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Stern in Space

A lot of people like Howard Stern. That's why he intends to stay around -- or above.

By 1.5.05

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A LOT OF PEOPLE like Howard Stern. In fact, a lot of American radio listeners more or less organize their lives around Howard Stern. And there are probably at least as many who wouldn't cross the street to spit at Howard Stern. But here's the thing: you will never hear a radio professional express anything but admiration, bordering on awe, for Howard Stern.

There are plenty of debatable pantheon figures in contemporary radio, but just two, Stern and Rush Limbaugh, have redefined the medium from Bellingham to Opa-Locka. These luminaries didn't spawn imitators: they became industries. Limbaugh boasts of "talent on loan from God," which is tough to dispute when you consider what he wrought with nothing much more than a pair of tonsils. Some would suggest that the carnal, lowbrow gifts of Stern, who battled hidebound programmers and executives to create a formidable media empire, are on loan from God's opposite number. It's certainly hard to feel positive about the legion of sniggering "shock jocks" who arose to imitate Stern, convinced that sheer outrageousness was the secret of his success.

That's a mistake often made by Stern's critics, too. It would be hard to sustain a four-hour radio show on crudity alone, however clever or encyclopedic. The Stern program is actually quite a complicated construction. It depends on his turbulent rapport with a cast of cronies, his quick wit, his willingness to parade his own private life before the listener, his combination of self-doubt and overweening ambition, and an endless stream of guests who embarrass themselves for plugs, allowing Stern to ridicule American celebrity culture even as he wallows in it. It's a weird, compelling improvised play that never ends. At times -- such as after 9/11, when the New York City-based Stern opened the phone lines and soldiered on instead of mothballing the show -- it aspires to a pretty surprising level of quality.

But at 49, Stern is walking out on the classical broadcasting trade that has defined his life from the cradle onward. (His father Ben was a radio engineer.) On October 6, Sirius Satellite Radio, the hard-charging number-two company in the music-and-talk-from-outer-space market, announced that it had signed Stern to a five-year contract beginning on January 1, 2006. The effect on the morale of the radio business cannot be overstated. FMQB, a magazine for radio programmers, has compared it to Michael Jordan's (original) retirement from the NBA. Billboard reported that the deal turned a National Association of Broadcasters convention into a beehive of frightened men "speaking in hushed tones" about their future.

Stern was the highest-paid performer in radio, and Sirius estimates its expenses under the new deal at a whopping $100 million per year. That includes the cost of a palatial new studio for the host and his on-air team, as well as the value of the digital real estate -- three dedicated satellite channels -- that it's turning over to Stern so he can experiment with being a music programmer. It's an audacious gamble for the heavily indebted second banana in a new field. Audacious, that is, but easy to understand. Satellite providers are up against a tough business model with high capital costs. They need people to buy all-new receivers for their programming and sign over monthly subscription fees, too. Nothing short of audacity is going to make it work.

Satellite's main inherent advantages, aside from sound quality, are a nationwide footprint and freedom from FCC content regulation. Those latter two factors make Stern what the computer trade calls a "killer app" for the technology. Stern's existing audience is in the millions, and if you know any Stern fans, you know a lot of them will follow him to satellite without a second thought. Sirius, which passed the 700,000-subscriber mark in mid-October, says that the accounting is simple: it needs Stern to bring a million new subscribers with him to break even. Stern has never lost money for a broadcaster, but has brawled for 20 years with nervous affiliates and the FCC, often getting hit with fines and being chased out of lucrative markets. On satellite, he'll be immune from such squabbles.

ACCORDING TO A MARCH STUDY by the Center for Public Integrity, Stern's show was the target of about half of all obscenity penalties imposed by the FCC since 1990, suggesting that he was being penalized as much for his visibility as for the sexism and Rabelaisian preoccupations of the show. The Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" episode at the 2004 Super Bowl broadcast raised the stakes, as legislators of both parties were forcibly reminded of the clumsy but entrenched fiction that the airwaves are a public trust (instead of what they really are: a space that ought to have been homesteaded off outright, in fee simple, during Marconi's day). Stern was a sitting duck.

Infinity Radio, the chain that carries his show across the country, has always seemed too happy to accept FCC fines as the price of doing business with Stern. And as federal auditors have sometimes complained, the FCC isn't very efficient about collecting those fines, often accepting a fraction of the sum levied. But after Janet's top exploded, Stern says, the regulators began using red tape to threaten the license renewals and expansion plans of Viacom, Infinity's owner. The host, who used to have little time for either Republicans or Democrats, began attacking the Bush administration and FCC chairman Michael Powell in his broadcasts, making barbed, petulant little observations about the Iraq war, the cabinet, and the President's intellect.

Shortly thereafter, Stern's show was dropped by affiliates of Clear Channel, the unloved but successful radio colossus, which cited a new "zero tolerance" policy on obscenity as the pretext. There is a bit of a definitional puzzle here, as Stern is fairly careful to have obscene epithets bleeped out from the show. He conducts his festival of demeaning contests, sexual repartee, and celebrity humiliation in clinical or euphemistic language -- the same language, he often notes indignantly, that Oprah Winfrey has used without controversy or punishment in front of a much larger afternoon TV audience.

It's possible that Stern's Damascene conversion to the Democrat cause was the (understandable) final straw for Clear Channel, whose upper management is Republican-dominated. The liberal critics never have quite made up their minds whether Stern was sacrificed to partisan savagery or red-state prudery. Either way, Stern was happy to blow off the modest revenues from a handful of Clear Channel stations, but when the Infinity boardroom began to fret over Viacom's market share, he had a much bigger problem on his hands. Sirius opened an escape hatch at the perfect moment. And Stern's fans will -- for a price -- now get the uncensored Howard they've been badgering regulators to let them have.

Thus begins the twilight of radio's strangest, most amazing career. (Has any other radio broadcaster starred in a Hollywood movie based on his own autobiography?) Life has been a little awkward for Stern since the Sirius announcement. He wants to stay on Infinity, in front of an audience, between now and New Year's Day '06. That's what's best for Sirius, which wants to build buzz; for Infinity, which needs time to plan the transition; and probably for Stern, who is driven and, like all great performers, fairly egomaniacal. The trick is for Stern to keep from implicitly insulting Infinity by mentioning his exodus on the show too often. He's been more than tactful, for his part, but callers to the show keep mentioning the switch and using Infinity's transmitter to rave about how wonderful it is that he's walking out on them.

Stern is audibly nervous that his bosses will get fed up and kiss him off early. It's going to be a long year for him. But glory awaits at the end: what better place than a brand-new medium could you think of for the self-described "King of All Media"?

Colby Cosh is a columnist for Canada's National Post. This article appeared in the December 2004/January 2005 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to The American Spectator, click here.

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Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.