The Howard Stern exodus has begun. Unfortunately for Stern, it's his audience that's leaving, not him.
The shock jock won't jump to satellite radio until January, but in the meantime, his listeners in the Washington area seem to be heading for the exits. Stern's nationally syndicated morning program, which is heard locally on WJFK-FM (106.7), suffered a dramatic fall in the summer audience ratings, which in turn helped drag down WJFK's overall popularity.
Stern's share of radio's most lucrative audience (adults age 25 to 54) fell by nearly one-third during the July-September period, bottoming out at 3.4 percent, according to Arbitron Inc., which measures radio audiences. That was the lowest total for Stern in years, and possibly decades, given his long and successful career.
During the same period in New York, Stern lost 15 percent of his listeners. (Because he had been so far out in front of the pack, though, he remained tied for No. 1 with all-news WINS-AM.)
Almost from the minute he announced last October that he would leave conventional radio for Sirius Satellite Radio, Stern has been a) railing against alleged censorship by his employer, Infinity Broadcasting, and by the Federal Communications Commission; and b) promoting his move to satellite radio, which is free of FCC restrictions on "indecent" speech.
So it's no surprise that Michael Hughes, the executive who oversees WJFK and other Infinity-owned stations in Washington, wasn't surprised by the cratering of Stern's audience. "His focus has shifted," Hughes said yesterday, "and the listeners have picked up on that." Of Stern's editorial approach, Hughes commented, "I can't begin to understand his motivation."
The real question may be why Infinity has stuck with Stern as he's repeatedly gnawed on the hand that has fed him. The most important reason is that Stern's bash-Infinity/promote-satellite shtick has held up pretty well in the ratings -- until recently. What's more, Infinity has no one waiting in the wings who is likely to produce the same kinds of regular ratings windfalls as the putative King of All Media.
Yet Stern now looks like a dead weight, at least for WJFK. Among all stations in the Washington market, WJFK fell from fifth place to eighth with adult listeners during daytime hours (6 a.m. to 7 p.m.), the most listened-to period of the day. The decline can largely be blamed on Stern, since the station's other daytime personalities -- the Junkies, Don & Mike, and the syndicated Bill O'Reilly -- drew nearly the same or slightly better ratings compared with the preceding three months.
Hughes declined to comment on Stern's replacement at WJFK.
Other ratings-related miscellany:
* WMMJ-FM ("Majic 102.3"), the urban oldies station, scored a clean sweep, landing comfortably on top of almost every important ratings category (all listeners, adults 25-54, morning "drivetime"). There were no Stern-like doldrums for syndicated morning man Tom Joyner; his program led the field with an 8.1 percent share among adults, a 40 percent increase over last quarter and his highest ratings in years. Take nothing away from Joyner, but the wide swing from quarter to quarter does suggest a statistical quirk that will be reflected in subsequent ratings.
* Infinity-owned WLZL-FM ("El Zol" 99.1) continued its climb since it was switched to Spanish-language pop music from its longtime alt-rock format (as the old WHFS). The station landed in a tie for 12th overall, up from 16th.
* The introduction of a broader playlist last spring on adult contemporary WRQX-FM ("Mix 107.3") did little to arrest its slide. The station fell from a tie for 13th among local stations to 15th, despite a much-promoted move to a format known in the industry as "Jack," offering a wider mix of oldies and new music. A similar switch to "Jack" by New York powerhouse station WCBS-FM earlier this year has produced similarly tepid results, suggesting the format may be failing in its mission to combat the movement of listeners away from radio to iPods and other program-it-yourself listening.
* Air America, the liberal talk network carried on WWRC-AM (1260), went from bad to nonexistent. After WWRC recorded a mere fraction of a rating point in the spring with syndicated shows from the likes of lefty talkers Al Franken, Janeane Garofalo and Stephanie Miller, Arbitron couldn't detect a measurable listenership for the station this time around.