- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Howard Stern finally got Sirius about leaving commercial radio for the uncensored streams of satellite.

The self-proclaimed “king of all media” announced yesterday that he’ll move his bawdy broadcasts to Sirius satellite radio when his contract with Infinity Broadcasting expires at the end of 2005.

The new five-year pact, which begins Jan. 1, 2006, marks a huge shift in the satellite-radio stakes. The emerging medium, led by Sirius and XM Radio, has been building its subscriber base for the past few years — but the Stern signing could prove the proverbial tipping point.

Will industry observers look back on this as the moment when the format gained the broad acceptance cable TV enjoys?

Or has Mr. Stern gambled his career on a medium destined for second-class status?

That remains to be seen. What may be most important to the Long Island native — currently heard in 46 major markets — is the freedom to cut loose with his unexpurgated thoughts without fear of reprisal from the Federal Communications Commission.

Mr. Stern yesterday told listeners of his morning broadcast that he will control programming on three Sirius channels as part of the deal. One will be a premium pay channel.

Stern becomes the third big name to join the satellite scene this week.

XM Radio began broadcasting “Opie and Anthony” Monday but asks listeners to shell out an extra $1.99 each month for the privilege of hearing it.

Former NPR mainstay Bob Edwards debuted his new XM Radio show the same day.

Sirius boasts a subscriber base of 600,000 listeners, plus more than 10 million who access its programming via Dish Network satellite TV.

“I’ve decided what my future is,” Mr. Stern told his listeners. “It’s not this kind of radio anymore.”

Listeners should be sighing in relief at the news. Mr. Stern spends countless hours railing against the restrictions on his programs. Hardly riveting radio.

Sirius officials say the signing would need to generate about 1 million subscribers to cover the company’s costs. The company says the total contract — including salaries for Mr. Stern’s cast and crew, construction costs for a “dedicated” studio and programming fees — will run about $100 million a year.

In an unscientific poll conducted online yesterday by www.newsday.com, 58.2 percent of the 837 respondents said they would be willing to subscribe to Sirius to hear Mr. Stern’s show, according to the Long Island-based Web site.

The bigger question, though, for radio purists, is what kind of show Mr. Stern will bring to satellite. Will he let the f-word bombs fall as they may, and would it add an edge to his performance?

Demographic studies reveal that his show draws a generally affluent audience. Still, will those listeners groove to an even more salacious Mr. Stern?

His Infinity broadcast has endured significant changes in recent years, including the addition of comic Artie Lange and the loss of longtime sidekick “Stuttering” John Melendez.

Overall, 2004 has been an emotional year for Mr. Stern. Clear Channel dumped his program in six markets earlier this year, fueled, most likely, by the Janet Jackson-CBS Super Bowl bare-breast brouhaha.

Mr. Stern roared back in June, announcing nine new markets for his show, including four where Clear Channel stations once aired it.

He also moved decisively to the left in ‘04, turning his program and Web site (www.howardstern.com) into extensions of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Mr. Stern’s turmoil, however, is likely to continue.

By 2006, when the deal kicks in, he’ll be approaching his 52nd birthday — a bit long in the tooth to be asking 19-year-old strippers to doff their duds.

It could be argued legitimately, too, that part of Mr. Stern’s enduring attraction is listening to him dance gleefully along the borderline of indecency without making a fatal wrong step.

Even in the face of possible adversity he has emerged triumphant.

Pundits presumed the ribald shock jock would lose a fair share of his audience when he divorced longtime spouse Alison Stern in 1999. She was a sometimes unwilling foil to many of his antics. Fans supposedly loved hearing Mr. Stern flirt with on-air guests while remaining faithful to his wife.

When the end came, however, the divorce didn’t sink his ratings.

Perhaps Mr. Stern’s career will survive the seismic shift to Sirius as well.

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