Stern sleaze in space

Posted: Oct 11, 2004 12:00 AM

 Watch out, astronauts and cosmonauts. Watch out, UFOs. Howard Stern's sleazy radio show is headed into outer space. Stern shook the radio world on Oct. 5 by declaring that he will move his long-standing cavalcade of coarseness to Sirius Satellite Radio for a cool $100 million a year in cash and stock, beginning in January 2006, when his current contract with Infinity Broadcasting expires.

 Some used to worry about besmirching the pristine heavens with satellite weapons. Now the heavens will transmit the daily Stern feed, one classy stunt after another like the current contest to find "The World's Largest Hemorrhoid." One hopes there isn't extraterrestrial life out there -- one satellite interception and the aliens will surely decline contact with Planet Earth.

 But it is also a serious victory for the defenders of decency on the public airwaves. The increased threat of punishment from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), including $495,000 in fines for Clear Channel stations airing Stern, has been a major headache for the Sheik of Shock.

 Now Stern lovers will have to stumble over new barriers. Teenaged boys wishing to get their hormones racing in the morning with autoerotic audio will have to ask Mom to purchase a satellite radio system if they want to choose Stern. It generally costs about $200 to purchase the hardware, which must be installed in cars by professionals. Installation is usually about $75. The monthly fee for the programming is $12.95.

 On the other hand, the liberated Stern will obviously not just push, but shred the envelope in his new forum. As Associated Press joked at the beginning of one news story, "Howard Stern has long had two words for the Federal Communications Commission -- and in 15 months, he can finally utter them on the air." Sadly, the reporters at effectively reflected the business sector's reaction to the news: "Potty talk could be just what the fledgling satellite radio industry needs to become a viable, mainstream business." One media analyst insisted, "part of Stern's success at Viacom was testing the boundaries and railing against the FCC. His fans are going to expect even more shocking content on Sirius."

 Despite the 15-month gap before Stern's switch, Sirius is already advertising on Stern's Website with a photo of a fat, old lady in a bathing cap. "Some things should be censored," it jokes. "Just not your radio," it says, as a picture of a shapely lady in a bikini flashes in.

 Sirius needed this deal much more than Stern did. While its CEO hailed the signing as the most exciting and transformational event in the history of radio, the fledgling company has never made money and has skated at the edges of bankruptcy. Investors have seen Sirius stock tumble from a high of $66.50 in 2000 to less than $4. The stock was up 15 percent on the Stern news, up to ... $3.87. For the Stern deal to pay off, Sirius has disclosed, the smut king must lure to satellite radio at least 1 million of the 8 million listeners who now tune him in for free. That's more than double the 600,000 subscribers Sirius has now.

 Their competitors at XM Radio have 2.5 million subscribers, and they are not waiting to get in on the sleazestakes. They're presently signing up subscribers for a free trial of XM's new "Opie & Anthony: Ungagged," a premium show involving a modest surcharge in addition to XM's base monthly fee. For those who have forgotten, Opie and Anthony lost their jobs in traditional radio when they encouraged listeners to have sex in a cathedral on a Catholic holy day. XM also has Playboy Radio for an extra premium. Stern will air on Sirius without any extra premium or restriction.

 Space, to paraphrase the "Star Trek" line, is the final frontier for content regulations. Stern knows he's probably escaping every yellowing clause in the Communications Act of 1934 by hitting the rocket booster button. It remains to be seen whether the impact of satellite radio on popular culture is anything like the plague we've seen in the last 10 years on cable television, where trashy new trends leaked from pay cable to regular cable to over-the-air broadcast TV.

 But it still might not work for Howard Stern and his pathetic agenda. FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin said in February that satellite radio and television providers are licensed by the FCC, which could potentially hold them accountable. He concedes, however, that companies like Sirius could argue that since consumers pay a premium for their products, they would not have to comply.

 For his part, Stern wants to destroy traditional radio. "They'll look like antiques when we're done," he boasted. But regardless of the new emerging technologies, is there anything more antique than a 50-year-old man still making a career on adolescent sleaze?