Open Source Radio Software

Software to help you run your Radio Station has traditionally been proprietary, close-source, and expensive. This results in compromises when selecting your software, and ultimately locks you into a specific vendor for many, many years to come. This makes upgrades difficult and costly.

Despite leaps and bounds in all sorts of other areas, radio software is one area where there are so few open source efforts. To be honest, it’s a little sad. While we have multitudes of mature open source systems for your CMS, CRM, Web Browsing, eCommerce, Email Clients, Word Processing, Servers, and Operating Systems – there are few for radio. And those that are available right now probably aren’t suited to the bigger stations anyway.

Let’s take a look at what we have, in terms of playout systems:

Rivendell

Rivendell is a Linux desktop-based playout system which has been around since at least 2003. And in that time, I would guess that a fair few people have chosen it and would still be running it. It’s based around a Linux desktop GUI consisting of multiple separate modules, all tying back to a central MySQL database and file server.

The features it boasts are extensive and inline with what you would expect of a lot of commercial solutions. I won’t list the featured here, but it checks off the basic (music library, scheduling, playout, cart walls, etc.) plus a lot of the advanced featured (GPIO, Macros, Mix Points, Axia IP driver and a whole lot more).

Still, I have my reservations:

Firstly, it’s pretty much tied to Linux workstations. It’s theoretically capable of being compiled for Windows, but previous reports indicate compatibility issues with some modules. Why is is this bad? It’s isn’t necessarily bad, but there are far fewer people equipped with the skills to administer Linux than Windows. Yes, a lot of people use it for servers and there are many sysadmins out there. But for your average radio station, I doubt they are going to have access to a skilled Linux desktop administrator.

A better architecture would be the web-based presentation layer with a cross-platform audio and database engine, which in all honesty wasn’t a viable option back when development started. But now we live in a web-based world, this makes more sense. Without having a look at the source code, I suspect this is possible due to some architecture decisions made which separates presentation from the playback. This could be an area for development.

If you look past the Linux dependancies (which many can and I possibly would consider if I were building a station from scratch), there’s one more major issue I see: It’s a little worrying that there isn’t any serious ongoing development. Yes, it would seem stable at this point but ongoing viability, community, and development is a good thing to look for in any piece of software. I am aware that Paravel Systems were plugging it at NAB, and that is a good sign.

Overall, it’s alright but there are a few tradeoffs which you would need to consider strongly before committing. As a developer, I see this as the perfect project to fork and revive (or strengthen further, depending on how you look at it) – there’s a whole lot of functionality already built and working, plus a lot of improvements to be made. As a user, I’m on the fence.

Sourcefabric’s Airtime

Of the Open Source Radio Software I am aware of, Sourcefabric’s Airtime is probably the sexiest – but sadly it is lacking in the features department. Being a fairly new project, it takes advantage of the latest tech goodies such as HTML5, Javascript, Liquidsoap, etc. It allows you to manage a music library, create a schedule, build playlists, and play it out to a local audio card or internet stream. That being said, it lacks the serious features you would come to expect from professional playout software:

  • There is no easy way to do live-assist style playback like you seen in most other playout systems
  • Import/Export with traffic/scheduling software is limited.
  • It’s difficult to make precise changes on the fly.
  • Mix points
  • Voice tracking
  • Macros / GPIO

It would seem that this is not at all geared towards the bigger end of town, which is fine I suppose. They market it as “free open source radio automation software“, and the emphasis defiantly seems to be on “automation”.

All of this being said, there are already plenty of uses for this package. In particular, community stations with content contributors distributed over large geographic areas and mostly pre-programmed content would probably find many of Airtime’s features useful.

Sadly, development seems fairly slow and not exactly moving at a fast pace towards a fully-equipped playout system for your radio station. Release cycles tend to last three months and are dominated by bug fixes rather than concrete steps to move towards the things I’ve noted above. You can check out the last few releases on their JIRA site.

Overall, it’s a reasonable platform. They have made what seem to be good technology decisions, and have a decent architecture. I love that it’s web based. I love that it’s got a decent UI. I love that it’s under active development from multiple people. Perhaps with more development effort it could get further. Or perhaps the team behind it are actually satisfied with where it’s at and aren’t interested in shifting direction slightly.

Bentokit / Retromod / Flywire

Several years ago there was a little bit of hype in the Australian Community Radio sector about a project called Bentokit. It was supposed to be a open source playout, scheduling and audio library package (amongst other things). I was briefly in touch with the developers to see if I could help out, but that communication died off eventually and nothing much came of it. Looking through February 2013 CBF Grant Allocations, I noticed that SYN FM had been allocated $20,000 for “Open source scheduling and play-out software development”. Could this be Bentokit? Let’s hope so!

From what I gathered all those years ago, Bentokit was running in some form within SYN but wasn’t quite ready for prime time. The website has since been left in a perpetually broken state, and the latest update I can find on their Launchpad page is from August 2012.

Could this be what we need? I have no clue. As I can’t get my hands on a compiled version, or even architectural information it’s a bit difficult to judge at this point. But a cash injection sounds good. Let’s hope they get something released soon and get into a decent release cycle.

Where does this leave us?

These are the only three open source radio playout systems I’m aware of. It’s not a lot, considering the amount of broadcasters (commercial, community, government, and internet-only) worldwide.

Aside from playout systems, there are some ancillary data systems I’m aware of that show a lot of potential, and those will be the topics of a few future articles.

I’m not aware of any open source music or spot scheduling systems out there at present.

There’s a lot of gaps to be filled, and sadly there’s no ideal system out there. Fortunately, that means you have a lot of room to work and a lot of market share to be gained if you do a good job and can market it properly.

Do you know something I’ve looked over or dismissed? Do you disagree me with some of the judgements I’ve made? Are you outright offended by my assessment of your project (sorry, my intention isn’t to offend…)? Please comment below so we can continue the journey to a full suite of fully-featured open-sourced radio software!

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I'm Anthony Eden, and I'm a IT Professional, Broadcast Technician, Software Developer, and Solutions Engineer. I've been working in broadcast media since 2008, and developing software and websites for just as long. Right now, I provide freelance services through Media Realm - in particular, to the media and not-for-profit industries.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_eden