Howard Stern Goes To Satellite (Horrible, Horrible Freedom Edition)

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Earlier this morning, radio personality Howard Stern announced that he's moving to the satellite broadcaster Sirius in 15 months, when his current contract with Infinity ends.

This may not be the "most important deal in radio history," but it's definitely a shot in the arm of satellite radio–and related, non-regulated formats of content distribution (including cable TV). Fuck the FCC? You bet.

I've been listening to Stern since the mid-'80s, when he was the afternoon shock jock on WNBC in New York(if I'm remembering correctly, there was Imus in the morning [always a good reason to sleep in] and Alan Colmes was somewhere on the same slate [or maybe he replaced Stern after he got canned]). I've never been short on praise of the guy, either. Though I think he's been pretty flat for a long time now, I've always enjoyed the mirror he's held up to celebrity culture.

One real question emerges from this in terms of content: Stern is pushing the end-of-censorship angle of his future move. Finally, he says, he won't have to deal with the FCC and other puritans. But in fact a good deal of the oomph of his show is that it takes place in a tightly constrained context, where he flirts with crossing the line (this is also true of his TV show on the E! cable channel). On satellite, different rules–or lack of them–will apply. Will he be as interesting? Or, same thing, will audiences find him as interesting? I'm not sure.

I enjoyed his Rotten New Year's Eve pay-per-view special some years back, which featured material that would never seen the light of the broadcast day. Though the special was successful, it was surprising to me how many of his fans found that program over the top and generally unfunny. On satellite, he'll have horrible, horrible freedom to say and do whatever he wants. Which is very different from how he actually built his show over the years.

NEXT: The Man Who Wouldn't Be Veep

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  1. Stern’s announcement sealed the deal for me this morning: I’m buying an XM Radio and getting the Opie and Anthony package.

    Stern’s been downright unlistenable for the last couple of years. It also appears he simply took all of the XM/O&A press releases and talking points and just changed the names.

    * First big name radio guys to go to satellite radio (check)
    * Will jump start that market (check)
    * Reinvent radio (check)
    * Blah blah blah (check)

  2. I don’t know if he has considered the de facto Stern listener phenomenon, either. He has lots of fans, but he also is currently the alternative to NPR in a limited spectrum of buttons in the average car.

  3. I always thought Stern was a lazy thinker. Our government can regulate anything it damn well pleases. Odds are it won’t regulate satellite broadcasting, but then again it’s only allowed two operators.

  4. There is a satellite TV station in England (not available here yet) that plays MTV style classical music videos. I don’t know where I heard about it but it sounds like a lot of fun. Could get real corny real fast though.

    As for satellite radio, I’d buy it to listen to the obscure college-radio music that never gets on the commercial stations. Stern has gotten rich off of us for 20+ years. Let the old coot drift off into outer space.

  5. Nick,
    I have lost all respect for you. You’ve been listening to him for two decades!? Once you’ve listened to him for fifteen minutes, you’ve already heard everything he will ever say. If you think a fart is funny, then it just keeps getting funnier every time you hear one I guess.

    Otherwise, I agree with your analysis. I feel like all those other libertarians on the drug issue. “While I would never listen to Howard Stern, and I think anyone who does is a fool. The government has no business telling you what you can and can not put in your own ear. Of course, we need to hold Stern listeners responsible for their behavior. They made the free choice to be human vegetables and they must suffer the consequences.”

  6. Fred:

    MTV plays music videos?

  7. Will people pay $10 to $20 a month to get un-censored King of all Media? You can go to any street corner and hear the same for free. I don’t see millions of people paying for radio when you have to pay for your cell phone and Satellite TV.

  8. Back in my radio days (the same days when MTV was actually playing music videos, Mr. Wilson! :-), I spent some time as trainer of DJs at a notorious college FM on the central california coast. I wrote up their training guide of the era, including a description of how to “work” the station’s alternative music “format,” which Spin Magazine felt compelled to mock when they did a survey of college radio that September. Mind you, I didn’t create or enforce the format. I just documented and taught it.

    What Spin didn’t get, and what the DJs who chafed at having to “work format” on a college radio station didn’t get, either, was that a radio format is like the steel skeleton of a building. In some sense, that makes it like all other buildings of the same type. But it’s only a skeleton, on which you can hang or attach a wide variety of unique, distinguishing features. Two buildings can have identical skeletons and seem very different to those who behold them. Many people (especially beginning DJs, all of whom it was my job to meet and teach!) needed or could at least benefit from the strong structure, as a platform for action, or a jumping-off point for expressing their own on-air personalities. The point of the skeleton is to make the final result solid, whatever you hang on it; as with buildings, so with formatted radio shows. Once the DJs internalized the format, understanding how and why its elements worked together, they were better able to create their own, signature program forms. Many at this particular station went on to do just that, and to further success in broadcasting, if they so chose.

    I’d just like to say that, in expressing his fears concerning an unshackled Stern, Gillespie demonstrates that he “gets it.” For better or worse, the censorship constraints under which Stern has operated up to now have provided him with skeletal limits and structure, especially as much of his act and notoriety came from his struggles to push back against those constraints. Social conventions and mores, along with the censorship that enforces them, were as much Stern’s medium as radio itself. In some sense, Stern’s act is that of the escape artist. I hope that Stern will prove to be like Houdini, who had many other tricks up his sleeve to entertain us, once the chains, trunks, and strait-jackets were taken off-stage.

  9. I don’t see millions of people paying for radio when you have to pay for your cell phone and Satellite TV.

    I thought that, too, until I saw my best friend (who almost never listens to the radio) get a new car with a free one-year sub to XM. He raves about it, yet every time he’s in the car he’s blabbing on his phone. But it’s another toy and he’s so used to having it around that he won’t let it go.

    I don’t see it as much different from the old days of radio, though, when the largest broadcasting company (RCA) also happened to be the largest seller of radios. They got your money whether you listened or not, just as long as you had the radio. The subscription is just another way of buying an expensive radio on an installment plan.

  10. Yeah, and like HBO really does TV with swearing and boobies.

    If you think Howard will just do the same show with swear words, you don’t know him. He is driven, and does funny, inventive, involving radio. His immitators do rude Stern. It is still radio, where the listeners imagination fills in what you cannot see.

    he has been underestimated before.

    I’m betting on Howards

  11. I don’t think it’s a bad move for Stern, though it is a bit of a risk. I think satellite radio will eventually win a large market share, but the question is when that will happen. I will note for the record that my 89-year old great aunt has XM and loves it. Not that I expect her to listen to Stern. . . . Anyway, Nick’s observation about the format is a good one, but I doubt Stern will radically change what’s been working for him for so long (maybe too long–he has gotten a bit stale, and merely increasing his offensiveness won’t win as many listeners as it will lose). By the way, I understand that Tampa’s own Bubba the Love Sponge (are we anything other than notorious here?) is planning to do the same thing.

    As far as the government being able to regulate anything it wants however it wants, I tend to share that bleak outlook in those dark hours when I sink into political despair over our growing government. Nevertheless, there’s precedent for the content-based restrictions placed on radio and TV (whether they really are legitimate is another question), but that precedent doesn’t really extend to cable, the Internet, or satellite radio.

  12. I don’t think it’s a bad move for Stern, though it is a bit of a risk. I think satellite radio will eventually win a large market share, but the question is when that will happen. I will note for the record that my 89-year old great aunt has XM and loves it. Not that I expect her to listen to Stern. . . . Anyway, Nick’s observation about the format is a good one, but I doubt Stern will radically change what’s been working for him for so long (maybe too long–he has gotten a bit stale, and merely increasing his offensiveness won’t win as many listeners as it will lose). By the way, I understand that Tampa’s own Bubba the Love Sponge (are we anything other than notorious here?) is planning to do the same thing.

    As far as the government being able to regulate anything it wants however it wants, I tend to share that bleak outlook in those dark hours when I sink into political despair over our growing government. Nevertheless, there’s precedent for the content-based restrictions placed on radio and TV (whether they really are legitimate is another question), but that precedent doesn’t really extend to cable, the Internet, or satellite radio.

  13. Sorry about the double post. Danged browser hanged just a little too long for my fragile patience.

  14. Pro Lib,

    I did kinda have my tinfoil hat on there. I think the gummint will leave satellite content alone until it needs another revenue stream. Depends on which lobby pays more, the satellite operators or the “Fellow Concerned Citizens For Clean Content” (FCCFCC).

  15. Re: J. A. Merritt…Spin is a joke and always has been. I’ll never forget their article in the late eighties about how “Capitalism Is Killing Music.” Even my liberal friends thought it was a howl.

  16. I’m not much into poetry, but I understand it’s complexity relies on structural boundries.. the irony of freedom within constraint. I’m with Nick. Howard’s genius was working within the limits that were imposed on him, and somehow coming across as “edgy”. Without those limits, he will probably get more and more crass in order to continously top himself. He may know this, too, and take the $500 million as his last paycheck.

    Does satellite radio have ads? Stern’s current show seems to be 70% ads.. without them, how will he take breaks?

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