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CBS Radio Is in Talks With Shock Jocks

April 21, 2006|Charles Duhigg and Martin Miller | Times Staff Writers

It may take two shock jocks to hold Howard Stern's microphone at CBS Radio.

Two years after firing Greg "Opie" Hughes and Anthony Cumia for broadcasting an alleged sexual encounter as it was taking place in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, CBS Radio is in talks to bring them back.

David Lee Roth, the former Van Halen frontman who replaced Stern four months ago, has clashed openly with his bosses, fighting over his show's format and engaging in angry, on-air rants. Sources say disappointed CBS executives are close to finalizing a deal to replace Roth by syndicating the "Opie & Anthony" show that is now aired on XM satellite radio.

The pending deal is ironic on several fronts.

At a time when terrestrial radio companies are worried about losing listeners to satellite, the move would provide Hughes and Cumia with a platform to promote XM. A source with knowledge of the negotiations said the talk-radio hosts would be allowed to encourage listeners to sign up for XM's subscription service.

Moreover, the deal would come on the heels of CBS Radio's $218-million lawsuit, filed last month against Stern and Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. That suit alleges that Stern, while a CBS broadcaster, misused airtime by promoting his move to Sirius, which occurred in January.

The "Opie & Anthony" syndication agreement would put the duo on seven CBS stations for three morning hours each weekday, said the source, who requested anonymity because negotiations are ongoing.

The "Opie & Anthony" show would be simultaneously broadcast on CBS and XM. The satellite station would then broadcast an additional two hours of the duo.

Spokespeople for both CBS Radio and XM declined to comment on the negotiations, except to say that no contract had been signed.

Some observers said the deal could be a win-win for both radio formats.

"This may be one of those groundbreaking deals that blurs the line between satellite and terrestrial radio," said Kevin Carter, an editor with the trade publication Radio & Records. "It's a smart deal if it helps CBS attract new listeners. But I'm sure people are wondering if they are chasing a short-term gain at the expense of giving free advertising to satellite competitors."

Hughes and Cumia were among the original poster boys of raunchy radio. The two were fired from a Massachusetts station in 1998 after announcing that the very much alive mayor of Boston had been killed in a car crash. Three years later, CBS Radio, then known as Infinity Broadcasting, signed the duo to a reported three-year, $30-million contract, and announced plans to broadcast their show in 22 cities.

Soon afterward, some towns began banning "Opie & Anthony" bus ads after learning that the pair's "WOW" motto stood for "Whip 'em Out Wednesdays," an encouragement for women to doff their tops midweek. Within a few months, the Federal Communications Commission had fined Infinity $21,000 for three "Opie & Anthony" segments that featured sexual topics, including a discussion of incest.

But "Opie & Anthony" continued airing for another year, until the duo sponsored a contest for couples having sex in risky places. A listener called from St. Patrick's Cathedral and claimed that sounds in the background were made by parishioners hellbent on sex in a vestibule within a few feet of worshipers.

The head of the Catholic League initiated a protest, the FCC condemned the broadcast and Hughes and Cumia were shown the door. Infinity was fined $357,000 for the incident.

In 2004, XM hired the pair and gave them free rein. XM, which charges subscribers $12.95 a month to listen to more than 170 channels on specially designed radios, has about 6.5 million customers.

If the deal is cemented, "Opie & Anthony" will be heard in Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and West Palm Beach, Fla.

The source familiar with the negotiations said that CBS censors would be able to bleep out portions of the "Opie & Anthony" broadcast if they believed it violated FCC standards.

"CBS failed with David Lee Roth and they can't afford to take any more chances," said Bob Burke, managing director of the radio trade publication Friday Morning Quarterback.

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