Back in 2006, Howard Stern was a constant topic of conversation. He inundated the airwaves with his “shock jock” approach to hosting his radio show. He called out CBS Radio and its leader, Leslie Moonves, on the air with regularity, and was also embroiled in a legal battle with Clear Channel after they pulled his show from several markets over FCC indecency complaints.
Then Sirius Satellite Radio made him an offer he could not refuse. One hundred million dollars a year for him and his crew — he had made $30 million at CBS — and no strictures on profanity or content. As we all know, Stern went for the bigger and better deal, becoming a pillar of satellite content immediately. Things looked great for the raucous host.
Fast forward to the present day. Sirius, which has now merged with XM, is facing financial woes. The joint network which attracted 2.7 million users in its first year has now seen a decline of 231,098 over 2009. Stern’s five-year, $500 million contract may well be out of reach for his former employers, and the rumor is that he is looking at a return to terrestrial radio. Dylan Stableford gives us the first glimmers of this in a recent post on Media Alley:
In an interview with “Bubba The Love Sponge” – a fellow radio host who moved to Sirius and has since returned to terrestrial airwaves — Stern said he’s been contacted by several “regular” radio executives, but has not received a “bona fide” offer yet.
“I actually have an offer,” Stern said. “Well, not a bona fide offer, but people have been making them.”
Stern then went on to say that he could not picture returning to Clear Channel if he did make the jump back to “free radio.” Hardly shocking considering the acrimonious legal history between the two. Of course, the ironic part is that it is Clear Channel that seem to be the ones courting him, albeit cautiously. Via Olga Khariff at BussinessWeek:
Stern didn’t say who reached out, but the largest U.S. radio broadcaster made a public overture the following day. Clear Channel Communications Inc. told Bloomberg BusinessWeek that it may be interested in signing Stern, whose five-year contract expires at the end of 2010.
The interest hinges on whether Stern, whose on-air profanities resulted in fines from the Federal Communications Commission, would be willing to work “within the limitations” of free over-the-air radio, said John Hogan, chief executive of the radio division of San Antonio-based Clear Channel. “We clearly have both the willingness and the financial wherewithal to consider high-profile talent,” Hogan said in an e-mailed statement Jan. 22. “We would be the most logical company for him to optimize his exposure and financial return.”
All in all, quite buzz worthy. While I initially wondered if this might not be a strategic ploy on Stern’s part during a contract renewal year, I’m not so sure about that now. Stern has receded from the zeitgeist during his time on satellite. You still see stories about him periodically, but his significance in the cultural picture has obviously diminished since he made the jump to a paid subscription format. It’s a simple truism: people will listen to free content much more often they will be willing to pay for it, even with porn stars and colorful language.
It’s a pretty solid bet that any offers made by “free radio” will top out at far less than the $500 million he pulled in from Sirius. By the same token, it is an equally likely bet that Sirius won’t be able to meet their own offer of the past five years due to the financial unease the company is experiencing.
What do you think? Could Howard Stern, after five years of unrestricted cussing on Sirius, tone it down enough to jump back to regular radio? Would he be willing to not only accept those strictures, but also do business amicably with a company he has faced off against in court? If he does return to radio, will he be able to regain the audience and popularity he enjoyed five years ago? How close will he get to maintaining his current income? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!