Stern on Satellite: A Bruised Flower, Blossoming Anew

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

NEW YORK -- In one of his final broadcasts before defecting to satellite radio, Howard Stern was working himself into a lather.

"I've come in every day and given my best under ridiculous circumstances, between the editing, the commercial load and the censorship," Stern told Tom Chiusano, general manager of his flagship station, WXRK, who was foiling his plans for an on-air farewell this week. Once he moves on, he declared, "I'm doing the things I'm not allowed to do here."

Which raises an intriguing question: If Stern can do whatever the #!@&** he wants at Sirius Satellite Radio -- curse, get anatomically explicit and cavort with naked strippers -- will that defuse the rebellion against authority that has long defined his career? For a man who thrives on pushing the boundaries, is there such a thing as too much freedom?

Stern, clad in a leather jacket and his trademark tinted shades, bats down the idea. "I've already had a million fights over at satellite, everything from the equipment to the computer system," he says. "I am always in an argument with someone. That doesn't change. The thing that changes is there is total freedom to create. It's almost like being a baby in broadcasting again. I have let myself get so beaten down by the FCC. I've become so accustomed to their abuse, like a battered wife. I didn't even know how dead I was inside, creatively."

To his fans, who must weigh paying for a satellite receiver and a $12.95-a-month subscription to follow their hero to Sirius, Stern is being liberated after a quarter-century in commercial radio. To his detractors, he is a foul-mouthed, sexually obsessed menace whose departure from the free airwaves is long overdue. To the media, he is an irresistible story -- the current blitz includes "60 Minutes," "Today," David Letterman, Bill O'Reilly, Larry King and Jon Stewart -- who gives news organizations license to walk on the smutty side while pretending to hold their collective noses.

A master of self-promotional hype, Stern views himself as a revolutionary. He has, however, been hampered by more than $2 million in fines by the Federal Communications Commission, which prompted his employer, Viacom, to crack down on the raunchy material that had always been his forte.

"I stopped doing a show that was honest," he says. "Why was I successful? Because of a dirty word? No. Dirty words, that would last a week on the radio. . . . Our show was a reality show. That was the appeal of it. It wasn't about bathroom [humor] or lesbian strippers. It was real guys talking real thoughts, like how they talk when the cameras and microphones are off."

At 120-channel Sirius, where Stern debuts Jan. 9, entertainment president Scott Greenstein says the number of subscribers has already jumped from 700,000 to 2.5 million since the deal was announced 14 months ago, although Sirius still has about half the dues-paying members of rival XM Radio.

"I'm a huge believer that he's the comedic icon of our time," says Greenstein, who signed Stern to an unprecedented $500 million, five-year contract. "There are very few things proven in any medium, and you've got to pay for those things."

The long-haired host has also cut a deal with iN Demand Networks to make television shows from the radio broadcasts that will cost $13.99 a month and initially include access to 40 hours of past shows. Unlike Stern's previous programming on the E! network, these will not be bleeped and the women will not have their private parts digitally obscured.

"The phenomenon that is Howard Stern is not just about naked women," says Robert Jacobson, iN Demand's chief executive. "He gets more out of a celebrity interview than anyone else in the media." Still, a network fact sheet notes that the tapes include 93 porn stars, 33 women spanked by Stern and 1,000 pairs of breasts exposed.

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