Stern On Satellite: As Fans Scramble For Equipment, We Rate The Winners And Losers

Howard Stern and Adam Carolla come out winners, while fans may lose.

If you were scrambling last weekend looking for a Sirius radio to hook up for Howard Stern’s satellite debut on Monday, like a lot of Americans, you were out of luck. That’s because so many people have made a mad dash over the past month to buy equipment that stores can’t keep product on the shelves, despite a year’s warning about the move.

What you missed was, well, classic Stern, minus the bleeps. Stern vowed to keep the cursing to a minimum, but he and his crew — including first-week guest announcer and frequent punching bag, former “Star Trek” actor George Takei — use words you won’t hear on terrestrial radio more than 120 times during the first five-hour broadcast.

Kicking off with the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” accompanied by the kind of fart noises he claimed he wasn’t allowed to play on his previous radio show, Stern launched a new era in satellite radio’s short history, one that some experts say has already changed the face of broadcasting.

RadioShack, the retail leader in Sirius Satellite sales, reported a “dramatic” run on inventory at every store, and spokesperson Jessica A. Stüdy said the electronics chain’s targets and goals were “crushed” during the fourth quarter of 2005 due to high demand for Sirius products. While the company does not release sales figures, Stüdy said “Shipments have moved to a weekly replenishment rate to keep up with this increasing demand,” and the retailer expects sales to continue to ramp up throughout this year.

Similarly, Circuit City spokesperson Amanda Tate said nobody in the industry was caught off guard by the intense last-minute rush before Stern’s satellite debut. The 630-store chain, which also does not divulge sales figures, has had trouble keeping Sirius equipment stocked because Tate said manufacturers simply couldn’t keep up with demand. “All I can say is, sales are significantly above expectations,” Tate said, adding that a number of stores were sold out of Sirius equipment prior to Stern’s debut.

According to a Sirius spokesperson, the satellite company — which trails industry leader XM by almost 3 million subscribers — has ballooned from around 600,000 subscribers from the day the Stern deal was announced in October 2004 to 3.3 million as of January 5 — with more than 1.1 million signing on in the fourth quarter of 2005. “I can tell you anecdotally that a lot of stores are reporting sales through the roof, and places are sold out,” said Elise Brown, who explained that the company does not reveal sales figures or individual channel audience numbers.

Stern — who in addition to signing a deal reportedly valued at $500 million recently received stock worth an additional $220 million because subscriptions had exceeded targets — and Sirius are clearly on a winning streak. But how are the men who replaced Stern — former Van Halen rocker David Lee Roth, comedian Adam Carolla and little-known Cleveland DJ Rover — faring after one week on the air (see “David Lee Roth Replacing Howard Stern On Morning Radio” )? Though Roth has gotten almost universally negative notices for a show that some have called rambling and unfocused, Rob Barnett, the president of programming for Infinity Broadcasting (which is owned by MTV’s parent company, Viacom) said it’s way too early to make a judgment — especially since the first ratings book won’t hit until April.

“If you go to Google right now and enter FreeFM, David Lee Roth, Adam Carolla, Penn Jillette or Rover, you will see that there is more noise about new radio shows than I’ve seen in decades,” Barnett said. “That’s a unique moment in radio that was caused by a change we’ve all had to face as fans and broadcasters. And just like it’s not healthy to judge a movie that has taken years to create on its first weekend, in radio you have to form a relationship with a personality, and that doesn’t happen in a day.”

Barnett said it could take up to 18 months for the new hosts to get their footing, and though he expected the negative press (“one programmer said to me if the Lord had replaced Howard Stern, the first 24 hours would produce nothing but negative comments”), he said the company is committed to the shows.

What does the future hold for Stern on satellite, which, like cable depends on subscribers, not ratings, to survive? And who’s winning the battle for listener’s ears on terrestrial radio? Let’s take a look at the winners and losers so far:

Winners:

  • Stern: He’s got the money, the listeners, the intense media heat and — for the first time in decades — he’s got the FCC off his back.
  • Sirius: The #2 satellite company has experienced explosive growth and reams of press surrounding Stern’s debut.
  • Infinity: Sure, much of the press has been bad, but clearly many millions of Stern fans haven’t migrated to Sirius, which means Infinity can try to win them back with their FreeFM talk/music format. “If three weeks from now, millions of people are complaining that these guys are terrible, that means millions of people are listening,” said Talkers magazine publisher Michael Harrison. “The goal is not to have them say they’re good, but to have them listen.”
  • Sirius product manufacturers and retailers: Though a Pioneer spokesperson wouldn’t comment (the company makes both XM and Sirius gear), manufacturers including Alpine and retailers such as Best Buy and RadioShack are pleased with the empty shelves and high demand.
  • Adam Carolla
  • : He’s got the guests, the bits and the quick wit that will remind folks of Stern, plus he’d already proven himself as a radio host on the long-running advice show “Loveline.” “He has the most natural instincts,” said Talkers publisher Harrison.

Losers

  • Procrastinators: With Sirius gear hard to find, some hard core Stern fans will either have to wait to get on line or pay through the nose on sites like eBay.
  • Stern: For the time being, he seemingly has it all, but he’s also got a potential audience that’s a mere fraction of his former 16 million listeners. And without the FCC to complain about, will he run out of the righteous indignation that has fueled him for the past 20 years?
  • David Lee Roth: “It’s very early and the shows haven’t developed into what they will become, but all the radio people I’ve talked to have said Roth is a disaster so far,” said Steven Strick, rock formats editor for Radio & Records magazine — who admits that he hasn’t heard Roth’s show himself. Strick said the real problem is that it’s impossible to replace Stern, and though Roth could turn things around, Carolla has the best chance to succeed. Tom Taylor, editor of the trade journal Inside Radio (which is owned by Infinity rival Clear Channel), said Roth still needs to “figure out who he is. We know he’s a singer, but he needs to explore his radio talent and that’s hard to do in front of the biggest audience in the country.”
  • Rover: The headline in The Detroit News last week was, “Stern Replacement Rover Practically Plays Dead In Local Debut”. The little known Cleveland morning host, who was tapped to play in five Midwest markets, has a conservative bent, no big name guests so far, a predictable menagerie of “wacky” sidekicks and little original comedic material. It’s the same “Morning Zoo” format you can find up and down the dial across the country.
  • Former Stern listeners: Unless they want to invest in equipment and shell out another $150 a year for a subscription, listeners have to find a new morning fix.