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Radio daze paves way for Stern warning

THIS TIME next year, Howard Stern will be weeks away from his satellite radio debut. And despite understandable doubts about even hardcore fans’ willingness to pay for hearing him ogle strippers, Stern’s current medium and future competition is unwittingly doing its part to support the shockjock’s latest endeavor.

Pondering the ill effects of media consolidation is usually too vague and theoretical to register with the public, but surveying the radio scene provides tangible evidence of where that highly concentrated industry is letting down its audience.

Take a recent Sunday in L.A., when a friend and I wanted nothing more from the AM stations programmed into my sports-utility vehicle than a traffic update, some weather and maybe a sports score.

So what to my wondering ears did I hear but a whole lot of useless drivel — including the utter absence of news on local “newsradio” stations KNX (1070) and KFWB (980), both owned and operated by Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting.

One so-called news station was airing a computer show, as was Clear Channel’s talk station. The computer shows might be helpful to those shopping for one, but I had a feeling the whole exercise was more about landing tech ads than informing consumers.

Infinity’s second “news” station carried an out-of-market football game, as if the idiots up the dial yammering about the San Diego Chargers weren’t bad enough. Another Clear Channel outlet, meanwhile, was in the midst of an infomercial block, touting a wonder product that purges toxins from the gastrointestinal tract. ABC’s talk station had on some syndicated good ol’ boy discussing auto parts and oil filters, which also sounded like a come-on to specific advertisers.

There was a time when KNX and KFWB vigorously competed with each other and would have seized the opportunity to provide news when their rival sat out the battle. They ran snarky “We’re No. 1” ads and fiercely vied for listeners. But no longer.

Mirroring a trend that has spread on local TV and radio around the country, KNX’s morning-drive team is now half talk, half comedy, pretty much half-witted. And the bad news for radio listeners, both in L.A. and nationwide, doesn’t end there.

Take talkradio, where the few hosts I enjoyed — or at least could stomach — have grown more shrill, polarizing, predictable and, worst of all, self-promotional, regularly plugging their latest book or TV show ’cause, you know, they’re lookin’ out for you.

This defective product amounts to an “X” factor in the future of satellite radio, as well as a huge window of opportunity for XM and Sirius, which announced this week that they had achieved year-end goals of 3 million and 1 million subscribers, respectively. Because if listeners like me — who spends a good 90 minutes in the car daily — can’t find a half-dozen options to keep us off our cellphones, suddenly the prospect of alternatives becomes more intriguing.

Not all of this can be pinned on consolidation, admittedly, but there’s at least a correlation between the shrinkage of ownership and declining service.

As for that Sunday drive, we finally gave up, flipped on the CD player and registered our own kind of score.

Consumers, 1; Conglomerates, 0.

THE BLAME GAME: The headline didn’t exactly say “Bush Kills Comedy,” but that was the implication of a Los Angeles Times editorial last week linking the TV sitcom’s much-discussed demise to the current political climate.

Knowing a little about the Times, my guess is most editors there don’t rush home to watch “Still Standing” and “According to Jim.” As such, it’s understandable that they’d overlook a less grandiose explanation for why TV comedy might have hit a rough patch — namely, an extended run of weak and uninspired sitcoms, for a complex variety of reasons.

In that sense, said editorial also demonstrates how the media can tacitly erode trust in their yearning to advance attention-getting theories, in the process skipping over more obvious answers. It’s also a reminder that TV criticism should generally be left to those who actually watch the stuff — the hardy few who keep the couch warm, as it were, so you don’t have to.

SIGHTINGS: A massive tsunami kills over 20,000 people in Southeast Asia. Cable news nets were all over the tragedy, which possessed the kind of magnitude that I thought might compel network morning programs to expand news coverage Monday into the second hour. On the “Today” show, however, Matt Lauer was interviewing Scarlett Johansson about the pressure of being Hollywood’s “‘It’ girl,'” while “Good Morning America” featured dancing kids in reindeer outfits.

Godspeed, Tom and Dan. I have a sinking feeling that you’re getting out just in time.

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