The Audience Howard Stern Left Behind: Mysteriously, Neither Here Nor There

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

David Lee Roth flopped. Adam Carolla is sputtering along. And Elliot Segal -- of DC-101's "Elliot in the Morning" show -- won a bonanza of new listeners, but only temporarily.

The replacements and competitors who hoped to capitalize on Howard Stern's move in January from traditional terrestrial radio to the paying-customers-only world of Sirius satellite radio haven't exactly prospered.

In Washington, WJFK (106.7 FM) replaced Stern with the Junkies, the quartet of local guys who yuk it up each morning with banter about sex, sports and other "guy stuff." After suffering a massive drop in listeners in their first couple of months in Stern's old morning drive slot, the Junkies have been adding audience steadily. The latest Arbitrend monthly ratings reports show they have nearly matched Stern's appeal to men 18 and older.

But radio executives are having a tough time figuring out where Stern's national audience of about 12 million daily listeners has gone since the self-appointed King of All Media switched to the profanity-friendly playing field of satellite radio. No doubt, Stern has been a powerful boon to Sirius, which had been lagging far behind Washington-based XM Satellite Radio in the race for subscribers. Since Stern's arrival, his $600 million deal has looked like a winner for Sirius, which has added more subscribers this year than XM has -- narrowing the gap between the companies to 6.5 million listeners for XM and 4 million for Sirius.

But even if surveys are correct in attributing more than one-fourth of those new Sirius subscribers to Stern's presence, one in every six Stern listeners, at best, has decided to cough up $13 a month to listen to radio. Where did the rest go?

In the nightmares of radio executives -- who, like TV, newspaper and magazine bosses, have watched as the splintering of the media landscape diminishes their once-dominant places in Americans' daily lives -- those Stern listeners might vanish into millions of individual choices to program their own morning music on their iPods or spend their time on the Internet.

But in Washington, as in much of the nation, the ratings numbers don't support that conclusion. The number of Washingtonians listening to the radio in the morning dropped hardly at all in the first few months after Stern's departure, according to Arbitron ratings.

"The question of losing audience to satellite could keep you up at night," says Michael Hughes, the top manager of the five CBS-owned radio stations in Washington, including WJFK. "But there's no empirical evidence that that's happening."

Hughes saw his talk station lose nearly half its market share in the first three months of this year, but he's confident that WJFK is on the rebound. And by adding "Opie & Anthony," one of the raunchiest of raunch radio shows, in middays, he's hoping to create a solid offering of guy radio from the Junkies through to the "Don & Mike" show in afternoon drive time. Opie and Anthony, whose show airs on XM, are one of the first examples of terrestrial radio swallowing its pride and adopting a show from satellite. The duo will do a cleaner version of their act for broadcast each day, then scoot over to XM's New York studios to do a more R-rated show for their paying audience.

Tracking Stern's listeners locally, it's clear that many spent the first weeks after the switchover sampling DC-101 FM's resident bad boy, Elliot, whose audience jumped by more than 50 percent at first -- from 114,000 listeners to 178,000 per week -- only to drop back to where it had started by April, the ratings indicate.

"It seems to be a shotgun effect, where listeners landed in lots of different places," says Lisa Wolfe, program director of WTOP (103.5 FM), the all-news station, which itself switched frequencies during the same time frame, one of several moves that changed the Washington radio lineup. With Big 100.3 (WBIG-FM) dropping oldies to focus on '70s rock, and Mix 107.3 (WRQX-FM) easing out of its experiment with a vastly expanded playlist to return to its former blend of the likes of Sheryl Crow, Avril Lavigne, Red Hot Chili Peppers and KT Tunstall, listeners have had more reason than usual to bop around the dial, sampling different stations in search of something listenable.

"It's all about putting on good shows," Hughes says.

The former Van Halen frontman, Roth, bombed on the radio in a handful of Eastern cities, proving once again that a good talk show guest does not necessarily make a credible host.

Carolla, a proven comedian, has racked up ratings less than one-fourth of those that Stern drew on the same West Coast stations.

But two winners do appear to be emerging from Stern's move: In some cities, ratings for National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" bumped up, a reflection of Stern's appeal to a more liberal and urban audience that's demographically similar to public radio's listener base. And in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the decline of stations that had aired Stern has allowed Spanish-language stations to dominate morning ratings as never before.

Although Stern's FM listeners for the moment appear to have blended into a roster of choices, they certainly will involve new gadgets and new ways to listen.

WJFK, for example, is streaming its shows over the Internet and offering podcasts of its programs.

But the hype might be getting ahead of reality: 98 percent of the station's listeners still tune in the old-fashioned way -- on the radio.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company