Using Linux for Radio

I wrote a 2011 tutorial on using the open-source operating system Linux for radio production, which has gotten new circulation recently. I share that overview here.

Linux is a popular open-source operating system for use on a variety of computers. For community radio stations, Linux represents an incredibly valuable option for several reasons:

    • Virtually all Linux distributions are free, and upgrades are free. Contrast with Windows and Mac OS, which charge for site licenses and upgrades.
    • Software on the Linux platform is free.
    • Linux is stable and virus-free. Linux users report few of the same crashes and viruses Windows and Mac users confront.

This tutorial explains how a community radio producer can set up Linux on a computer. This tutorial assumes you are primarily using the computer for audio production, word processing and web surfing.

I will explore some Linux basics. These basics include checking your hardware and determining the brand of Linux (better known as a Linux distribution) to choose.

Step 1: Determine your computing power

Many community radio stations get donated (older) computers for production use. Before you start looking at Linux distributions, survey your computer’s RAM, processor speed, hard drive size and components (i.e. is there a CD burner, DVD player, what kind of wireless card do you have, etc.). If you do not have an operating system on the computer, you can find this information by checking the BIOS. Write this information down.

Step 2: Do some research

It is important to understand your computer components before installing Linux for radio production due to software and driver rules placed upon open-source systems like Linux. Proprietary software such as a particular driver and tools with patent restrictions generally are not included in Linux distributions. A few examples of this issue include:

    • Nvidia /ATI graphics cards
    • Various WiFi chipsets
    • MP3, Real Media, Java and Flash support

There are many third-party repositories to get various drivers, but do your homework first. Different manufacturers offer varying levels of Linux support. Dell, for example, offers official corporate guidance and ThinkPad users have set up their own tutorials for making Linux adoption painless.

It is crucial that you do some online research about your computer and Linux compatibility. Some models have known issues and you can usually employ workarounds. However, figuring out the workaround in the thick of an installation sucks. In most cases, you will be able to use Linux out-of-the-box, but it is better to know about potential Linux installation issues.

[Note: when I first wrote this tutorial, the availability of drivers made installs tougher. Things are better, but the proliferation of cheap parts creates a new layer of compatibility.]

Step 3: Choose your Linux distribution

Now it is time to choose your Linux OS. Wikipedia has a wonderful comparison of Linux distributions here.

Some of the most popular Linux distributions are Fedora and Ubuntu. I have used them and believe there are strengths and weaknesses to each, but that such is minimal. If you are not very technically inclined, I recommend Ubuntu. Those comfortable with doing terminal tweaks may want to try Fedora. However, research your options.

Be aware that some distributions will not function well or at all on some hardware. If you have an older computer with less than 512 megabytes of RAM, consider using an installation intended for older hardware like Xubuntu and Puppy Linux. Some distributions only offer live DVDs, so if your computer does not have a DVD drive, you may wish to look elsewhere.

Step 4: Download and install

I recommend new users download a live CD/DVD. Live CD/DVDs are fully functional Linux distributions that run the moment you put it in your drive. Live CDs are usually .iso files that are burned via Nero or other burning tool. They allow you to try out the installation before you install, and then to install it on your system. Different Live CDs operate differently, so read the documentation before you get started.

Installation can take anywhere from 10-120 minutes, so make sure your computer is not headed to sleep mode and that your laptop (if being installed there) is charged.

Linux is an ideal system for community radio. More stations should embrace open source software.