By James Harris
Ever since he announced his departure from the terrestrial radio world, Howard Stern has been on a very public crusade against alleged censorship by the company that employed him, Infinity Broadcasting, and by the Federal Communications Commission. Now, Stern insists that he wants to operate in a world free of restrictions on what the FCC considers indecent speech. As Stern debuts his program on Sirius Satellite Radio this week the hype will end and the real drama will unfold. Stern’s personal vendetta against two organizations may wake up radio audiences nationwide to the fact that terrestrial radio is more boring and unoriginal than ever and may popularize the previously unthinkable: paid radio.
If you haven’t heard, there’s a new technology on the block. Sirius and XM are competing satellite radio companies, with a combined total of more than 200 channels of talk and music that aren’t regulated by the FCC (a government organization aimed at regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable). Howard Stern isn’t the only guy with a show. There are other major players who think satellite radio isn’t just the flavor of the month. The NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball all have deals with Sirius. Martha Stewart has a show. Rapper Eminem is on too. NPR and Disney both provide content to the network. You can even hear Oscar hopeful Philip Seymour Hoffman rock to the tune of “Sawbones.”
It’s another delivery system for content, and that content could have a huge impact. Many have said satellite radio is to terrestrial radio what cable was to regular TV. The analogy is a good one in that Sirius and XM managed to duck the censorship tape of the lately eager-to-ban-everything FCC. In a December 2004 ruling the FCC said “it will not extend rules prohibiting obscene and offensive programming on the public airwaves to satellite, or paid, radio.” CNN reported that “the FCC signal came in the form of a letter ... that declined a request by a Los Angeles radio station owner to amend satellite radio licensing rules to include an obscenity provision.” The station owner, Saul Levine, filed the petition with the FCC after hearing Stern’s pledges to (1) leave his then-employer, Infinity Broadcasting, (2) stick it to radio group Clear Channel, and (3) flourish on satellite waves that would be as free as the summer of love.
So enters the rest of the world on a drama, already in progress, that promises mudslinging, name-calling and numerous mentions of the word censorship. Stern has willingly cut his listener base by 80% and moved to a technology platform about which few Americans are aware.
He has come a long way since being fired from his college station for an allegedly racist skit, leaving a Washington, D.C., station after a dispute over show content, and being fired from a New York station for what has become known as classic Stern material. Throughout fines, suspensions and firings, Stern has managed to build a media empire over the past 20 years. His potty-mouth radio antics grew his audience to over 12 million daily listeners and banked Infinity Broadcasting, the distributor of the show, about $100 million per year.
As of Jan. 9, 2006, Sirius will write Stern a $100-million check each year for the next five years. Stern’s promise: He will deliver an increasing number of subscribers to the growing satellite network. Since the announcement of his move to Sirius in October 2004, Sirius has jumped from 600,000 to 3 million subscribers and XM, which had been well ahead in subscription numbers, has seemingly stood still.
The early projections suggest that Stern might be able to deliver on his promise. Mel Karmazin, Sirius CEO and former Viacom president, believes that Stern will be the talent that leads the satellite network out of debt and into the black.
The potential for Stern to freely entertain his audience is splendid, but the opportunity for media consumers to engage in an introspective evaluation of American media is far more important. Stern’s departure from his radio throne forces a necessary question about modern media, Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting in particular: Does commercial radio choke the life and creativity out of content?
Stern’s program is by no means an example of what is good and right in media, or for that matter stimulating, thoughtful content. In fact, many consider Stern’s mouth to be the most vile to ever have spit on a radio microphone. However, his sometimes racist and usually raunchy humor is no more objectively “obscene” than other content that routinely dominates the airwaves.
On CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Stern said “we no longer have to sit and worry about programming to the masses. FCC. We don’t care! Religious right. Government interference, gone.” Stern’s comment to King spoke volumes about some of the more practical concerns I have about the regulation of traditional radio. In 2004, Clear Channel took it upon itself—some said in an attempt to please the conservatives—to remove Stern from its stations. Clear Channel CEO John Hogan said at that time: “Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it. It was vulgar, offensive, and insulting, not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency.”
How big was that “line in the sand”?
In that same year Clear Channel radio stations nationwide gave thousands of spins to the song “Get Low” by Lil’ Jon & the Eastside Boyz. It was a Southern rap hit that swept the nation thanks in large part to radio groups like Clear Channel and Infinity. The lyrics? Simply mind-numbing.
To the window, to the wall,
To the sweat drop down my balls
To all these bitches crawl…
Now give me my doe back and go get ya friend
Stupid bitch standing there while I’m drinking my hen
Of course while playing “Get Low” radio stations used the appropriate bleeps and censoring devices when those nasty little words that shouldn’t be heard on radio waves came up, but how well does the bleep function work when my 8-year-old niece asks me, “What are balls?”
I use these lyrics only to ask how it’s possible for Clear Channel—and other broadcasters—to exclude one clearly raunchy act (Stern) and permit an equally if not more horrific set of song lyrics? Or how the FCC can ignore clearly offensive music pumped into the minds of school-aged children on public radio waves but spend countless hours chasing down a shock jock for saying “blowjob”? I consider the two equally offensive, but the FCC’s witch-hunting tactics have thrown everyone into a frenzy of uncertainty.
It’s my hope that through Stern’s railing against Clear Channel, Infinity and the FCC audiences will see that to the FCC and companies like Clear Channel it’s not what you say but who’s saying what to whom. It seems fine that rapper Snoop Dogg can say bitch as many times as he wants as long as his audience isn’t too rich or too big. There seems to be no consistency in what’s acceptable, and that’s not fair to Stern or to the public.
You may hate Howard Stern for being indecent or racist or tasteless but I hate regulatory commissions that fail to clearly define acceptability and find it permissible to silence anyone or anything that doesn’t fit into a make-it-up-as-you-go-along handbook on decency. Current regulations standing, satellite will provide a much needed shelter from the whim of the FCC and make the government-controlled commission reconsider its rules for policing content.
Being that I work for both traditional and satellite radio, lately friends and family have asked me whether Howard Stern can make satellite radio mainstream. To them and to you I say that I hope he can.
Stern’s exit gave a much needed push to terrestrial radio; now execs who have been comfortable using one man to program eight radio stations must try to maintain—maybe win over—an audience that now has a choice in what it will listen to on the way to work. Stern’s very public move to Sirius has spread the word to the world about the technology, and I must guess that’s what Karmazin is rooting for. Sirius won’t be the lone beneficiary, for I believe that the competitor, XM, will benefit from the buzz as well. Stern has brought an idea, satellite radio, to the masses—something he’s very good at doing. So will satellite radio become mainstream? Maybe not as mainstream as Jessica Simpson, but it will certainly affect the mainstream’s bottom line—and that just might be enough. Infinity Broadcasting has already responded to Stern’s exodus with its “FREE-FM” campaign, which was launched this month and is hosted by former “Love Lines” funny man Adam Corolla. After listening for a week, I can’t help but think: The FREE-FM morning show campaign against the $12.95-a-month subscription fee that Sirius charges sounds a lot like “The Howard Stern Show.” Surprising? No. But perhaps it’s just the start of a series of coming changes for radio networks.
Now that Stern has “birthed” Sirius, the masses can, for a monthly fee, tune in to unregulated, raunchy-as-it-wants-to-be radio content. It is my hope that satellite radio not only becomes another viable means to deliver content but that it encourages the masses to demand more from the media and from themselves. If people embrace media such as the Internet and satellite—outlets not entirely beholden to advertisers—we all might get a glimpse of what Neo saw in “The Matrix”: a world free of boundaries. As Stern said, “you can download it [up to 125 channels of music and talk programming], you can carry it with you. The show all the time, uncensored, less commercial time—this technology is going to blow people away.”
Stern makes a good point; radio network chiefs should think about it, get together and draft a memo that starts something like this:
Sirius competition expected. Keep the ideas fresh and coming fast.
Some Useful Links
History of the FCC
About the Sat Casters: Sirius and XM
CNN: Stern Free to Be Raunchy on Sirius
Correction: This article stated that Major League Baseball signed a contract with Sirius, this was incorrect. Major League Baseball broadcasts on XM radio. The NHL has a deal with Sirius. (Thank you to our readers for pointing this out.)