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LA Times: Howard Stern loses listeners — and influence — on satellite radio

Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed King of All Media, has lost his crown.

The shock jock’s syndicated morning radio show once drew a national audience of 12 million, but since jumping to satellite radio three years ago, his listeners have dwindled to a fraction of that. Where once Stern routinely commanded a parade of Hollywood’s hottest stars — George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts — today publicists are left to tout studio appearances by the likes of Chevy Chase, Joan Rivers or Hulk Hogan.

Stern, weary of fighting the Federal Communications Commission over hefty fines and charges of indecency on his terrestrial show, wanted creative independence on the unregulated airwaves of satellite. He got it — and a lucrative five-year contract worth hundreds of million of dollars.

But for a 54-year-old man who once likened his youthful craving for media attention to a heroin addiction, the move may have come with unintended consequences. Along with the loss of a massive daily radio audience, Stern has also watched as his past triumphs of a hit movie, bestselling books and huge pay-per-view television specials recede into memory.

So far, the radio personality’s leap from traditional media to a niche platform has come at a heavy price — namely, cultural relevancy. Unlike an Arianna Huffington, who vastly increased her reach on her upstart website, Stern’s place in the national conversation has been reduced to a murmur in the din of the exploding entertainment universe.

“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 Radio-Info.com, 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.”

Even recent occurrences that only a few years ago might have driven a torrent of frenzied attention gave Stern only a momentary blip. Thanks to the Sirius-XM merger, Stern’s potential satellite audience significantly broadened last week when his morning show became available to XM subscribers for the first time. And earlier this month, Stern got married for the second time, to model Beth Ostrosky.

Stern, who rarely gives interviews, and his representatives declined to comment for this article. But Sirius officials note that with their company’s merger, the radio host will now be able to reach a “potential” audience of 19 million subscribers, though they would not provide exact audience numbers. (XM subscribers must pay about $4 extra per month to hear Stern.)

Radio analysts, however, estimated the actual size of Stern’s daily satellite audience to be between 1 million and 2 million. (Sirius executives call those figures low because established rating services do not measure satellite radio use in each market.)

Stern’s program today is much like it was. It has retained its ribald spirit and irreverent nature, and despite the enhanced autonomy, the language is only a bit more coarse and the sexual discussions slightly more explicit.

As before, the radio host and his carnival of misfit contributors riff for hours on the day’s topics, which can vary from Stern’s sexual appetites to sidekick Artie Lange’s boorish and often out-of-control behavior. Stern’s longtime radio companion Robin Quivers still delivers daily news reports, mostly about celebrities, while offbeat segments such as quizzing porn stars on current events or tickling strippers might also be featured.

“The show has a lot of sameness, though he definitely has a lot more freedom now,” Taylor said. “There’s a sense talking to the people who know him that he is aware that he’s isolated. But he knew this would happen.”

With a reduced audience, Stern’s show is no longer a prime stop on the major film promotion circuit. And the A-list guests who used to submit to Stern’s biting personal questions in order to hype their projects have become scarce.

Lately, his guests have been mostly fading stars, cable TV personalities and loyal friends. His summer guest list included Brad Garrett of the struggling Fox comedy ” ‘Til Death,” Joan Rivers, Hulk Hogan, Piers Morgan (“America’s Got Talent”) and Ernest Borgnine. And only two stars of summer movies — Seth Rogen of “Pineapple Express” and Verne Troyer of “The Love Guru” — dropped by his New York City studios.

It’s a far cry from previous years, when from the bully pulpit of his radio show, Stern anointed himself as “The King of All Media.” Though the boast was vintage Stern and an obvious exaggeration, it was still something few could contradict. He made headlines, not to mention millions of dollars, off his bestselling books, “Miss America” and “Private Parts.” “Private Parts” was adapted for the big screen, where it was a box office and critical success.

In leaving terrestrial radio, Stern also left behind an invaluable and reliable tool for self-promotion: the FCC. Over the years, the government agency hit Stern with millions of dollars in fines, generating loads of free publicity.

Without the bureaucratic foil, few of Stern’s escapades generate much heat outside his specific universe.

“He’s not in the news anymore, and controversies that made the news definitely helped his visibility,” said Michael Harrison, editor of the talk radio trade publication Talkers. “Sometimes people equate news buzz with success.”

Stern’s departure didn’t just cut into his cultural currency, it also hurt CBS Corp.’s bottom line.

Radio revenue for the company, which used to syndicate Stern’s program to 45 major and medium markets, dropped by 10% or more in the years since Stern left. Some of the decline is due to economic conditions and increased competition, but radio analysts attribute much of the loss to Stern’s absence.

Despite his diminished influence, several industry analysts warned against selling the shock jock short.

“Howard was very brave to go into a relatively new media that’s still evolving,” said media analyst Jeff Pollack. “It’s the wave of the future, where people will find their favorite talent in a subscriber-based context.”

Tom Leykis, a popular syndicated talk-radio host based in Los Angeles, maintained that Stern’s historical influence outweighs his heavy drop on the buzz meter.

“I don’t think you can count out Howard Stern,” said Leykis, who is heard locally on KLSX-FM (97.1). “He took radio, which was akin to the used-car business, and made it a vital part of the entertainment business. Even if he does have a smaller audience in terms of his cumulative audience, that won’t last forever. Terrestrial radio is hemorrhaging audience as it tries to find its place in the Digital Age, while satellite is up tremendously. Stern has defied the experts every time.”

Since Stern’s departure from terrestrial radio, rumors have periodically circulated that the shock jock will return to his terrestrial radio roots. Stern has dismissed the talk, but his current contract expires in 2010. What then? What if he returned to FM?

“Stations would be lining up to get him,” said Harrison. “He grabbed the brass ring and is now on sabbatical from a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with his life. But if he ever wanted to return, there’d be nothing but open arms.”

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