Monday, October 13, 2008

Be careful what you wish for

Not quite three years ago, Howard Stern escaped the ongoing censure of the FCC by jumping from broadcast radio to Sirius. He signed a lucrative deal while gaining “artistic freedom” (or whatever they call it) by switching to an opt-in medium.

As the LA Times notes this morning, he also lost most of his audience and — without the FCC generating ongoing publicity for him — some of his raison d’etre.

"It's like Howard went from playing Madison Avenue to playing an upscale off-Broadway concert hall for a lot of money," said Tom Taylor, executive news editor at, which tracks the radio industry. "He made a Faustian bargain. He got everything he wanted in terms of money and not being bothered by the FCC, but he lost the bulk of his audience."
For a while, it also looked as though he jumped aboard a sinking ship. The Sirius-XM merger seems to have temporarily forestalled speculation about the end of satellite radio, but the merged company’s future is by no means assured.

The media have become seriously fragmented, and Stern’s Sirius turn is consistent with 500 channel cable systems and millions of bloggers on the Internet. However, if gathering listeners together with specialized tastes is consistent with recent trends, he seems to be swimming upstream against commoditization, particularly the Google-inspired tendency towards “free.”

Wrestling on pay-per-view can certainly be lucrative, even if it lacks the cultural impact of an NFL Sunday (go Chargers!), the World Series or the World Cup. Stern needs to decide whether he wants to make piles of money to support his new bride, or whether he needs a large audience to support his ego. As the Times put it, Stern is a “a 54-year-old man who once likened his youthful craving for media attention to a heroin addiction,” so the slide to irrelevance must not be gong down well.

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