COUNT ME AMONG the majority of Howard Stern listeners who haven’t installed a satellite radio just to keep abreast of the way he keeps a breast.
Stern made his much-ballyhooed debut on Sirius Satellite Radio Monday, liberated from concerns about Federal Communications Commission sanctions and interminable commercial pods. As his recent “Larry King” appearance demonstrated, in Stern, Sirius smartly acquired not just an oversized personality but an exec VP of marketing as well.
Ever the carnival barker, Stern has pleaded the case for satellite and teased his move by promising to discuss on the first show whether he secretly remarried (he hasn’t). On Monday, Stern held an on-air press conference in which he expressed confidence that people would be willing to pay for radio. For its part, Sirius sought to maximize the initial crush of attention, including a classy billboard campaign saying things like “Howard is Coming … All Over America.”
Maybe, but I don’t think so.
As a radio listener, I have (a little) discretionary income. Yet it’s not an infinite pool, and with 18 preset channels as well as CD and MP3 players, it’s not a particular hardship to program my ride to work, lunch or the shopping mall.
THIS ISN’T TO SAY Stern’s defection won’t have an impact. CBS is already bracing for a considerable loss of revenue from its radio stations due to the host’s departure, having replaced him with David Lee Roth on the East Coast and the inexplicably ubiquitous Adam Carolla in California. Based on an extended sampling of Carolla’s show, that’s a sage forecast.
In one of those show-business mysteries, Carolla has so many jobs it’s hard to keep track, from cable to radio to appearing on pal Jimmy Kimmel’s show every time he can’t line up a big-name guest, which is roughly twice a week. Yet despite hitting some of the same knuckle-dragging notes as Stern’s cast of idiots, Carolla’s radio shtick highlights the difference between being a broadcaster, as Stern is (or was), and a standup comic with a megaphone.
On Monday, Carolla could be heard bantering with a stoned teenager who called in, talking sports with Fox NFL analyst Terry Bradshaw and interviewing (not really, but sort of) “Desperate Housewives'” Doug Savant. During that last segment, Carolla voiced surprise there aren’t more acts of gay bashing, given straight men’s revulsion to homosexuality.
OK, but just don’t offend anyone by saying the “F” word.
Spending the morning with Carolla — that rare combination of grating and boring — was enough to make me say so long to KLSX, recently christened “Free FM,” a loudmouthed FM talk format where Stern was the only tolerable attraction. CBS Radio can derive solace from knowing the three of its other L.A. outlets are still among my preset menu.
Having to fill the time previously devoted to Stern, however, won’t send me running to a pay alternative. For the 30-40 minutes it takes me to get into work, I still have plenty of options — talk stations of all political stripes, different kinds of music, even that Five for Fighting CD that keeps running through my head.
MOREOVER, there’s a point when new gadgetry becomes redundant — and where having a $200 device that spares consumers the horror of (gasp) pushing a button to change channels begins to seem a little absurd. That’s why TiVo and its ilk have consistently lagged behind bullish forecasts, despite the passion of its devotees, because much of the public hasn’t been convinced recording and playing back TV more efficiently is a necessity.
Sirius closed 2005 with 3.3 million subscribers, gaining roughly 2 million for the year in that fast-growing category. The surge in customers willing to part with $13 a month reflects the powerful connection Stern has with his loyalists, but it also underscores that those die-hards represent a small segment of the estimated 8 million-10 million listeners he boasted on terrestrial radio.
So while I might miss his dulcet tones and flatulent sound effects, when push comes to shove, I can live without Howard Stern. I’m just not sure that he, and especially Sirius, can survive for long without me.