Friday, February 19, 2010

Will Stern Flee Satellite? Reviewing Howard's Gamble & His Future in Media

At one time, not too long ago, Howard Stern was the inescapable face of both broadcast debauchery and success.

In his prime, he was arguably the greatest manipulator of media content since P.T. Barnum.

He was a catalyst for the politically-correct movement in the U.S. Whatever he said became taboo. His shows were like a litmus test for what wasn't socially acceptable.

For the past five years he's been rolling in dough on satellite radio and yet simultaneously ignored by mainstream non-subscribers. But, all of that could change in a few months.

His contract at Sirius XM ends in December and, as John Jurgensen points out in the Wall Street Journal, Stern has got a huge decision to make.

Should he stay or should he go?

The future of satellite radio may depend on it, and the media industry's ears are collectively perked.

Stern recently got caught in the news spin cycle as Fox was reportedly considering him to replace Simon Cowell on 'American Idol.' Since the rumors let fly, he's done nothing but insult uber-popular Ellen Degeneres, saying she is going to "ruin 'American Idol'" and saying he's "not going to sit there with her - that dummy." Ellen's made it clear she won't share a space with Howard either. That's a move Fox can't possibly make and likely never even seriously considered.

But it's got people talking about Stern again. Which is just fine by him.

He left the public airwaves on Jan. 1, 2006 to avoid being constantly entangled in more costly government fines. Between 1990-2004, the FCC fined 'The Howard Stern Show' over $5 million, upping the ante each time. Stern lamented about it constantly and got so fed up, he went off the grid.

Since he left the 'public domain Matrix' however, satellite radio has struggled to remain even remotely relevant. Sirius XM monopolizes the medium and Howard Stern is their biggest attraction. After all, they've paid him and his staff a total of half a billion dollars over the past five years to bring in listeners. But the medium hasn't been well received. The hard-core Stern fans are there, but they aren't enough to keep it viable, despite Howard's best attempts.

Stern's bank account is overflowing; he's at no loss for money. But the money has never driven him. His ego is behind the wheel. And it's hungry.

As Jurgensen points out, the self-proclaimed 'King of All Media' could run to the Web, but that has limitations as well. Not only is Stern known for being a radio star, the Web's current struggles with ad revenue are no better than any other mass medium. And, Web-streaming radio isn't exactly lighting the world on fire.

And causing fires is precisely what Stern does best.

When he was on the public dial, for millions of Americans, Stern might as well have been The Antichrist. His show pushed the ethical boundaries of media nearly every day...women faking orgasms, his daily trashing of public (and not so public) figures, his mockery of people with disabilities, his language, the sexual innuendo, his fans' prank call campaign, his never ended.

If anyone lived the ideology that, "Any press is good press," it is Howard Stern.

When he was fired from WNBC, he ran all over New York talk shows and bashed them on every network in town. He dominated the country's largest market and, of course, some of the fellow ego-maniacs in NYC ate it up. He somehow managed to balance being 'The Most Arrogant Man on Earth' while painting a sympathetic figure.

Stern worked to make his firing the launching pad for his career. He landed a gig at KRock in New York that he would hold for 20 years. His popularity was mostly relegated to the Big Apple early on, but word was spreading and he started picking up other major markets. Then, his career exploded when 'conformist teen America' got a hold of him.

His appearance as 'Fartman' on MTV's 1992 Video Music Awards sparked a firestorm. At the time, critics called the sketch the 'filthiest' in American media history. Parents saw him as Public Enemy Number 1. He represented all that was tasteless and wrong. So, naturally, kids flocked to his shows and he used that energy to try and top himself at every turn.

He thrived in the attention.

He was beastly and brilliant.

Stern parlayed that new audience into a New York Times best-selling book and then a popular 1997 movie by the same title, 'Private Parts.' He ran for governor of New York, went through a very public divorce and, with his personal life more settled with his now-wife Beth Ostrosky, shocked the radio world by announcing his move to satellite in 2004. He was so anxious to crack the FCC for pushing him off public air that he announced the deal a year and three months before his new contract started.

When he walked out of KRock and into the studios at Sirius, some thought radio would change forever.

It didn't.

Five years later, he's resurfaced from the depths of satellite radio and now prepares to stand on the shores of the mainland.

Like the royalty he alleges to be, Stern wants to act as make a decision that could send tsunami-like waves down on the media landscape.

Sirius XM says Stern is staying right where he is.

Radio wants him back, as Clear Channel is already courting him, saying their company is "the most logical company for (Stern) to optimize his exposure and financial return."

The online option is there, but critics and fans alike are now wondering if Howard's crown is cracked. Business Insider points to the numbers, which say, 'Yes.' He's still landing some A-List guests (Benicio Del Toro), but a lot of his content is based on in-house shtick with his own cast of characters. Artie Lange, Jackie the Joke Man, Baba Booey, Fred, Benjy and long-time co-host Robin Ophelia Quivers...the crew has always been prominent, but now they are the crux of the show. Can that survive on traditional air after they've been doing everything under the sun on satellite for five years? Can they even reconnect after all that time away?

Clear Channel is willing to bet they can. And, if one of the world's largest and most powerful radio companies is interested, others will follow suit.

With both Conan O'Brien and Howard Stern available, a major network struggling to compete in those formats (like Fox) may be very interested in acquiring such high-profile talent. Fox needs to make a splash in late night TV and News Corp (Fox's parent company) is desperately searching for a way to make dough online. Someone big is going to make a move.

Wherever he lands, Stern is going to do all he can to continue his 'scorched earth' approach to media. He comes in, burns what he sees to the ground, and leaves with the embers still leaking smoke. All the while, he's got a megaphone on his mouth and a Playboy bunny at his side.

Stern is to media what William Tecumseh Sherman was to the South. He's an 'eviscerator'...harsh and unforgiving.

But, unlike Sherman, Stern never tires of battle. After much of the Confederate force had surrendered, General Sherman wrote: "I confess, without shame, I am sick and tired of fighting - its glory is all moonshine."

Stern apparently doesn't mind moonshine. His fight for glory continues. He's hinted about using technology to advance himself independently. But other than that, he isn't saying much to non-subscribers. Stern wouldn't talk to Jurgensen, which is more than comical given his profession.

Howard Stern was the King of All Media, but since he moved to satellite, that throne has been left for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh and Ryan Seacrest.

What is to become of Stern?

Will he return as King? Will he instead come back as a media 'Prince of Darkness' under Seacrest's bright and dominant path? Or are Stern's days of royal splendor over...A jester on the fringe, an extra. Part of the play, but rarely on center stage.

To me, he has to base this on dough. Satellite radio is not going to swim; it is sinking. Taking big money from them will keep him out of the public's eye and make him obsolete. It's a career killer.

Stern has two main options if he wants to stay relevant or develop a fresh audience.

Option 1: Stern returns to public radio. Clear Channel owns the Premiere Radio Network with nationally-syndicated shows starring Jim Rome, Steve Harvey, Limbaugh, Seacrest, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and a slew of others. They are the monolith. They can pay him an exorbitant sum.

Problem with Option 1: Working with Premiere and Clear Channel puts Stern under the same corporate umbrella with those hosts. And Stern would likely spend lots of time ripping into Hannity, Beck or Limbaugh, leading to an ego-war of biblical proportions. That may be a headache that Clear Channel doesn't want.

Option 2: Stern creates a newly-branded site with a corresponding show on a pay-TV network like HBO, Cinemax, etc. Stern's old E! TV show was wild, but didn't draw the audience he wanted and never broke through. It got stale quick. He needs to be uncensored, and he can do that online and on pay-TV. He would have to move away from traditional radio, but the writing may be on the wall for that medium as well. Why not try to piggyback off of the success of Websites like and create two streams of income?

Problem with Option 2: The Website would have to be engaging and would have to require subscription. Web surfers hate paying anything to view content and even Howard's most insane fans might not like this shift away from radio. Also, the show would have to be a far cry from the E! TV-style. The nudity & language would draw an audience but it wouldn't make good ratings for very long. His staff is stuck in their ways and a radical shift in format may not be possible.

I've got a feeling Stern's ego will push him out of satellite radio, but there is great risk involved. That being said, throughout his career Stern has mastered and re-mastered the art of turning denial and frustration into dollars and fame.

Stern won't quit or go gently into that good night, and he won't work on the cheap. It means too much to him...there is no middle ground on which he can exist. He desires the biggest pay day and the biggest stage.

This fallen king will return to the throne or die, hand out-stretched and mouth agape, at the foot of it.

Friday, February 12, 2010


One day, it will happen.

I will place the following phone call:

"Hey, good morning Captain, it's Jeff. I can't make it into work today, and actually might miss the next two weeks....

What's that? Yes, I said two weeks. It's a funny story really. I'm at Centra Southside Community Hospital...

No, no, I'm okay. Now. But I'll be in a neck brace for a while and I've lost all feeling in the right side of my body.
Car accident? Assault and battery? Hmm, not quite. Home invasion? That's pretty close.
Actually, like I said it's funny. I was playing Wii, and trying to nail a 100 on Bird's-Eye Bulls-Eye, did you ever play that game? Anyway, my feet got all sweaty and I was flapping my arms like crazy so I slipped off the balance board, smacked my head on our fireplace and caused our plasma TV to land on my head. My head actually went through the TV, it was pretty intense.
Yeah, I know. Think our health plan covers that?...I didn't think so. I'm in room 325. Bring ice and a lawyer if you visit. I'm suing the crap out of Nintendo."

You laugh (or at least scoff, I hope), but it's not far from the truth.

Apparently, the Wii is trouble.

Look at this 14-year-old girl's foot. She fractured the base of the fifth metatarsal after playing Wii for five straight hours and falling off the balance board. Nice. Don't believe me, it's in the New England Journal of Medicine as more and more clinicians are seeing patients for 'Wiiitis.'

Watch the video for some of the Wii Fit Plus training games and you'll see why. The games are amazing and fun...if you are coordinated and sober.

Don't think it's serious?

Check this out. People are falling of the balance boards, dislocating shoulders, getting 'Wii-knee,' having resulting corrective surgery and worse. As the article notes, 'traumatic hemothorax' occurs when cavities around a person's lungs fill with blood after a hard fall. Wii-related cases have been document. Try to picture THAT living room scene.

The Wii is friggin' potentially fatal. No, really. A 25-year-old Britain collapsed while jogging during a WiiFit run. Not the Wii's fault, but, I'm just saying...

For those average folks out there, the Wii can be more harmful than tackle football or reporting at the bottom of a snowy hill. [Seriously, go back and's worth it.]

[Still with me? Good.]

Each one of these Wiis should come with a 'Wii-ll & Testament.' And you'd best be ready to get a new TV, furniture, light fixings and/or significant other.

Don't believe me again?

Check out this montage.

Or this one.

Or this one. (My favorite thanks to the Weezer tune. Go the 1:26 mark as the lass destroys a lightbulb. I've come close roughly three dozen times.)

Personally, I'm one 'Grand Slam Tennis' awkward serve away from a tourniquet.

*SIDENOTE: Why would anyone allow a camera to be present and or recording in a room while you are on this thing? Check out Grandpa here. You think anyone is going to be talking about his accomplishments or community service at his wake?

Hell no, they'll be talking about the time he nearly squashed a grandson playing 'Super Hula Hoop.'

And this is me in 30 years. This guy thinks Wii Sports Bowling is 'off' and gets a little furious. He's a new hero of mine.*

While the InterWeb community has also turned the WiiFit into the next, how do I say, 'adult' phenomenon, there's no doubt the Wii's real power is simple.

It makes coordinated, balanced and athletic people look absolutely ridiculous. And it makes uncoordinated, unbalanced and unathletic people look like brain-crazed, hip-flailing zombies.

And the whole concept of it says quite a bit about its users. The linked parody video nails it.

"Don't want to invest $3.19 in a hula hoop? Why not pick up a Wii for $300 and enjoy the same fun in the comfort of your living room, without that annoying plastic hoop."

I can't personally hold too much against WiiFit Plus. It's actually helped me quite a bit.

Since hopping on it for the first time on 1/14, I've dropped over 9.5 pounds.

How you ask?

Well, when I first did the 'Body Test,' my Mii avatar swelled to the size of a Zeppelin. (See inserted picture for reenactment, sans T-shirt and Guinness pajama pants. If I ever had an action figure made of me, it would wear those pants.)

When a dude in that kind of shape hops on the board, the cute, high-pitched WiiFit voice disdainfully says two very painful words.

"That's obese."

The tone of the voice is matter-of-fact and sounds quite, well, disappointed.

Congratulations WiiFit creators, you sucked me in from that point forward. I've been irked to the point of consistent physical activity.

Come hell or high water, by the end of 2010, I will be borderline 'Normal' by the game's Body Mass Index standards. That means I'll have to drop 25+ pounds this year, but I am doing it. I'm already nearly halfway there.

Why am I so motivated?

Is it because I wake up at night with the words, "That's obese," ringing in my ears and think about my Mii shaking his head in disgust and shame?
Is it because the game actually REBUKES you for missing workouts, tests or goals?
Is it because I want to get to 'Normal' and immediately grab the balance board, run outside, place it in front of my car and give it a real Balance Test?

The answer to all of these is an emphatic, "Yes."

And apparently I'm not the only one taking frustration out on the Wii.

This guy shoots one. (It's clear it also called him 'Obese.') And these guys dressed up as two Nintendo legends to smash theirs.

When I do get to 'Normal' stage, and I will, I will have the good people at Nintendo to thank. The WiiFit Plus' constant mockery of my physical conditioning is enough to drive me insane.

Insane enough to lose the weight I've been packing on for the past 14 years since I graduated from high school slim and trim (and dumb). The stack of 'clothes I once wore' will diminish. And it's all thanks to Nintendo.

Of course, I'm happy to credit Nintendo now.

But, if you ever come to visit me in room 325 at Southside Hospital, bring that ice I was talking about. But, right before you enter the room, call this guy because I want a chunk of that Nintendo coin.

And, oh yeah, before we go to trial, make sure you delete this blog post for me.