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 sketches...it 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.
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 Poseidon...to 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 FunnyorDie.com 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.