NEW YORK — It's the end of free fart jokes. On Friday morning, Howard Stern signed off of traditional radio for the last time, ending more than two decades of crude jokes, honest and controversial observations, and various forms of human exploitation.
On January 9, the self-proclaimed King of All Media moves on to conquer a new medium — the uncertain world of subscription-based satellite radio — leaving his daily audience of 12 million behind.
A little more than one year ago, Stern signed a five-year contract with Sirius Satellite Radio worth a reported $500 million; a subscription will set the Howie faithful back $12.95 a month. His farewell Friday morning to the 27-station empire he'd spent an entire career building follows years of FCC-fueled frustration for the man who, in the words of his long-running partner in crime, Robin Quivers, "opened the airwaves and gave people the chance to create and be creative. Nobody cared about radio before he came along."
Stern celebrated his lucrative move to Sirius after his final free broadcast by inviting fans to the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square. The event featured a performance by Sheryl Crow and a host of celebrity guests. Stern, who arrived to the red carpet in a double-decker bus packed with listeners, said his departure from the terrestrial radio realm was a bittersweet exit.
"I feel sad for the industry I helped reinvent," he said. "It's too bad that young broadcasters will come up in a universe where live radio isn't happening that much. Where consolidation has ruined the chances for up-and-comers; all the risk takers are getting swatted down and fired. Today I celebrate a new medium. Thank God for this new technology because otherwise, broadcasters like me, we'd just get the hell out of the business."
Stern's move, while risky, looks to have already started paying dividends. When he first announced he'd be switching broadcasting vehicles, Sirius had a mere 600,000 subscribers, but by year's end, Stern said, Sirius estimates more than 3 million will have signed up for the service.
"It's a great universe," he said, adding that he predicts 30 million people would be subscribers by the year 2010. If charging people for a better version of something that once was free could work for bottled water and cable television, he wondered, why not satellite radio? "It will become a dominant medium. The show will change in every single way. We don't have to look over our shoulder at the FCC. This is a show that is reborn, revitalized. We're going to get back to the way we used to broadcast. No more censorship, no more bull."
There isn't much Stern said he'd miss about traditional radio, beyond the fact that it's so accessible. "I won't miss the censorship — it's watered down my show," he said, his words sounding more and more like a Sirius sales pitch. "I won't miss the commercials. It's a horrible listening experience. I won't miss the [censor] button, the interference, the FCC. I want to go with my fans to my own universe, and I guarantee you we're going to turn into like the Amish — we'll be in our own little world where no one can touch us."
Stern also urged other broadcasters to follow his lead to the other side, saying they should "beg, borrow and steal their way into the doorways of Sirius," because "chances are being taken. Corporate radio, the FCC and the religious right are taking away our free speech and it's time for a change. That's why satellite radio will succeed."
Stern's longtime producer Gary Dell'Abate said he has no regrets about making the satellite switch. "We're off to a place where the future's bright. It's going to be a slow build, and we know we're leaving behind a huge audience. But at the same time, it's liberating in a way," he said. "The pressure of the ratings isn't there. If we do our show and nobody cancels their subscriptions, then we were actually successful."
"Stern Show" funnyman Artie Lange couldn't hide his excitement about the move, or what inspired it. "It's going to be great to curse on the radio," he said. "I can't wait to say the F word for the first time."