Fundamentals of Radio Broadcasting: The Operator's Permit

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Talking on the radio does not require a permit-anyone can do that. But the operator of broadcasting equipment trust have one, just as the opera tor of a motor vehicle must have a license. If you control technical functions of a station, by turning on the transmitter or regulating the volume of sound that will be broadcast, the Federal Communications Commission says that you must hold the proper license or permit. Recently the FCC has modified its requirements for broadcast operators.

Under the new regulations, all that is required is a Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit, which can be obtained by any United States citizen simply by filing an application. You can acquire the necessary form at any FCC office. With this permit you would be authorized to operate any FM station and most of the lower -powered AM stations. To operate the higher -powered AM stations or those with directional antenna arrays, you would need a Radiotelephone Operator License First

Class. This license qualifies you to operate any broadcasting station, and it is valuable to anyone pursuing a broadcasting career. However, it is very difficult to obtain a license. To pass the test requires many weeks or months of intensive study and probably a course oriented to this aspect of electronics. Having a first class license (commonly referred to as a "first phone") is an indication that you are serious about the profession, and it increases your job opportunities.

The change in license requirements for broadcast operators was made by the FCC in the early part of 1979. Prior to that time all operators had to hold at least a Radiotelephone Third Class Operator Permit.

Even though that is no longer a requirement of the FCC, some stations maintain the policy of having their operators hold the permit.

FIG. 1 Radiotelephone Third Class operator permit. (Photo by Wayne Fogle.)


To obtain the third class operator's permit you must pass two tests called Elements. Element One deals with basic law: Element Two deals with basic operating practices. Each test contains twenty questions and you must score 75 percent on each to pass. The tests are given only on certain days and at certain times. You can find out where and when the tests are given at the FCC office in your area. You may wish to obtain a copy of the FCC Broadcast Operator Handbook to prepare for the tests. This can be found at offices of the FCC or any government bookstore. You can get other manuals on the subject from the library or from electronics stores. A suggested list is offered in the bibliography of this text.

[1. Broadcast Operator Handbook: Radiotelephone 3rd Class Operator Permit, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1976.]


One of the first things you must do to prepare for the FCC examinations is to learn the terminology. The FCC uses terms in a way that may not be familiar to you, and it is necessary for you to learn their definitions. The following is a list of commonly used terms and the definitions provided by the FCC.

Broadcast day

That period of time between local sunrise and 12 midnight local time. (Rules and Regulations, 73.9) Daytime That period of time between local sunrise and local sunset. (Rules and Regulations, 73.6) FM broadcast station A broadcast station transmitting frequency modulated radiotelephone (voice type) emissions primarily intended to be received by the general public, and operated on a channel in the 88- to 108-MHz band.

(Rules and Regulations, 73.310)

FM stereophonic broadcast

The transmission of a stereophonic program by an FM broadcast station utilizing the main channel and a stereophonic sub -channel. (Rules and Regulations, 73.310) FM Subsidiary Communications Authorization (SCA) An authorization granted to an FM station for the simultaneous transmission of one or more signals on assigned subcarrier frequencies within the station's assigned channel.

Special decoding equipment is required to receive program material furnished on the SCA subchannel. Such material, although broadcast related, is normally intended for paying subscribers. (Rules and Regulations, 73.293) Nighttime That period of time between local sunset and local sunrise. (Rules and Regulations, 73.7)

Nominal power

The power of a standard broadcast station as specified in a system of classification which includes the following values: 50 kW, 25 kW, 10 kW, 5 kW, 1 kW, 0.5 kW, 0.25 kW. (Rules and Regulations, 73.14) Standard broadcast (AM) station A broadcast station transmitting amplitude modulated (voice type) emissions primarily intended to be received by the general public, and operated on a frequency in the 535- to I,605 -kHz band.

(Rules and Regulations, 73.1)

Sunrise and sunset

For each particular location and during any particular month, the times of sunrise and sunset are specified on most AM broadcast station licenses. This is necessary because not all standard (AM) broadcast stations are permitted to operate at night. In order to control objectionable skywave interference, stations which are permitted to operate at night are frequently required to change their modes of operation. These changes may involve the use of directional antenna systems, a reduction in operating power, or both, and normally occur at the sunrise and sunset times listed in the station license. (Rules and Regulations, 73.8) BASIC LAW The Federal Communications Commission was created by the Communications Act of 1934 for the purpose of regulating interstate and foreign commerce in communication by radio and wire. Among the powers given to the Commission is the authority to prescribe the qualifications of station operators, to classify them according to the duties they are to perform, and to issue commercial operator's licenses to United States citizens.

Obtaining New Licenses

To obtain a commercial Radiotelephone Third Class Operator Permit, an applicant must first submit the appropriate application forms at a convenient FCC field office. If the applicant passes the examination and there are no doubts as to his or her nationality, character, or physical condition, a license will be routinely issued. There are no age, experience, or educational requirements.

Term of License Renewal

An operator's license is normally issued for a 5-year term and may be renewed during the last year. An operator who files an application for renewal before the expiration date may post a copy of the application where the license was posted and continue to operate even though the renewed license may not arrive until after the expiration date of the old license. An operator's license may also be renewed without re-examination during a one-year grace period following its expiration date. The license is not valid during this period and the operator must wait until the renewed license is issued before resuming operation of a station.

Operators who file for renewal after the one-year grace period must be reexamined before they can obtain new licenses.

Duplicate and Replacement Licenses

Should an operator's license become lost, mutilated, or destroyed, or if the operator's name has been changed, a duplicate or replacement license may be requested by filing an application with the Commission field office which issued the original license. If the old license is avail able, it must accompany the application for a duplicate or replacement; if it is found later, it must be returned to the Commission for cancellation.

Posting Operator Licenses

Most third class operator's permits are required to be posted at the operator's place of duty. When an application for a duplicate, replacement, or renewal of a commercial operator license is submitted, the license then held, if available, must accompany the application. In this case the operator may post a signed copy of the submitted application in lieu of the license document.

Cancelling Operator Licenses

If the holder of a lower-class license qualifies for a higher-class license, the lower-class license will be cancelled upon issuance of the new license.

Failing an Examination Element

An applicant who fails a commercial operator's examination element will be ineligible to retake that same element for a 2-month period.

Official Notice of Violation

Operators are expected to abide by the Commission's rules governing the station they are operating. An operator who violates these rules may be served with a written notice pointing out the violations and requesting a statement concerning the matter. FCC form 793 may be used for this purpose. Within 10 days from receipt of such notice, the operator must send a written reply to the office of the Commission originating the official notice.

Suspension of Operator Licenses

The Commission has the authority to suspend the license of any operator who has:

1. Violated any provision of any act, treaty, or convention binding on the United States which the Commission is authorized to administer, or any regulation made by the Commission under any such act, treaty, or convention;

2. failed to carry out a lawful order of the master or person lawfully in charge of the ship or aircraft on which he [or she] is employed;

3. willfully damaged or permitted radio apparatus or installations to be damaged;

4. transmitted superfluous radio communications or signals or communications containing profane or obscene words, language, or meaning;

5. knowingly transmitted false or deceptive communications;

6. knowingly transmitted a call signal or letter which has not been assigned by proper authority to the station [he or she] is operating

7. willfully or maliciously interfered with any other radio communications or signals;

8. obtained or attempted to obtain, or has assisted another to obtain, an operator's license by fraudulent means. 2 [2] Communications Act of 1934, section 303 (m).

An order of suspension will be in writing and will take effect 15 days after it is received. During those 15 days, the operator may apply to the Commission for a hearing on the order of suspension. Upon receipt of such application the order will be held in abeyance until the conclusion of the hearing, at which time the Commission may affirm the order of suspension which becomes effective immediately modify the order of suspension, or cancel the order

Inspection of Radio Stations

Representatives of the Commission have the authority to inspect all radio installations, associated with stations required to be licensed, at any reasonable hour; this includes nights and weekends. The purpose of an inspection is to ascertain whether in construction, installation, and operation the station conforms to the requirements of the rules and regulations governing radio communications.

FIG. 2 Sine wave.

FIG. 3 Amplitude modulation.

FIG. 4 Frequency modulation.


There is no need for you to have a background in electronics to operate broadcasting equipment. But you will find it valuable to have some knowledge of the concepts and the terminology so you will know what you are doing. Radio transmission is effected by electromagnetic waves which move through the air in a fashion similar to waves that move through water. Just as a pebble creates a disturbance on the surface of a pond, so a radio transmitter creates a disturbance in the air. The wave that is produced looks like that shown in FIG. 2. Such a wave is called a sine wave, and the figure shows the alternations of the wave from positive to negative. Each complete alternation is called one cycle. The number of cycles that occur in each second is called the frequency. The distance from the base line to the high or low point of the wave is called the amplitude. Think of these waves as being vibrations, some of which produce sound that we can hear, and others that are above our range.

The human ear cannot pick up tones beyond about 20,000 cycles per second, and this frequency is generally taken as the upper limit of the audio range. Radio frequencies, on the other hand, are measured in the hundreds of thousands or millions of cycles per second.

A radio transmitter will operate on an assigned carrier frequency.

That is to say, the FCC will assign to a station a particular broadcasting channel on the AM or FM band. Let's say a station has been given the frequency of 1,400 kilohertz on the AM band. That means the signal (radio wave) is oscillating (producing alternations) at 1,400 thousand cycles per second. Radio frequencies, of course, are far above the range of human hearing, so these vibrations are not audible. The radio frequency carries or transports the audible sound (originating in the studio) that has been translated into electric impulses. At the receiving end a radio tuner can be adjusted to the desired channel and the audible frequency separated from the radio frequency.

The sound that is transported by the carrier frequency is called the modulation. Modulation simply means change. We are changing the radio frequency carrier by combining it electrically with the audio (pro gram) frequencies. We can effect those changes either by modulating the amplitude or the frequency of the carrier. This is the difference between AM (amplitude modulation) and FM (frequency modulation) radio.

(See Figures 3 and 4.)

FIG. 5 Voltmeter. The reading is 2,350 volts. It could also be read as 2.35 kilovolts.

FIG. 6 Kilo-voltmeter. The reading is 3.8. It could also be read as 3,800 volts.


One of the responsibilities you will have as the operator of a broadcasting station is to read the meters of the transmission equipment and log the readings every three hours. In order to understand what you are doing, you need to know the basic principles. Here are some of the terms and definitions:


This is the flow of electricity. Think of it as water flowing through a pipe. It is measured in amperes, commonly called "amps".


This is the force that pushes the current. Think of it as the pump that pushes water through the pipe. It is measured in volts.


This is the load that is put upon the flow of electricity. Think of it as the paddle that is turned by the flow of water. It is measured in ohms.


This is the rate at which work is done. Think of a paddle wheel delivering energy to its shaft. Electrical power is measured in watts.


This means change from high to low. Think of it as the vibrations that produce sound. When you play a record or a tape or talk into a micro phone, you are causing modulation. FIG. 8 shows a modulation meter.

Carrier frequency

The radio signal which is transmitted through the air and which carries audible sound.

Sine wave

This is an electrical wave consisting of alternations from positive to negative. Think of it as the cross section of a wave in the water.

Amplitude The distance between the base line of a sine wave and the high or low point of the wave.

Cycles per second

The number of alternations that occur in a sine wave every second. Measured in hertz.


This is a prefix that means "thousand." It is frequently found before the word "watt." One kilowatt is equal to one thousand watts.


This is a prefix that means "million." One megahertz is the same as one million cycles per second.


This is a prefix that means "one thousandth." One milliamp is equal to one 1,000th of an ampere. It would be written as 0.001 amp.

Using these definitions, you can begin to understand how to read meters. Be sure to remember the following important considerations:

1. Note how the meter is labeled. A wattmeter will give you a different reading from a kilo-wattmeter.

2. Note the graduations between the numbers. You have to be able to see well enough to count the marks between the numerical values.

3. Know what the meter is supposed to read. This information will be given to you by the chief engineer. A corrective adjustment may be made after the reading has been logged. FIG. 5 shows a meter that registers volts.

FIG. 7 Ammeters.

These ammeters are registering the current going to three separate antennas. Note how the meters are read when all the graduations are not marked on the scale.

FIG. 8 Modulation meter

This meter indicates the average level of modulation.

The percent scale at the top is the one to read. The decibel scale at the bottom can be disregarded. The meter reads 52 percent modulation.


One of the important functions of the Federal Communications Com mission is to maximize broadcasting service to the public. If two stations are on adjacent frequencies and located close to each other geographically, there is danger of one signal overlapping the other. This is particularly true after sundown, because radio transmission carries farther at night than it does in the daytime. To prevent broadcast signals from interfering with one another the FCC issues licenses with several kinds of special provisions. One might be that the station be permitted to operate only from sunrise to sunset. A station of this type is called a "daytimer." Another provision might be that a station would have to reduce its power at night; another, that the station would be licensed to operate with a directional antenna array (see FIG. 9).

A station which is required to control the radiation of its signal in some directions must use a directional antenna system consisting of antennas mounted on two or more towers. With this type of system the radio signal can be "aimed" in the desired directions so that adjacent stations are protected.

Because of the complex nature of directional transmission, the FCC requires that an operator in these stations have a Radiotelephone Opera tor License First Class. Directional stations are usually a thousand watts or more and located in the larger metropolitan areas. For these reasons they can generally afford to pay higher salaries-a fact that may motivate you to get a "first phone."

FIG. 9 Directional antenna array. Station B is protected by the directional pat tern of station A. Stations "A" and "B" operate on the same frequency. "A" has a directional antenna. Station "B"


In monophonic broadcasting only one audio signal is transmitted and it requires only one speaker for true reproduction. Television and AM radio are examples of monophonic broadcasting. In stereophonic broad casting two audio signals are combined and transmitted over a single channel in such a way that a listener with a stereo receiver can separate the two signals for reproduction through separate speakers. The reason for using two signals is to afford the listener a sense of the spatial distribution of the original sound sources. The stereo signal may also be received and reproduced through a monophonic system; in that case, how ever, the spatial distribution effect will be lost.

In addition to monaural (monophonic) operation, an FM station may, without further authority, broadcast stereo programming provided its modulation monitor is approved for stereophonic operation. There are no additional logging or monitoring requirements.

An FM station may also transmit signals other than stereo within its assigned channel, but for this it requires a Subsidiary Communications Authorization (SCA). Programs transmitted under authority of an SCA cannot be received without a special receiver or adaptor.

SCA programs are used mainly for subscription background music but may also carry detailed weather forecasting, special time signals, or other material of a broadcast nature intended for business, professional, educational, religious, trade, labor, agriculture, or other special interest groups. The operator must monitor and control SCA programming.

Station identification announcements need not be made on SCA programs; however, each licensee must maintain an SCA program log in which a general description of the material transmitted is entered daily.

In order to develop the proper signal, stations transmitting SCA programming employ special modulation techniques using "subcarriers." An operating log must be maintained for the SCA subchannel.


The Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) was developed for the purpose of providing the President of the United States and the heads of state and local governments with a means of communicating with the general public in the event of a major or widespread emergency. The National EBS can be activated only on orders from the President. The activation notification would be sent to the major radio and television networks, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, The Associated Press, and United Press International. From these points the notification would be disseminated throughout the country by teletype and broad cast.

All broadcasting stations must be equipped with an EBS monitor. It will be tuned to a key station that has been designated as a receiver of the notification. The key station will activate your monitor by shutting off its own transmitter. When it comes back on ten seconds later it will broadcast instructions that you will be able to hear on your monitor.

You have probably heard the system tested on your local station. Usually the announcer comes on after a tone and says, "This has been a test of the Emergency Broadcast System." If there were a national emergency, you would hear instructions rather than the announcement of a test.

Each individual station has its own role to play in the Emergency Broad cast System. When you go to work for a broadcasting station, be sure to find out from the chief engineer what the special instructions are for your station.


As the operator of a broadcasting station you are responsible for its technical performance. Malfunctions are bound to occur-some more serious than others-and you must know what action to take.

The FCC says that whenever the transmitting system is observed operating (1) beyond the posted parameters, or (2) in any other manner inconsistent with the rules, or (3) in any other manner inconsistent with the terms of the station license; and the adjustments a third class opera tor is permitted to make cannot correct the condition . . . the transmitter must be turned off. (Major adjustments to the transmission equipment can only be made by the holder of a first class operator's license.) An example of this kind of major malfunction would be an increase in the station's power beyond its designated parameter, or an excessive deviation from the assigned frequency.

Here are some other, less serious malfunctions.

Modulation monitor fails Continue operating; notify the station licensee, who will arrange for alternate means of monitoring.


Continue operating; notify the station licensee. (This could happen at sunrise when the operator is unable to increase power to daytime conditions.)

EBS monitor fails

Notify the station licensee; monitor using another radio receiver if available.

Tower lighting failure If any top light or flashing beacon fails, notify the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). If failure is in the side lights, make an entry in the operating log.

For other types of malfunctions, check with the chief engineer at your station.

Remember that you may be visited by an inspector from the FCC while you are on duty at a broadcasting station. Be sure your own license or permit is displayed as required; that you can point to the station license; that you know where the station's public file is located; that your EBS monitor is operating, and you know what to do if it is activated; and that you can get in touch with the chief engineer.


You need a license or permit only if you are the operator of a broadcasting station and have control of the essential equipment that regulates transmission. New regulations require only that you have a restricted permit for the operation of most broadcasting stations. A third class license is still required by many station owners, and a first class license is highly desirable for people who want to advance their careers in radio.

AM stations with directional antenna arrays require the "first phone." As the operator of the station you will need to know how to take meter readings and have some understanding of the terminology. You should be familiar with the Subsidiary Communications Authorization if you plan to work in a commercial FM station that operates in stereo. You also need to know about the Emergency Broadcast System and what to do in case of malfunctions. It is important for your own sake and that of the station that you be prepared to answer the questions of an FCC inspector.




Carrier frequency




Emergency Broadcast System (EBS)



First phone

Sine wave


Standard broadcast





1. Write or call the Federal Communications Commission and request an application for a restricted permit. Fill it out and send it in.

2. Get the Broadcast Operator Handbook from the library, a bookshop, or electronics store. Read up on the requirements for obtaining the Radiotelephone Third Class Operator Permit. Find out from the office of the FCC when the tests are given for Elements One and Two.

3. Call a local radio station and find out what license or permit is required.

4. Study the material in the license handbook; then take the tests for the third class permit.

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