Move shaping up to be "media murder-suicide"

When Howard Stern left CBS’ Infinity Radio in 2005, there’s no question he wounded the radio powerhouse. Yet as the evidence continues to mount, the case of the missing radio personality increasingly looks like a media murder-suicide.

Sirius Satellite Radio made a bold, attention-grabbing maneuver by committing $500 million over five years to Stern and his posse, but the high-profile host didn’t fully solve Sirius’ underlying economic challenge. Perhaps foremost, though, Stern himself has been marginalized.

Granted, Stern is being handsomely paid to ogle strippers and B.S. with his cast of idiots. But far fewer people are listening. And while Stern’s voice echoed during the 2004 presidential election, that’s not the case now. By trading in his terrestrial platform — and by most estimates 80% or more of his daily audience — his megaphone no longer commands the attention it once did.

According to first-ever ratings for satellite radio issued by Arbitron in October, Stern’s is the most popular talk program on Sirius or XM Radio, with an estimated cumulative weekly audience of 1.2 million. Yet even if that understates his reach (as it probably does), it’s a major tumble from the 8 million to 12 million the host amassed during his heyday.

Sirius reps acted almost indignant when asked for data regarding Stern’s appeal, saying only that he’d been instrumental in its growth to nearly 9 million subscribers and that the potential audience will expand to 19 million thanks to the merger.

Let this be a reminder to anybody toiling in ad-supported media that the subscription business is quite a different animal — one that tends to concoct its own rules whenever the subject of ratings arises.

CBS’ headaches, meanwhile, have continued to mount since Stern signed off at the end of 2005. The company struggled to find hosts to replace him, with David Lee Roth rapidly flaming out and Adam Carolla unable to spark anywhere near the heat Stern almost effortlessly generated. Last month, citing a 16% decline in operating income by that unit, the company announced plans to sell 50 of its midsized radio stations.

After owning nearly 180 stations at its peak, CBS Radio will be down to roughly half that upon completing the latest sales, freeing up resources to focus on new-media enterprises.

Stern happily predicted terrestrial radio’s demise when he left, and like other traditional media, it’s been struggling. Yet to the extent his departure contributed to his old boss’s troubles, it’s only fair to point out that the host and other high-profile programming deals weren’t enough to put Sirius on the road to profitability — making its long-delayed merger with rival XM all but inevitable.

Yet having finally won regulatory approval from the same Federal Communications Commission that harassed Stern with indecency fines, XM-Sirius is facing pressures to reduce costs — an imperative that some have speculated will lead to revised terms when Stern’s deal expires in 2010.

Stern’s most loyal minions followed him to Sirius, helping build its distribution. He even received an $83-million bonus for helping the company meet subscriber goals.

Far more of his audience, however, simply drifted away. In his first year, several articles pondered how the Stern crowd could have “disappeared,” but “scattered” is the more accurate term. They fled to an array of options ranging from National Public Radio and iPods to competing shock jocks — some local, others national — that so irritated Stern by aping his shtick.

Neither Stern nor CBS requires a charity bake sale anytime soon, but there’s little arguing that the host damaged his former employer while diminishing his own stature. Millions of one-time listeners filled the void in their morning drive without feeling compelled to ante up, and suddenly the King of All Media was just another clown prince, albeit a lavishly compensated one.

Today, Stern’s baritone is considerably more faint — more talented than most, but closer in a Swiftian sense to Lilliputian than Brobdingnagian. And if the church of Howard Stern can still boast an extremely vocal choir, the congregation isn’t what it used to be.

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