October 18, 2004

Radio freedom from above

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

The King of All Media is adding yet another organ to his empire. Howard Stern, the original shock jock, has announced that he is moving from terrestrial radio to satellite radio. At the conclusion of his contract with Viacom at the end of 2005, his five-hour-long raunchfest will move to Sirius.

It’s quite a coup for a company that’s only three years old. Stern practically invented a new genre, after all–the morning show filled with sex and juvenile humor. He was one of the first local radio hosts to syndicate. He is the number one national radio host among 18- to 49-year-old males, the all-important young demographic for advertisers. He is also the top-ranking host in New York, Los Angeles, and many of the other 44 major markets in which his show is heard.

Stern didn’t come cheap, of course. Sirius is paying $500 million over five years in salaries and a new studio. Demographics also matter less in satellite radio, which is commercial-free. Instead, Sirius, and its main rival, XM, rely mainly on monthly subscription fees–$12.95 for Sirius, $9.95 for XM–from customers with the devices in their homes or cars. Half the country hasn’t even heard of satellite radio. Sirius’ feat isn’t without risk.

But probably very little. Stern doesn’t call himself “King of All Media” for nothing. His first book, Private Parts, was Simon & Schuster’s fastest-selling ever. His second, Miss America, outdid that–at the time, it was the fastest-selling book in publishing history. The soundtrack to the film version of Private Parts was the fastest-selling in history, and one of Stern’s entertainment pay-per-view specials was the most-watched of all time.

Sirius says it needs Stern to bring in about one million new subscribers for the company to break even on the deal. Considering it has only 600,000 right now, that might seem like wishful thinking. But Stern’s audience of an estimated 10 million listeners has proven extremely loyal: Would anyone have previously thought the same group that enjoys listening to women getting naked in a studio across the country would have the power to create a bestseller?

Clearly, it’s not enough to have over one hundred commercial-free, digital-quality stations to attract listeners. Radio is driven almost completely by personality. Howard Stern is just the biggest example–ratings- and personality-wise. Talk radio, which draws so many listeners during the afternoons, would not exist if not for the big egos of hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Laura Ingraham. And tune into almost any rock station on your morning commute and you’ll find you can’t escape the loud-mouthed potty humor of younger Howard Stern-wannabes.

Satellite radio has little choice but to follow the trend. Next week, Sirius will debut Shade 45, rapper Eminem’s new radio channel. The company is touting the hip hop channel’s “uncensored” nature. XM has Bob Edwards, the host of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” for a quarter-century, and Opie & Anthony, the notorious twosome that was fired by Viacom after they broadcast a couple having sex in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Stern himself was dropped earlier this year by Clear Channel Communications, which carried his show on six of its stations. In June, the country’s top radio operator agreed to pay the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a record $1.75-million fine for a Stern episode that discussed, in detail, anal sex.

That might seem an excessive fine for something discussed on the almost universally loved Sex and the City. But a proposed federal bill would increase fines twenty times, to $500,000 for each violation of decency laws. And regulators would, for the first time, be able to fine performers themselves rather than just the stations that carry them.

The FCC has no jurisdiction over radio broadcasts that come from satellites in the sky. Regulators can scare executives worried about their million-dollar bonuses and small station managers struggling to get by. But satellite radio takes programming decisions out of the hands of individual stations with their individual prejudices. Howard Stern has no need to fear the loss of big markets, as he did when Clear Channel dropped him. In fifteen months, his show will be heard in every single market in the country, not just on Viacom’s 185 stations. Neither does he have to worry about boycotts of his advertisers–he won’t have any.

You may not like Howard Stern. You may find his celebration of strippers and profanity vulgar. But where he goes, others will follow. Most of the interesting programming on television these days is on HBO–a pay cable channel that also avoids the crushing hand of the FCC. With Friends gone, is anything Must-See TV anymore but The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm? HBO regularly cleans up at the Emmy Awards, too. Paying for television programming once seemed absurd; soon paying $13 a month to hear, well, just about anything, will make just as much sense. Stern promises listeners that he will “bring my fans my show my way. It will be the best radio they will ever hear.”

But don’t expect regulators to give up without a fight. Their careers–and millions of dollars in fines–are on the line. FCC head Michael Powell told The Washington Post (in an indirect quotation), “More programs and performers will migrate to pay cable and satellite channels unless Congress holds them to the same decency standards as broadcasters.” Perhaps Powell prefers the insipid laughs of Joey to the cinematic character development of The Sopranos. The rest of us demand the choice.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is kellyjanetorrance.com.