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Stern moves for a bit of space

The sky's the limit for the shock jock's raw act at his new satellite home. Will fans -- and the FCC -- follow where he leads?

December 11, 2005|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

New York — FOR two decades, Howard Stern's nationally syndicated morning radio show has been a favorite daily outrage for cultural conservatives revolted by the shock jock's brand of bodily function-based humor and obsession with lesbians, alcoholics and porn stars. It may be small consolation, but in recent years critics weren't the only ones enraged by the show -- so was Stern.

"Every bit I became famous for -- the stuff my audience loves -- they aren't hearing it anymore," Stern fumed recently in an interview at a posh hotel suite here. "I get letters from my fans, they'll go, 'Hey, the show isn't as funny as it used to be,' and I'll write them back and say, 'You're damn right it isn't.' The government won't let me do it."

Stern points to a recent segment he wanted to air called "It's Just Wrong," where fathers undress their daughters in a group competition for prizes. His show's producers -- fearing another in a long series of fines from the Federal Communications Commission -- quashed it. "They weren't having sex or anything, it was pretty harmless," said an exasperated Stern. "I just thought -- that's it. Over. Game over."

Some might just call that good taste, but to Stern it was an indignity -- and one he won't have to endure after Friday, when he officially leaves terrestrial radio with a promised bang in search of a louder one on the unregulated, uncensored channels of Sirius Satellite Radio. His satellite gig kicks off on Jan. 9.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 11, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Howard Stern -- An article about radio personality Howard Stern in today's Calendar section says Stern is optimistic about the future of broadcast radio. It should say he is not optimistic.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 18, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Howard Stern -- An article about radio personality Howard Stern last Sunday mistakenly said that he is optimistic about the future of broadcast radio. It should have said he is not optimistic.

The move from terrestrial to satellite raises numerous questions, among them: How many of Stern's estimated 12 million daily listeners will pay $12.95 per month to continue their Howard habit, and will the FCC bow to growing political pressure to rein in cable and satellite content? But one thing is clear: Whether you see Stern as a trend-setting revolutionary or an aging schlockmeister who wants to sink even lower without FCC interference, his shows on Sirius will stamp the largely virginal medium with new benchmarks and standards for taste and decency.

Or as Stern, hailed by fans as much for his advocacy of the 1st Amendment and skillful interviewing techniques as his ribald humor, put it, while again damning the FCC: "I'm going full steam ahead."

Stern's defection from terrestrial radio comes at time of dynamic change in the mass consumption of entertainment and news in which consumers are increasingly veering away from traditional media and toward high-tech cable, Internet and satellite outlets.

Driven largely by the enormous appeal of commercial-free and niche programming, satellite radio subscriptions for both Sirius and its much larger competitor XM Satellite Radio have soared recently. In the past year alone, New York City-based Sirius -- thanks in no small measure to luring Stern away from Infinity Broadcasting -- has gone from around 650,000 subscriptions to an estimated 3 million. "You get this huge universe of channels, forget my channels, all kinds of musical programming you can't get anywhere," said Stern. "We can say to the 500 people who like banjo music, you've now got a 24-hour banjo channel."

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.-based XM, which touts its broadcasts of Major League Baseball and its lesser known shock jock duo Opie and Anthony, has undergone similar growth and expects to hit well over 5 million subscribers by year's end. Both companies are expected to make substantial listener gains as more and more auto companies roll out new vehicles with satellite-ready radios.

The self-proclaimed "King of All Media's" highly anticipated leap to satellite has been fueled by an aggressive national publicity blitz worthy of the movie premiere of "King Kong." Already, Stern has popped up on "Late Night With David Letterman," "60 Minutes" and "Today," and upcoming appearances are slated for "Larry King Live" and an opening sketch on "Saturday Night Live." During closely timed interviews, Stern, who almost brags about seeing a therapist four times a week, lived up to his reputation as a control freak, surrounding himself with a team of handlers, Sirius executives and a camera crew filming the proceedings.

Talking points

IN person, Stern whose face was mostly hidden behind a mop of black tangled hair and tinted eyeglasses, was unfailingly polite, energetic and funny. Like a candidate running for office, the 51-year-old disc jockey repeatedly worked at his clutch of talking points, namely, his new medium, his new employer -- which says it is paying him $500 million over the next five years -- and in a cursory way his new shows. (Sirius, which reported a net loss of around $100 million last quarter, is banking its future on the Stern brand to help pay his monstrous salary, a combination of cash and company stock.)

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