A year after radio's biggest name slipped the surly bonds of terrestrial radio and the Federal Communications Commission for Sirius's satellite service, the verdict is in:
People will pay to listen to Howard Stern.
The pioneering shock jock and all-time leader in FCC obscenity fines was awarded an $83 million bonus in Sirius stock Tuesday after the company announced his show had exceeded subscriber goals. That's on top of the $500 million the company is paying over five years for Stern and his performance troupe.
Sirius said it had grown to 6 million subscribers, who pay about $13 a month for its programming. Stock analysts had predicted only 3.5 million would buy in by the end of 2006.
Stern's success seems likely to spawn a hunt for similar single-star media products, said Buffalo State College communications professor Ron Smith.
"Any time you have an innovation in programming that's successful, you immediately have dozens of imitators," said Smith, the department chairman. "Look at reality television: a few years ago we had 'Survivor,' a desert island and people eating buckets of maggots. Now, all of a sudden we have all sorts of reality-based television."
Stern's show, usually broadcast five hours a day, four days a week, offers itself as a sort of uncensored id of American culture.
Its staples include large doses of sex talk, sexual revelation and sexual performance, plus celebrity interviews, rude questions and conversations aimed at transgressing the conventions of politeness and propriety that dominate mainstream media.
Regular bits have included a game show where contestants bet on whether a stripper, developmentally disabled or homeless person will be able to answer selected questions.
Besides Stern, the large cast of characters include co-host Robin Quivers, whose news roundup often ends the show, and Gary Dell'Abbate, the producer, whose teeth, breath, and speech mannerisms are the subject of frequent mockery. Artie Lange is a comedian and sidekick whose detailed descriptions of heroin withdrawal were not as transgressive as some descriptions of his bowel problems.
"It's free-form, free-flowing, one big party," Stern told the New York Times in an article published Tuesday. "We're talking about the stuff you can't talk about. The show on terrestrial radio in the last 10 years had been so watered down. Now it's only great because of the freedom."
Stern's potential audience of 6 million is half of what it once was on regular radio, but in some ways he's never been bigger. Now everyone who tunes in is paying for the privilege, and fencing with the censors is a thing of the past.
But there's much more to his show that sex and talking dirty, Stern told the Times. "I'm a comedian," he said. "I just wanted to make people laugh in the morning."
The growth of Sirius' subscriber base has strengthened its second-place standing behind subscription leader XM Satellite Radio, which reports 7.6 million subscribers.
According to the Associated Press, Sirius and XM have posted significant financial losses as they spend heavily on talent like Stern, sports programming, and the costs of acquiring new subscribers. Both said they turned profitable on an operating basis in the fourth quarter.
"They're making profits," said Smith. "Whether or not it sustains itself in the long run is another question."