Thursday, November 19, 2015

Dealing With Howard Stern Possible End of Days

There has been radio silence of late on the Howard Stern contract negotiations with SiriusXM. In a way, that's a sign of progress. Longtime fans have been through this situation before and they've worked out every time. We have reached the "final nine" broadcasts in December 2015 that finish Stern's second five-year contract with the satellite radio service.

Over the summer, callers would ask how negotiations were going. Then...silence. Although he's been slipping in mentions of "meetings" every day or two, which sounds promising to the untrained ear. I still enjoy Stern, but I zone out more than I used to. Endlessly loyal to the workhorses around him, Richard and Sal are mostly played out. Tan Mom is the new Nicole Bass. High Pitch Eric has transformed from a conniving savant to a can't-be-mourned-soon-enough sad sack. Bobo and Mariann find a way on the air almost every day, leading casual listeners to wonder "Where are callers from the midwest? Overseas? Anywhere south of New Jersey?"

However this is a new era for Stern. Technology has rendered SiriusXM a luxury, niche service for people who want commercial-free music, talk, and sports events in their vehicles, offices, homes, and on their mobile devices.

Auto wi-fi and Spotify, Pandora, podcasts, and many other things have pushed satellite radio towards the middle of the pack. Not yet an afterthought, but not a must-have necessity. Unless you're in it for Howard Stern, and clearly millions of subscribers are still tuning in. Which puts Stern in the catbird seat, to some degree.

Stern's first SiriusXM contract a decade ago rocked the radio business. One hundred million dollars for four shows a week, two devoted channels with original programming provided by Bubba the Love Sponge and Scott Ferrall. Jackie Martling returned for a weekly joke show. (I made more than a dozen appearances on Super Fan Roundtable.) "Miserable Men" was two hours of ball-busting with Rev. Bob Levy on Sunday nights. Stern even ran a "First Annual Fan Film Contest."

Slowly, over time, the show evolved. Or rather devolved. We lived through Artie Lange's self-immolation. One by one, the original programs fell by the wayside, replaced by "Sternthology" replays of more classic, reprogrammed content from Stern's 30+ years on the air. Howard remarried. He mended fences. He friended celebrities. He took a job on America's Got Talent, talked about it until even superfans complained, then grew to resent the time it took from his life and gave it up as second job. He hired an internal HR person to re-educate his staff and deal with long-delayed hirings and firings. He became more politically correct. Comedians, once a regular staple on the show, became few and far between. Dave Attell? Gilbert Gottfried? Replaced by endless crank phone calls. Remember HowardTV?

Several months back, Stern hinted at an "intriguing" offer for 2016 that would preclude him from continuing his SiriusXM show. But satellite radio provides Stern with money and exposure. He is the poster child for the service, make no doubt about it. They can put Oprah, Eminem, and Martha Stewart on their literature and website, but Howard Stern drives SiriusXM business.

Howard as long been vaunted as an interviewer. His long-form segments are still newsworthy (Bree Olson, a former porn star, gobbled headlines for her post-Charlie Sheen-revelation HIV talk). But for every Bradley Cooper or Seth Rogen, there's a Ray Kelly, Whoopi Goldberg, or Christie Brinkley. Let's talk about meeting Billy Joel 30 years ago. Edgy talk indeed. The Wrap-Up Show, hosted by Jon Hein and longtime Stern producer Gary Dell'A'Bate, generated a more contemporary guest list in the last month alone with appearances by Jeremy Sisto, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Judah Friedlander. Or as Howard would say, "Who?"

Sirius made Stern an offer he couldn't refuse – money, marketing, and a brand-new studio facility in the heart of Manhattan. Stern had pooh-poohed XM Radio, headquartered in Washington, DC, for not fully committing to a real estate commitment in his native New York City. But as former CEO Mel Karmazin admitted in his lone Stern radio appearance on Sirius, if he had been in charge years earlier, he would not have locked the company into an expensive, long-term realty deal in midtown.

Years ago, Stern mocked Don Imus for broadcasting from his "cancer ranch." He openly questioned how Jay Thomas could run a show from his home in New Orleans while his sidekicks were in New York and Los Angeles. "You take callers, Howard, it's no different than that," Thomas retorted. Quietly, those obstacles disappeared. When co-host Robin Quivers dealt with the ravages of post-cancer treatment, an ISDN line kept her "on the air" with Stern. In a complete reversal of sorts, he talked about having Sirius install an ISDN line in his apartment that he could "flip on" any time he wanted to just "talk" to his fans, at a moment's notice, with just some social media advance warning.

Any company seeking to "steal" Stern has a clock ticking on customizing facilities to meet his specifications. Unless it's a major broadcasting entity (an HBO) willing to front big bucks to convert a soundstage or recording space in midtown, those "intriguing" options don't seem to make financial sense, either to media conglomerates or Stern. While Comedy Central or another cable outlet could push an hourly late-night Stern gabfest away from "safe harbor" time slots, his demographics don't warrant that sort of payout. And realistically, Stern plays best on a larger landscape not limited by time constraints.

Which leaves the possibility of a deal with Amazon Prime Music. Certainly Amazon could afford to sign Stern, who would drive millions to Prime. I know I would sign up for $99 a year, for unlimited access to Stern plus the streaming music service and free shipping on purchases. I could even see Amazon adding a new tier that includes Stern, costing $149 per year. Still a bargain at that price.

CBS Radio mounted an assault in 2006 when Stern went to Sirius, in an effort to maintain hold of the content he produced while in their employ. It made the first few months at Sirius a chore for Stern, who had to produce five weekly shows just to generate raw hours to broadcast over two channels, until a legal settlement was reached. No doubt Stern owns every second of every show aired on Sirius. Which begs the question, if he goes, do both of his channels go with him? Does Sirius strike a separate, lesser deal for one legacy channel? Or would a new service start a "classic on-demand" channel with a primary "live this week" channel?

Looking back, my favorite period of Stern-dom were the early 1990s, just after the Channel 9 TV show. Stern refocused his attention back on the radio show. There are people who like the late 1980s peak with Sam Kinison and his entourage, but I truly enjoyed having the show as a distraction and voice of insanity during the OJ Simpson trial. Not only was Jackie Martling a primary instigator but voice maven Billy West was on hand in the studio. Years later, callers would still moan, "Where's Billy?" not realizing that West had quietly closed that chapter in his professional life.

Stern was angry, he shot from the hip, he didn't care whom he offended. He bit the hand that fed him. He moaned about his marriage and his kids. He lambasted the other DJs on the station as well as other New York stations. He inaugurated the "CIA-holes" to report on his competition across the country, as well as to tell him when other broadcasters stole his bits. He took his show to Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, to Cleveland, to Las Vegas. Yes, there were lengthy commercial breaks. But for anyone who learned how to record the show and listen back on audiocassettes, the breaks were never a deterrent. In fact, I had to rewind and play back through the most momentous commercial break – where Artie Lange confessed his heroin addiction and broke down on the air during one of Howard's live reads.

I recorded over hours of Stern content for my own stash of "Best of" CDs. But nowadays I find myself relishing the non-Stern weekdays and giving podcasters like Marc Maron, Dana Gould, Greg Fitzsimmons, and Adam Carolla a listen. Sorry to say, but being a decade older than me, Stern's worldview is not quite in tune with mine these days. And no matter how much I enjoy Howard's impressions of his parents, it's depressing to realize they may expire before the end of his next term of employment.

So where does Howard Stern go next? Surely these are not the end of days, a puny nine more shows. I can't imagine a broadcasting landscape that does not include a Howard Stern. Despite its contrived nature, America's Got Talent gave Stern a new voice in the marketplace. And Sirius would not have yielded to his wishes and moved the show from 6 to 7 AM weekdays if they did not earnestly wish to keep him happy.

Losing the court case to Sirius over a payout from the merger with XM cost Stern more than money – it ended his longtime relationship with mentor Karmazin. Feud-settling Stern was able to mend fences with Les Moonves, who filed the lawsuit in 2006 to withhold decades of content. Perhaps this too one day shall pass. Whether it remains a sticking point in the current negotiations as well. Would Stern settle for a mea culpa attached to $20 million? Short-term, that might sound better to Sirius than upping his salary $10 million per year for the same number of shows he's been producing since the 2011 follow-up contract.

Bottom line, I see Stern as a creature of habit. SiriusXM showed him the money and he became their point person. Sirius revolves around Stern and vice versa. He even opted out of starring in a second movie (Barry Levinson's MAN OF THE YEAR) to concentrate on promoting the satellite radio service, which was only in 600,000 homes when he signed his deal. A decade later, that partnership has been good for everyone. Sirius has more than 24 million subscribers. Stern has unprecedented freedom that no other broadcaster has ever received. Would a bump in pay grade be worth the risk of changing everything, while reminding people that this contract could be "it"? It's better to dance with the same partners, warts and all, where Stern is the big man on campus.

I'm a Howard Stern fan. Have been, will probably always be. The elements that I don't enjoy about this show, thousands definitely cheer. In the latter days of Artie Lange, there were several cliffhangers based around "Will Artie be back?" For the first time in five years, there's the genuine possibility that come January, there will be a Stern-less SiriusXM Radio. As they used to say in old-time radio, stay tuned for our next episode.
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