Todd Anderson

I make things for the web, mobile, desktop and land.

Building a Custom PiRate Radio

2016 March 30th by todd anderson


Some time back - and judging from the post date, literally a couple of years ago - I bookmarked a post from Make: titled Raspberry Pirate Radio. I've always been interested in custom radio projects with microcontrollers. I've built various started kits for FM and AM radios to hone my soldering chops, and my favorite radio project so far has been The Public Radio. I use it daily. Go get one. In fact, I have a personal radio project that I have been working on for longer back then the mentioned post; a bit ambitious for my skill level at the time I started it, but some day I hope to blog about it here...

In any event, I have had the Pirate Radio post in the back of my mind for a while, waiting for the resources and time to implement. As of recent, I was able to get it assembled and working and have been very happy! I went a little outside of the steps described here, - more specifically, not using the image they created and manually setting up my system - and wanted to document what I did in case others are curious.

I like my old school rap. I apologize to Mr. Ness; there was no offense, just showing off the band change...


The ending solution has the following specs:


I could go down to a Raspberry Pi A model and most likely a lower SD Card size if I changed the target OS, but I was using what I already had available to me.

Additionally, the Pi Supply Switch is not a requirement - I just wanted a way to safely shutdown the Pi without have to explicitly pull the plug.


Raspberry Pi OS Set Up

I used a Rasbperry Pi B+ when setting up the system. Eventually, I moved the SD Card with the necessary software onto a Raspberry Pi A+, but will probably at some point transfer it to a Raspberry Pi A, seeing as the GPIO requirements are a minimum; pin 4 is used for the antenna and pins 7 & 8 are used for the Pi Supply shutdown.

The exact Pi model that I used to setup the system is not a requirement. However, I did need something that I could connect an ethernet cable - and eventually a WiFi dongle - to, so that I could SSH into the Pi and install the necessary software and test; that meant I needed at least the following on the board:

I usually have a spare B or B+ lying around for such a purpose.

Raspbian Jessie

In order to get the target OS onto the MicroSD Card, I downloaded an image of Raspbian Jessie image, plugged my SD Card into this lovely USB MicroSD Card Writer from adafruit and followed the graciously provided script from Be sure to heed the warnings!

Expand the Filesystem

After flashing the image to the MicroSD card, I inserted into my Pi - for this stage in the project, that was the Rasbperry Pi B+ - and plugged in both an Ethernet chord and the power supply.

I additionally used a WiFi dongle and setup my WPA configuration so I didn't have to work so close to my router in the living room, but that is not entirely necessary and such instructions will not be included in this article.

After the Pi powered up, I SSH'd into it:

$ ssh pi@10.0.0.x

Provide the actually local IP of your Pi in placement of 10.0.0.x. You can use tools such as Angry Ip Scanner or Fing to find its local IP on your network.

Once logged in, I issued:

$ raspi-config

From the console prompt GUI, I clicked Enter/Return on the entry for Expand Filesystem; after which, it asked if I wanted to reboot - I selected Yes.

You can update whichever other configurations you desire, with a recommendation to Change Your User Password.

Install some required libs

After the PI reboots, SSH back into it and issue:

$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get upgrade
$ sudo apt-get install git

I additionally installed vim:

$ sudo apt-get install vim

but, I have been known to get by with straight vi (which does not require any additional installation) if need be :)


The next thing to do is to build and install ffmpeg. If you are unware of ffmpeg, it is software that allows for - among other things - playback of audio and video. It is the basis of playback for PiFM which is the C library that is run by the PirateRadio python script.

I followed the following guide from FFMPEG regarding installation on Ubuntu:, knowing I was only concerned with the following assemblers and codecs:

Building and Installing

SSH into the Pi and issue:

$ sudo apt-get -y --force-yes install autoconf automake build-essential libass-dev libfreetype6-dev \
  libsdl1.2-dev libtheora-dev libtool libva-dev libvdpau-dev libvorbis-dev libxcb1-dev libxcb-shm0-dev \
  libxcb-xfixes0-dev pkg-config texinfo zlib1g-dev

$ mkdir ~/ffmpeg_sources
$ mkdir ~/ffmpeg_build

$ cd /usr/src
$ sudo git clone git://
$ cd ffmpeg
$ sudo ./configure --prefix="$HOME/ffmpeg_build" --pkg-config-flags="--static" --extra-cflags="-I$HOME/ffmpeg_build/include" --extra-ldflags="-L$HOME/ffmpeg_build/lib" --arch=armel --target-os=linux --enable-gpl --enable-libmp3lame --enable-libfdk-aac --enable-nonfree

$ sudo make
$ sudo make install

Essentially, we are getting the required dependencies, setting up and defining the source and build directories for our custom FFMPEG install, and then building and installing it.

Once complete, and it will take a long while - few hours for me, you'll need to update the PATH environment variable to include the new FFMPEG install:

$ vim ~/.profile



Then source:

$ source ~/.profile

Additionally, you will want to symlink to the usr/bin directory:

$ sudo ln -s /home/pi/ffmpeg_build/bin/ffmpeg /usr/bin/ffmpeg


To test that ffmpeg is available form the command line, do a quick test to find its location:

which ffmpeg

If a path to your install or symlink directory is printed in the console, you are good to proceed.


Now it is time to grab and update the PirateRadio script.


I cloned and modified it in the /opt directory, but you can place it wherever you prefer - just note that the startup script will point to the /opt location when we arrive to that section.

$ cd /opt
$ sudo mkdir pirateradio
$ sudo chown -R pi:pi pirateradio

$ cd /opt/pirateradio
$ git clone .


Once clone'd, modify a few lines of the file to conform to our current setup:

$ vim

Modify the following variable declaration to point to the pirateradio.conf of the current directory:

config_location = "/opt/pirateradio/pirateradio.conf"

Modify the uncommented fm_process defined to point to the relative pifm library:

fm_process = subprocess.Popen(["./pifm","-",str(frequency),"44100", "stereo" if play_stereo else "mono"], stdin=music_pipe_r, stdout=dev_null)

Additionally, I had to remove all additional fallback=x arguments.

Configuration Update

Now that we modified the location that the PirateRadio script is looking for the configuration, we need to update the configuration to look for the appropriate target directory for music files to access and play.

$ vim pirateradio.conf

Modify the following line:

music_dir = /media/pi

Because we installed Raspbian Jessie, we know that any USB drive installed into a USB port will auto-mount dev/sda1 to /media/pi. I additionally, loaded a USB stick with audio files and optionally names the stick RADIOPI - so I extended the music_dir configuraation property as such:

music_dir = /media/pi/RADIOPI

As mentioned before, with Raspbian Jessie installed, the USB stick will be auto-mounted if plugged in to a port prior to provided power supply to the board.

[OPTIONAL] Pi Supply Soft Shutdown

I also added a Pi Supply Switch to my board.

This is optional, but it allows for shutdown without having to explicitly pull the power supply from my board when I no longer wanted it to run. Something I was interested in with regards to corrupting the mounted USB, and also because I wanted to try it out :) As a side note, I have been pretty happy and would recommend it - only complaints are that it is a bit "bulky".

If you decide to add a Pi Supply Switch as well, follow the instructions from their site - - by adding the "soft shutdown" script to your system and follow this instructions to add it to the /etc/rc.local script.

Adding to Startup

Add the script to start-up the Pi so that, whenever power is supplied, the broadcast will kick off and be picked up the default 88.9 band by a radio reciever.

Add it to init.d:

$ cd /etc/init.d
$ sudo touch pirateradio
$ sudo chmod +x pirateradio
$ sudo vim pirateradio

Paste in the following to /etc/init.d/pirateradio:

#! /bin/sh
# /etc/init.d/pirateradio

# Provides:          pirateradio
# Required-Start:    $network
# Required-Stop:     $network
# Default-Start:     2 3 4 5
# Default-Stop:      0 1 6
# Short-Description: Start PirateRadio at boot
# Description:       PirateRadio script will start / stop a program a boot / shutdown.

case "$1" in
    echo "Starting PirateRadio"
    mount /dev/sda1 /media/pi/RADIOPI/
    cd /opt/pirateradio
    python &>/dev/null
    echo "Stopping PirateRadio"
    umount /dev/sda1
    kill `pgrep -f ffmpeg\(.*\)\/pi`
    kill `pgrep -f pifm`
    echo "Usage: /etc/init.d/pirateradio {start|stop}"
    exit 1

exit 0

Then save and add to start-up:

$ sudo update-rc.d pirateradio defaults
$ sudo /etc/init.d/pirateradio start


At this point, you could reboot:

$ sudo shutdown -r now

And once the Pi is up again, and the USB stick has been pointed and the startup script run (takes about 5 - 10 seconds for me):

  1. Find your favorate radio reciever (for FM frequencies)
  2. Tune the radio to 88.9
  3. Get down to your favorite tunes!

Additional Note

If you used and setup the Pi Supply Shutdown you won't need to unplug and plug back in the power supply to the Pi when deciding to stop broadcasting music from the USB stick on your PI to the FM frequency - just simply press the soft or hard shutdown buttons.


I had a lot of fun building this custom "local" radio station based off the Raspberry Pirate Radio post from a few years back. With a little customization, I was able to set it up the way I wanted while incorporating the Pi Supply Shutdown peripheral.

I love music and talk radio and this project was just a continuation of different presentations of which I can access - and, dare I say, harness - that fascination. Hopefully, I will one day finish my one long standing project and have that posted up here as well :) Time will tell.

Until then, I submit to you this admission: