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A Stern question: Why not here?

He has a hit movie. He has written two bestselling books. He has been on magazine covers and has appeared as a guest on almost every TV talk show.

Every weekday from 6 to 10 a.m. his voice, his raunchy rantings and his New York state of mind are broadcast on 35 radio stations across the United States. To his critics, Howard Stern says he's just being unorthodox and honest.

Yet, amid the avalanche of hype and media exposure, one of the few major radio markets where Stern isn't found these days is Tampa Bay.

Stern's show is carried on four Florida stations _ in Panama City, West Palm Beach, Miami _ and for the past three years on talk radio station WTKS-FM 104.1 in Orlando. The Orlando station said Stern has been a ratings winner there.

However, for his Tampa Bay area fans, Stern is so close yet so far away.

If the show works in Orlando, wouldn't it work in Tampa Bay _ the 21st-largest radio market in the country?

"It's probably that nobody so far has been willing to step up to the plate, pay the money and go through the controversy to get it done," said Harry Valentine, WTKS program director.

Tampa Bay has lots of radio stations but apparently not lots of interest in adding Stern's show to a market already home to controversial morning DJ Bubba the Love Sponge.

Paxson Communications' pending purchase of St. Petersburg's WKES-FM 101.5 has fueled speculation that Stern could end up there. Paxson also owns Orlando's WTKS.

"Is it possible? Anything is possible at this time," said Drew Rashbaum, president and general manager for Paxson's four stations in Tampa Bay. "We are certainly keeping all of our options open. It may be, and probably is, cost prohibitive. This is not a hobby. You have to make your money back on these things."

Unlike most syndicated radio fare, which is packaged with its own advertising and distributed on a barter basis, the Stern program must be purchased. A station must then sell its own advertising time locally to recoup the investment.

"Our bet, based on the amount of cash you have to pay for a show like that, is it would be difficult to make all that back. For half a million dollars I can go hire a whole bunch of people locally to do a good show," said Gabe Hobbs, director of programming for Jacor Broadcasting, which owns six radio stations in Tampa Bay. "A lot of advertisers just will not go anywhere near controversial programs."

The presence of Bubba, however, would seem to contradict that. Locally, the morning radio personality for WXTB-FM 97.9 is as controversial as Stern is nationally.

You need not even listen to the radio to get a taste of him. The station's new billboard campaign shows him sitting on a toilet.

"I don't think he's as controversial as Howard," Hobbs said."Bubba may do more outrageous things from time to time but on a daily basis Howard is just pushing it and pushing it."

David Caton, president of Florida's American Family Association, agreed that Stern pushes the envelope even more than Bubba but that doesn't mean Bubba's off the hook.

"We've gotten letters and phone calls and people are upset," Caton said about Bubba's radio antics.

But for now, Caton seems more focused on Stern's possible foray into Tampa Bay. Caton has referred to Stern as the "Pontiff of Phonetic Porn" and actively opposes his radio show.

Florida's American Family Association monitors Stern's show and has written every advertiser of The Howard Stern Show in every market he airs in Florida.

"Howard is raunch from the get-go. There's more bleeps in his show than there are words sometimes," Caton said.

Caton claims to have convinced 90 percent of the companies that placed commercials on Stern'sshow on WTKS-FM in Orlando and WBGG-FM 105.9 in Miami to stop advertising.

If The Howard Stern Show is picked up in this market, "we will be on him from the first day," Caton said. "Paxson has Howard Stern on his Orlando station already and he has trash such as Ron and Ron (a talk show heard locally on Paxson-owned WZTM-AM 820). I find it difficult to believe that (Paxson) would not try to bring him in."

This is only the beginning of the anti-Stern movement for The American Family Association, Caton said. The organization is now moving toward a national monitoring campaign which, if successful, could result in more advertiser boycotts.

Radio isn't Stern's only arena. His movie, Private Parts, which is based on his first autobiographical book, grossed $26.7-million in its first 10 days of release.

Two 30-minute Stern television shows air back to back on the E! cable channel. The shows are taped in Stern's New York studio during his morning radio show.

Says Orlando's Valentine, "Most of the people who don't like Howard don't listen to Howard. Howard is not Satan. He's a guy who is validating the thoughts of massive amounts of men and that's why he's so successful."

Stern's New York agent, meanwhile, said there's no reason to beg any Florida stations to his carry his client's show.

"We'd love to be in Florida and in St. Pete and Tampa," said Don Buckwald, who represents both Stern and his program. "I think there will come a time that you'll either have him on your station or you'll be up against him. It's not for us to grab somebody by the collar and say: Put him on!"

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