Maker challenge: FM radio kit for third world children

Maker challenge: FM radio kit for third world children


Thomas Wiltherspoon is the director of Ears to Our World, a charitable organization bringing access to information via self-powered shortwave radio to the third world, and he’s looking for help from makers like you:

I’ve always wanted to give our radios directly to children, but reality is, these kids live in some very impoverished areas and it could make them a target of theft if they tried to carry home one of our commercially produced Grundig FR200s, for example.

In a perfect world, though, I would like to provide kids with a small FM or shortwave, snap together, modular radio kit they they could build without needing a soldering iron. Something very, very simple. I’ve always envisioned this being a small radio that operates off of a single AA cell and has an led lamp. It could, perhaps, be powered by a small detachable PV panel.

Something like this could be given to kids and, if a component breaks–say, a speaker or FM receiver–they could simply replace that part instead of trashing the whole unit. Not only would it teach kids a little about radio, but it would be a practical way for them to receive either community FM stations or SW radio broadcasts–life-giving information, in many cases.

Our ideal radio would have the following features:

  • A price tag of less than $10 US
  • Operation off of one AA battery
  • Modular, snap together design which would make for easy assembly and field service
  • Reception of FM and/or SW bands.
  • Small, bright LED lamp.
  • Small, functional speaker or earphones

A bonus would be if replacement parts could be available locally and would give discarded items a new life–for example, using a plastic bottle as the radio container.

The project almost sounds unrealistic, but I’m certain that somewhere out there in the Maker community there is the knowledge to make this radio a reality.

Check out the Wall Street Journal article about Ears to Our World, and ff you’re interested in getting involved, drop an email to

16 thoughts on “Maker challenge: FM radio kit for third world children

  1. snarkyFish says:

    I’d totally be into getting such a kit for my kids, if one is created. Maybe a situation could be set up where I could finance 5 in order to order one? (similar to the olpc program)

    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:

      Great idea! We will keep this in mind.

  2. Alan Blue says:

    A $10 radio powered off of a AA isn’t that far from the commercial products. I own a $20-new Sony AM/FM/TV/Weatherband digital radio that runs off of a single AAA for instance.

    How about aim for crank-powered? Having an open and cheap modular crank system seems like a plus it its own right.

    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:

      Thank you for the comment!

      The radios we give teachers and schools are the Grundig FR200, FR350 and FR360. All of them have cranks and we find this very effective. Indeed, the manufacturer, Eton Corp. donates all of them as they love supporting our mission.

      The only negative with a crank is that it tends to add to the cost of a unit less than $10. Plus, it needs to be robust enough to withstand the use of children on a daily (even hourly) basis. :) We’re very impressed with how well the Eton units have held up.

      I think, for a small radio kit, it would be easier to add a small solar panel as it has no moving parts. If a crank could be done for the price though, we’re on board!

      Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. nashtr says:

    The Freeplay Foundation had a similar concept a few years ago with the Lifeline radio, AM, FM, and shortwave, solar or battery powered, I believe the total cost per unit was about $20. I bought one from C. Crane, if you sent $100, you got one, and they sent one to someone in Africa that needed one. It’s actually a pretty decent radio:


    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:

      Thank you for the comment!

      The Lifeline is a great product, but has essentially been replaced by an improved version–the price is $120 per unit.

      For our radio kit, we’re specifically looking for an ultra-inexpensive, modular FM radio kit that children could put together in school themselves from a few (pre-made) parts. If it doesn’t look like a commercially produced product (or looks more like a toy) it’s less likely to be stolen from them.

  4. Simon says:

    Back in the day I would have said take a look at the TDA7000 FM receiver IC but I don’t think that has been in production for years now.

    Not sure if there is a modern version?

  5. wonder-wheeler says:

    Back in the day, I won a hitech media player of the day, from a local radio station, using a simple AM radio on a card. The tuner was made of a cardboard circle with aluminum foil stuck on one side to form an adjustable capacitor. Used a handful of electronic parts, no battery, a ground and a antenna wire.

    The circuit was probably from an older popular mechanics or popular science (or popular electronics?) from the ’60’s.

    The prize was a Craig 8 track player…

    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:

      That’s (still) innovative!

  6. NeuroPulse says:

    Here is a crank powered radio that is about $5 each in bulk.

    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:

      That certainly is affordable. A kit would give children an opportunity to build their own radio and allow them to replace various parts should a component break.

      Thanks for your comment and research!

  7. michael saunby says:

    Commercial FM and SW receivers are generally superhets which will require test equipment to set up. Back when hobbyists made receivers for their own use regenerative circuits were popular. Such a project is still possible – here’s a modern example

    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:

      Thanks, Michael–

      Yes, I have a fondness for regen receivers. I actually have a small regen shortwave receiver by Ten-Tec. A lot of fun and quite sensitive. Very simple design.

      I’ll take a close look at the design in the link. Cheers!

  8. Allison Bland says:

    Check out what some youth in Uganda, age 15 and under, came up with on their own.

    It would be nice to seek the expertise of youth, like the three who engineered this product, to get their insight on the creation process. After all, they live in the communities you want to affect.

    Luckily, one of the creators is the younger brother of Teddy Ruge who runs the blog Project Diaspora so it might actually be possible to get in touch with him.

    1. Thomas Witherspoon says:


      I wholeheartedly agree with you about getting local expertise. We are trying to do that now, in fact.

      We would like to make something available that would be as easy to adapt as this example.

      Thank you for researching and sharing!

  9. Paranormal Skeptic says:

    The right coil, and it’ll pick up shortwave and broadcast AM bands. FM can be done with steady tuning, by doing slope detection.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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