For a minute, you could almost imagine that the King of All Media was humbling himself: Howard Stern, self-proclaimed monarch of radio, shocked fans by announcing that he would soon be taking his daily show exclusively to a medium that currently reaches all of... more than 600,000 people. That's the subscriber base for Sirius Satellite Radio, which will become the shock jock's new home on Jan. 1, 2006, when his contract with earthbound syndicator Infinity expires. Satellite radio's stats look more impressive when you include Sirius' much larger competitor, XM Satellite Radio, which has around 2.5 million subscribers. But even combining those numbers, you're looking at a form of broadcasting that's signed up about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Is that any way to conquer the world?
Tina Fey framed the question another way. ''Will Americans pay $13 a month to hear guys throw baloney at a stripper's ass?'' she asked during SNL's ''Weekend Update.'' A glance off-set provided the answer. ''What's that?... They will.''
And there you may have it. Until now, satellite radio has enjoyed a high-minded image, evangelized by hundreds of thousands of music fanatics thrilled by each service's seemingly limitless number of genre-divided channels. Even in the Nevada desert, opera or blues hounds could get their own 24/7 streams, to say nothing of the indie artists and back-catalog album tracks getting untold exposure.
Well, high-minded just took a holiday. It's a well-worn truism that most technology cable, video, the Internet starts out noble, then gets kicked to the next level by porn. Stern's racy material may not meet that definition, but with his stated intention to get his show out from under the FCC, it's clear fans will be hoping for something more extreme from their hero. And that extremism could equal mainstream for satellite.
''The Stern announcement was the shot heard round the world,'' says Artemis Records president Daniel Glass, who isn't worried about the focus shifting from satellite's musical variety to talk. As Lava Records president Jason Flom notes, ''The reason Howard's so valuable is because people listen to the station he's on for good parts of the rest of the day.''
Sirius is paying dearly for the privilege $100 million a year, for five years. That's on top of a rich deal they gave the NFL last year, worth $220 million for seven years. Is one mouth worth all that? ''At the time, I thought they overpaid for the NFL,'' says Motley Fool contributor Rick Aristotle Munarriz, ''because the target audience may love football, but they're not typically driving around on a Sunday they're mostly daytime commuters. But with Howard, this is what you call the killer app. In the long run, I think it's gonna pay for them.'' Or for whatever suitor comes along; both in and out of the company, rumors are rampant that Sirius is loading up on marquee talent to make it competitive with healthier XM in anticipation of a sale. (Sirius declined interview requests from EW.)