a mic channel. It's free. And take a look at Virtual DJ too.
Freebie Editing Software: Audacity is open-source multi-track software that has all you need across all platforms. I do a lot of work on the free version (version 3) of the PC-only Adobe Audition. Adobe of course hope that you'll graduate to a paid version.

And all the above notions - only scratch the surface. Please feel free to throw in your own suggestions; I'd love to hear what other people have been doing.

See more posts on broadcasting on Radio To Go


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Neil Spragg said...

"It's just like gaming. You fail better each time." Perfect analogy, nice article.

Andy Howell said...

Apple users should check out the range from Rogue Ameoba. they have great affordable audio apps and a great net casting offer as well.