Howard Stern has found a new way to make his radio bosses squirm: Use his popular morning show to pitch the rival satellite business.
On Thursday, barely 24 hours after announcing that he would leave traditional broadcasting to join Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. in a five-year, $500-million deal starting in January 2006, the radio host was already shilling for his new employers. Interviewing a fan who dropped by the studio to meet Anthony Kiedis of the music group Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stern suddenly asked the young woman, "What will you do when we move to satellite?" Her quick reply: Buy a car equipped with a Sirius receiver, naturally.
By Friday, Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) was calling in to the show to hail Stern's latest move and suggest that listeners might make a killing by buying stock in satellite radio. A few minutes later, National Enquirer columnist Mike Walker told Stern that he had just taken his new pickup truck back to the dealer to get a Sirius receiver installed.
Typically advertisers have to pay good money for this kind of airplay. And that's precisely what unsettles some of the 45 radio stations nationwide that carry Stern's show. Subscriber-supported satellite radio poses a direct challenge to traditional broadcasters, and Stern, with more than 8 million listeners, is the biggest programming talent signed by the nascent business. He's also a practiced pitchman.
Over the years, Stern has wrapped his voice around spots for a broad range of products, including baldness remedies, tax advice and mail order teddy bears. And although he still has more than 14 months left on his contract with Viacom Inc.-owned syndicator Infinity Broadcasting, some radio stations worry that he'll spend chunks of that time helping the competition snag new customers.
"I'm hoping that once he gets over the giddiness of signing this big deal, he won't talk about it," said Greg Reed, vice president and general manager of WQAM-AM in Miami, which picked up Stern's show in August.
"The potential is there for ... an infomercial," said Dave Richards, program director at KISW-FM in Seattle. "We've thought about it a lot."
Although none of the stations has publicly proclaimed an intention to dump Stern -- he is the nation's No. 3 talk-radio personality, after Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity -- they were caught off guard by this week's news. Station managers, who've spent years defending Stern as the Federal Communications Commission has levied indecency fines for his antics and as activists have complained of his raunchy behavior -- now find themselves about to compete with him. But some stations are speculating that Infinity might strike a syndication deal with Sirius that would make a cleaned-up version of Stern's show available for broadcast.
Sixty percent of the stations carrying Stern are owned and operated by Infinity, which declined to comment for this article, as did Stern spokeswoman Susan Makarichev.
"This puts his current stations and him in an interesting position. He's a lame duck," said Perry Michael Simon, an editor at radio business journal AllAccess.com.
Stern's impromptu plugs are music to the ears of executives at 2-year-old Sirius, which has struggled for subscribers and attention. Spokesman Jim Collins said the company was mentioned in more than 500 news stories the day Stern made his announcement. The plugs on Stern's show are a bonus.
"That hasn't escaped us. We've noticed it," Collins said, adding that the publicity was nevertheless not part of Sirius' deal with Stern. "He's made a major life decision here, and it's natural he's talking about it."
Sirius currently has 600,000 subscribers, but the company hopes Stern's hiring can propel at least 1 million new customers to its $12.95-a-month service.
Stern has hailed unregulated satellite radio as the future of the medium and has said he is walking away from "terrestrial" radio to at last escape the scrutiny of the FCC.
Correspondent Steve Carney contributed to this report.