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Howard Stern Hits the Road: Will Radio Ever Be the Same?



As I write this, the King of All Media has just wrapped up his last show on free terrestrial radio. And, as anyone who has checked out Stern in the last year or so can attest, it has turned into an odd mix of what works and what doesn't about his program these days.

What works is when Stern connects with his audience like a super-size version of the average listener. While they might fantasize about playing butt bongo with Playboy playmates and grilling Pamela Anderson about her sexual escapades, Stern does it -- while cracking jokes sharp enough to stand on their own, without the pornstars.

Yahoo is covering Stern's farewell like the Macy Thankgiving day parade, with an observation platform containing two hosts and cameras stationed throughout the crowd of thousands gathered at his KROCK studio to watch him walk over to satellite radio (why their two hosts couldn't get nearby workers to stop hammering while they talked remains a mystery).

""I see this sea of shining faces and I have to ask myself, 'Doesn't anybody work anymore?' " Stern cracked during his farewell, marking a 20-year milestone. Quoting a piece for by former St. Petersburg Times writer Helen Popkin, Stern noted: " 'Howard Stern is the last of a dying breed'...The government, the religious right have taken over the airwaves...When are we ever going see an audience like this again? There will never be another radio show like this, there will never be an audience like this."

Known for his caustic wit, Stern turned sentimental during his farewell address, telling his audience: "Because of you, I had clout. When you gave me ratings, I was able to the door of every genenral manager and beat them down. Ths radio show has been fired, this radio show has been suspended, this radio show has been fined millions of dollars, but we stood our ground. We're the last of a dying breed...The religious right is the American Taliban, and we've beaten them."

(Stern on The Daily Show a few days ago)

The opening of his show set the tone -- a profanity-laced tribute to some of the show's regular guests who have passed away, including comic Sam Kinison, rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard and showbiz legend Rodney Dangerfield.

But Stern's final show was also filled with a lot of reminders about when his show doesn't work. Too much talk about his career, too much talk about his business interests, airtime given to politicians like Ed Koch and Gary Ackerman? Even for guy who has turned self-obsession into a billion-dollar career, this was something else.

When I was working as a music critic in New Jersey, I had a love/hate relationship with Stern. He was clearly the funniest guy on the airwaves in New York, which made his show irresistible But the racism, misogyny and knuckleheaded behavior he showcased was too much, and I had to stop listening.

And while I applaud the fact that Stern can now do his adult-focused show in an unfettered medium, I wonder if the move doesn't also reflect Stern's growing separation from his audience. Divorced from his down-to-earth wife and involved with a supermodel-pretty girlfriend, boosted by a half-billion-dollar contract and headed off free commercial radio, he runs the risk of isolation from his audience and the sensibilities which made him such a phenomenal broadcaster in the first place.

(Stern courtside at a Knicks game with Donald and Melania Trump, girlfriend Beth Ostrosky, Chris Rock and his wife).

And regardless of opinions about his content, Stern's move to satellite means one more high-quality entertainment outlet is pushed to a premium service -- making what is left for those who cannot afford satellite radio that much blander. (See my story on how this move has revitalized local shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge's fortunes here.)

Farewell to the King. Here's hoping his departure shocks commercial radio into renewed quality.

Stern's radio home locally, WBZZ-AM, plans to simulcast sister station WQYK-FM after Stern's contract with Infinity/CBS Radio ends Dec. 31. They will change the station's call letters to WQYK-AM, effectively turning that station into an AM echo of the FM outlet. Best of Stern shows will air on WBZZ until Jan. 1; executives here say it didn't make financial sense to try picking up any of the shows CBS Radio developed to replace Stern (including the show hosted by former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth).

Seems an odd choice for a 50,000-watt station; evidence that terrestrial radio is still having a tough time with that whole innovation thing.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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