Choice Paralysis

57 channelsI sat in on Radio World’s presentation about “Digital Sunrise for AM Radio” hosted by editor-in-chief Paul McLane. The webcast lasted almost two hours and was technically informative.

The question Paul kept asking the presenters about going all digital on AM, was a question he hears numerous people asking him, “has the horse left the barn?” In other words, has the world moved on and does anyone really cares about AM radio anymore.

But that’s not the question that was running through my mind.

Too Many Choices

We live in a world with infinite choices when it comes to audio & video entertainment. Twenty-eight years ago, Bruce Springsteen released his song “57 Channels and Nothing’s On.” The lyrics are very telling of the condition we find ourselves in today.

I bought a bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills
With a truckload of hundred thousand dollar bills
Man came by to hook up my cable TV
We settled in for the night my baby and me
We switched ’round and ’round ’til half-past dawn
There was fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
Well now home entertainment was my baby’s wish
So I hopped into town for a satellite dish
I tied it to the top of my Japanese car
I came home and I pointed it out into the stars
A message came back from the great beyond
There’s fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on
Well we might’a made some friends with some billionaires
We might’a got all nice and friendly if we’d made it upstairs
All I got was a note that said “bye-bye John
Our love is fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”
So I bought a .44 magnum it was solid steel cast
And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast
‘Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet
And they busted me for disturbing the almighty peace
Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”
“Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on”
I can see by your eyes friend you’re just about gone
Fifty-seven channels and nothin’ on

It’s not unusual for people to spend an entire evening going through the program guide on Netflix only to finally retire for the evening having not watched a single program. We’ve all done that.

On just Netflix alone it was estimated in 2015 that it would take a person 34,739 hours to watch everything available on the streaming service. I’m sure that number has grown considerably when you consider in 2019 Netflix introduced 371 series and movies to view.

Add to Netflix more television streaming services like Amazon Prime, Hulu, Apple TV+, Disney+, YouTube and it means choice is not the TV viewer’s problem, it’s choice paralysis. (And maybe also how to pay for it all.)


The question running through my mind about investing in building out an all-digital AM radio service in America is, “why?” When I scan the AM band now, I can hear the same talk shows on station after station. The FM band is no different when it comes to everyone doing the same type of programming.

It has me humming Bruce Springsteen’s song in my head, only with a lot more channels of programming attached to the “nothing’s on” part.

Digital AM seems to be the answer to a question, that listeners aren’t asking.

Less is More

Many businesses fall into the trap of thinking that more products equal more sales and radio certainly can be accused of falling into that trap.

HD Radio was designed to offer a higher quality broadcast signal for AM and FM radio stations. FM station owners didn’t really get interested in HD Radio until they learned they could feed FM translators with HD2, HD3 signals and put more FM analog signals on-the-air in their market.

I learned that the all-digital AM service offers the opportunity for an HD2 signal that could feed another FM analog translator.

What Al and Laura Ries tell us from their research is how this strategy of adding more and more choice becomes a trap and can lead to negative consequences in the long term.

Just One Thing

In media sales, we try to have our clients identify what one thing makes them special and unique. What makes their business so different that consumers will want to come to them instead of their competitors. You may know this process as finding a business’s “unique selling proposition.”

One Good Reason

Back in the day, 66-WNBC put up a billboard that gave radio listeners one good reason to turn their radio dial to 660 AM. It simply said “If we weren’t so bad, we wouldn’t be so good.”


This one simple sentence captured the essence of both Don Imus and Howard Stern. It was this radio station’s one good reason to listen. It was this radio station’s one good reason to advertise on it.

And speaking of one, I was told by the WNBC Sales Manager that it only took one commercial on Howard Stern for an advertiser to see immediate sales results.

That’s the power of a unique brand.

Misplaced Priorities

Radio had a choice to make in the last decade, to either develop unique powerful brands localized to the marketplace the FCC licensed them to serve, or build out more signals with programming that was virtually hard to tell apart from one another. Unfortunately, the radio industry chose the latter and as a result has turned the business into a commodity.

Something for everyone equals nothing for nobody.

Economics defines a commodity as goods or services that have fungibility, or in other words something the marketplace treats as everything being nearly equivalent to each other, with little regard for who produces it.

This is why radio sales people will often hear advertisers says things like “all radio stations sound the same, now let’s talk about your spot price.”

Perception is reality.

Or should I say that the listener and advertiser’s perception is accurate with the reality today being all radio stations do sound the same.

Elections & Radio Listening

I read an article the other day that said what changes the outcome of any election is turnout. That the way someone wins an election is by getting people, who normally sit it out on the couch, engaged and out to the polls. It’s not getting people to switch party affiliations.

I think radio may have a similar problem.

For the radio industry to be growing again, what radio needs to be focused on, and investing in, are its people and programming, not putting more signals on the air with nothing to hear.




Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

18 responses to “Choice Paralysis

  1. Love the post! I think you are spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jak

    Radio has lost public favor..
    People all have their music on demand.
    And their lives provide the content they want via family and personal interest FaceBook sites. Thanks to FaceBook, everyone has their own website. You make a good connection regarding, “more radio became less radio”! I-Heart thought owning every format in every market by buying
    every station was the answer! It back fired because the 1st thing advertisers wanted was a break on their rate. That meant less advertising dollars across the board because advertisrts wanted freebie spots in exchange for a buy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts Jak.

      Advertisers have always wanted free spots, free remotes, free stuff. That didn’t come into being because of any of the big box broadcasters and consolidation.

      However, advertisers do have issues with putting all the ad dollars into a single company and local radio competition was actually good for everyone versus the radio monopolies of today.


  3. jonedmonton

    Your comment about endless duplication on AM makes me wonder if the Canadian regulatory approach did not work out better. Without getting into the details, companies had to make a choice: stick it out on AM or switch to FM and lose the AM frequency.

    Liked by 1 person

    • America’s regulatory body, the FCC, never got involved with programming, unlike in Canada.

      George Johns recently wrote in his blog about how he had to go before the Canadian broadcast regulatory board when he was hired by Rogers Broadcasting and planned to change the music format of the station.

      Rogers had promised to program to adults and Geo said that his new female oriented format was not for kids. Turns out he was not only right about that, but the blend of music he created gave birth to what later became know as the Lite AC format.

      Seeing how everyone tries to better the competition these days by doing the same format, the same way, it might make one yearn for a regulatory body that cared about such things.

      Sadly, today’s FCC really isn’t as concerned with broadcast as it it with 5G cellphone service. However, that is the future of communications as we begin the 21st Century.


  4. Dick: Right on the money again! And the reason for the “sameness” of radio? Lack of personalities. We can all argue to a degree about the number of songs on a playlist (though we KNOW short lists work better than big ones for most formats). But, what differentiates stations are the personalities on the station, or on the voice track. We can blame the companies who are “dislocating” local staffs in favor of a more national platform for this. Local radio done well with local personalities beats jockless stations and stations with generic voice tracks every time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave Mason

    Kevin’s remarks are close.’s more than “personality” in a lot of cases. In the heyday of KHJ and others it was the personalities -and the STATIONality. As Dick says “what makes you unique”. WKBW was “The Friendly Giant”. WLW was “The Big One”. WEBN had “The Frog”. KHJ was “Boss Radio”…presenting things like “The Big Kahuna” and more. KCBQ had “The Last Contest”. Y107 in Nashville was “The Outrageous FM”. WFLZ was “The Power Pig”. Tough to fight images like that. Ya need people and personality to keep these images going. It was Howard AND Imus on WNBC that made it compelling radio. There are a few stations (KFI-More STIMULATING talk radio) – left that understand how it works. Creating a bigger than life image and sticking to it works-even in 2020. Don’t believe me? Look at Disney. I rest my case your honor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Rick

      Dave, and then there was “The Buzzard” WMMS in Cleveland. What great branding.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Well said Dave.

      I believe that when it comes to personality, it is both the person behind the mic and the personality (stationality) that a great, dedicated program director brings to the sound.

      Ron Jacobs not only was constantly focused on his personalities and the overall sound of KHJ, but he was constantly dreaming up ways to promote his Boss Radio.

      The Boss Radio identity came about because Ron was forbidden to change the call letters of KHJ (Kindness, Hope & Joy). The station had been through so many different formats Ron wanted a fresh start. Not being allowed to do that, the Boss Radio gave him a new identity with which to build his vision for KHJ.

      Ron and Bill Drake competed against one another as programmers back in Fresno, CA and so they were both dynamic pros that were totally focused on producing the best radio station ever in KHJ.


  6. Brilliant article. Couldn’t agree more!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. zip2web

    HI Dick

    AM digital has advantages over FM

    1)  The quality is equal to FM  That may not be quite so for HD radio, but certainly is for DRM.

    2)  The signal range for big stations is far better than FM.

    3)  At least for DRM, the signal does not need to be straight out streaming radio.

    4)  Without a big debt load or required high income, program experimentation on MW Digital can occur.



    • Ted, Thank You for adding your perspective to this subject.

      The critical aspect I still think you aren’t addressing is what does the listener want. The listener isn’t worried about the quality being equal to FM, or the signal range, etc, but the listener is most likely accessing their “radio” listening via a smartphone. Growing in audio listening are smart speakers. (I get my “radio” from both of these devices.)

      To date, DRM hasn’t been embraced in America from everything I’ve read.

      The smartphone has replaced so many other devices it’s incredible.

      I know that there are only three things that I will return to the house for if I forget to bring with me: 1) my iPhone, 2) my wallet and my 3) keys. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination that we are heading in the direction of only needing the smartphone because it will start our cars and let us into our house and with the ability to use things like Apple Pay, will also be our wallet.

      My iPhone has replaced my digital Nikon camera, gets used as a TV, book, email, texting, etc…oh, and making a phone call. We live in a world where this single device is our world.

      I know you know all this, but we can’t isolate AM digital from the reality of the 21st Century world. What’s the case you’d make for Americans to go out and buy a DRM Digital AM Radio? To hear Rush Limbaugh? They already are listening to him on AM radio (or an FM translator).

      I like to hear your thoughts in this context. I sense you’re passionate about AM digital.



      • Tom


        Personally, I’m pleased to see the FCC finally approve the voluntary transition from analog to MA3 HD. It’s about time! No, such a move isn’t a panacea for AM stations’ survival in an overcrowded market, but it certainly can help mitigate noise and increase functionality. By functionality, I think of DRM’s Journaline feature which HD radio doesn’t have. Listeners want additional textual and graphical context to accompany innovative audio programming. Today’s younger listeners will eventually become much older and habits change with age. Smartphones won’t always be popular for any given generation. Personally, I find smartphones a nuisance. Although I’m a senior citizen today, I still don’t like long-winded gasbags on the air anymore than 40 years ago. We need relevant, concise data to accompany much shorter audio broadcasts, i.e. two hours maximum, with an average closer to 30 minutes. Programmers need to “get to the point” as quickly, accurately, and engaging as possible.


      • If we look at the age of people using social media like Facebook, smartphones and satellite radio, we see that it’s the older generation that has embraced it. Most of the seniors I know are quite tech savvy, have the money to spend on the latest technology and don’t match the stereotype of “old people = AM radio.”

        Why would anyone wait to be served up the content they want, when it’s so easy to get what you want, when you want it, ON DEMAND?

        Analog radios I own (too many to count) all still work (including a Grundig tube set I bought in high school). My HD Radios all broke and have since been discarded. NOT a good experience and I’m sure I’m not alone.

        My point is, no one will go back in time. The future is a one-way street and it’s going to be a streaming world where we can instantly obtain the content we want (IF, we can afford it).

        You basically made that point in the last part of your comment Tom.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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