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Howard’s End
By John Brodeur

Howard Stern’s vastly popular morning show is making the move to satellite radio, and the future of commercial radio hangs in the balance

Everyone’s got an opinion about Howard Stern. Some say he’s one of radio’s all-time great voices, a bona fide entertainer on the level of Carson or Letterman. Others say he’s nothing more than a foul-mouthed pig whose greatest joy in life is using his influence to get young women to take their clothes off. Some find him to be an entertaining, foul-mouthed pig. Whatever. The point is, love him or loathe him, you have an opinion, which goes to prove that the man’s impact on radio as we now know it has been tremendous.

Michael Harrison, publisher of radio talk-show trade magazine Talkers, told CNN earlier this year that Stern is “a phenomenon . . . one of the biggest radio attractions in the modern era.” He’s not joking. Just take a look at Stern’s accomplishments: He’s been the No. 1 DJ in New York City for most of his 20-plus years on the air there. He was the first DJ ever to be No. 1 in both New York and Los Angeles simultaneously. His syndicated morning show sailed to the top of the ratings in most of the 46 markets where it’s been broadcast. Without Stern, the “morning zoo”-style programs we’ve come to associate with morning radio might never have existed. (Whether or not the world could have gotten by without Opie & Anthony, we’ll never know.)

And that’s all prior to Stern’s self- coronation as King of All Media. Sure, he never quite took the TV throne (a late-’90s attempt at a CBS series based on his radio show tanked), but he pretty much conquered everything else he set his dirty mind to: His first book, 1993’s Private Parts, was Simon & Schuster’s fastest-selling book ever; the soundtrack album from the resulting film (if you missed it, it’s well worth the rental) was the fastest-selling soundtrack in film history; the follow-up book, Miss America, was the fastest seller in publishing history. (Wow.) And he didn’t totally drop the TV ball: Prior to its completion this summer, his daily half-hour highlights show was the most successful program on the E! network—not that there’s all that much in the way of competition. (Taradise, anyone?)

Stern pushed the boundaries of just how much and what kinds of free speech the first amendment allows, versus what the FCC and the White House believe they can regulate. He’s more or less been fighting for the right to let America hear the up-close-and-personal sound of two nude lesbian midgets wrestling in a vat of cooking oil—fascinating programming, really—but you can’t deny the guy’s commitment to his (ahem) craft. And his fan base has increased incrementally over the years, his followers displaying a religious fervor for their hero.

But Stern wearied from years of increasingly strict regulations and ballooning monetary fines from the FCC—against him, against stations that aired his show, and against the networks that own the stations—and last October, he announced a five-year, $500 million deal with Sirius Satellite Radio, a deal Sirius called “epic” and “the most important deal in radio history.” Who can blame him? So far, despite talks of these things changing in the future, satellite-radio programming is noncommercial, and not regulated by the FCC, so Stern can have himself a veritable free-for-all on a daily basis. He can finally have back those elusive seven dirty words!

So what happens to the kingdom when its king decides that, rather than stay and defend his throne, he’d rather build a spaceship and colonize a whole other planet? Could this spell martial law for radio programmers? Traditional AM-FM radio has long been on the decline, at least financially speaking, with advertisers having moved their monies to the Internet, to television, and to other developing entertainment media. As Stern defects to satellite, advertisers will defect along with him. So what does all this mean to radio as we know it? And, more importantly, what the hell will you listen to while you get ready for work? That question will be answered when the post-Stern era officially begins on Jan. 1.

Says one female Stern devotee in her late 20s, “I don’t know what I’m going to do without Howard. I’m thinking about getting satellite [radio] just so I can still hear him.”

“Really, what are we going to listen to now—the Wolf?” her female companion asks sarcastically.

Stern’s narcotic-like effect on his fans makes it inevitable that many will make the leap to the subscription-only satellite service, but back in the real world, there’s a palpable sense of dread among soon-to-be- former Stern carriers.

Stern has been broadcast locally on “The Edge” (WQBJ 103.5 FM and WQBK 103.9 FM) since 1992. According to the New York-based radio-ratings bookkeeper Arbitron, Stern has consistently placed No. 1 in the Albany market with adults aged 18 to 34; his numbers have been almost as consistent with adults 25 to 54. So the stakes are high, to say the least. Robert Ausfeld, regional vice president for the Edge’s parent company, Regent Communications Inc., told the Albany Business Journal in August that they “won’t just pull something out of a hat” when choosing a replacement. However, with D-day less than two months away, Regent needs to make a decision soon, and so far, the solutions haven’t exactly been falling in their laps.

While hopeful, Stern’s competitors aren’t exactly expecting this to be the “big moment” they’ve all been waiting for, either. “Our show is the anti-Stern in terms of content,” says Kelly Stevens, morning cohost at WYJB (95.5 FM), “but with so many listeners being left hanging after Stern moves to satellite, there’s no reason to believe they won’t scatter in a lot of different directions.”

“Time will tell on the issue of satellite radio,” she continues, tentatively. “It’s a good possibility [that] the younger the listener, the more likely they’ll go to the new technology.” But, she adds, this could prove to relocalize the radio audience. “Satellite can never be local and that’s something you need in morning radio. We can imagine Stern doing his show live in the morning and being repeated in the afternoon. If satellite users can hear him later, they might continue to listen to a locally-broadcast morning show.”

Many local morning shows, including highly rated programs on WFLY (92.3 FM), WPYX (106.5 FM) and WGNA (107.7 FM), have no immediate plans to change their stride. WFLY morning co-host Candy says, “We are not doing anything to attract his listeners specifically,” while her counterpart Potter looks to the future and sees nothing but . . . more of the same?

“Satellite is not the future of radio,” states Potter, with a hint of indignation. “Broadcast TV didn’t vanish when cable/satellite came out. Broadcast radio will be going digital soon and will offer a lot of the same features that satellite does, but for free.”

Regardless of who takes the reins, Stevens says, “one thing [is] for sure, his leaving will make a difference.”

On a national level, Viacom subsidiary Infinity Broadcasting, producer of the Stern show, has opted to divide the kingdom accordingly. Infinity announced last week that it would replace Stern with a number of different personalities for different markets. The company has offered little elaboration—it’s unclear as to whether or not this will be a Survivor-style showdown, with the pack eventually being whittled down to one winning personality—but this decision came only after Infinity was turned down by a number of celebrities considered to be big-ticket hole-fillers. Folks like Jon Stewart, Geraldo Rivera and Whoopi Goldberg reportedly were contacted about the position by Infinity CEO Joel Hollander; wisely, each declined the invitation. Many of the celebrities contacted balked at the early start time, while others simply had little or no reason to leave their current gig. Yeah, like Stewart’s about to pack up and leave The Daily Show. Right.

Adam Carolla has tossed his own name around in regards to the L.A. market. This could work, in theory: Carolla has years of broadcasting background, having co-hosted both the long-running radio advice show Loveline, and four seasons of the wildly popular The Man Show (with the chronically unfunny Jimmy Kimmel). However, as anyone who has caught Carolla’s current television venture (Comedy Central’s Too Late With Adam Carolla) can attest, he needs a good counterpart or a team of personalities to make it work. Solo Carolla? Hand over the remote controlla.

The name most frequently circulated in post-Stern discussions has been former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth. Although nothing has been confirmed, word has it that Roth has signed on to take over the L.A. and New York markets. This, in theory, is a great idea. The attitude of the show probably wouldn’t have to change a bit; with any luck, he’d make each morning an endless parade of surgically enhanced fembots, just like his videos. But this is radio we’re talking about—what about the audio? Odds are Roth’s show flies only if he brings guitarist Steve Vai along to do that talking thing with his wah-wah pedal, the one made famous on “Yankee Rose” in 1986. Just imagine the opening segment:

“(wah-wah)”

“What’s that?”

“(wah wah wah-wah wah)”

“Why, hummala zeebala bop! It’s the David Lee Roth show!”

It’s radio gold waiting to happen. But, if Roth does take over, how long before he’s replaced by Sammy Hagar?


ROUGH MIX

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