The day after the April shootings in Littleton, Colorado, radio personality Howard Stern asked on air if the perpetrators "[tried] to have sex with any of the good-looking girls?" His remarks created an outrage. His affiliate in Denver apologized for what was said. Stern never did, even though some of his fans said he had gone too far. In the end more people probably tuned in to Stern over those next few days to see what the fuss was about than at any other time before.
For Howard Stern, the Littleton comment was business as usual. Since his arrival in New York City in the early '80s, Stern has been one of radio's most popular and controversial personalities. Based out of the Big Apple, Stern's brand of radio madness is nationally syndicated on 50 radio stations. His show brings in big ratings, and only talk icons Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger have more listeners. Stern is credited with killing the "morning zoo" formats, and he's the only morning drive radio personality to be ranked No. 1 in the New York City and Los Angeles markets simultaneously. The only top-ten markets that don't carry Stern are Dallas (No. 7) and Houston-Galveston (No. 10). Given that Stern is one of the biggest stars in the radio industry, the question is: why doesn't a radio station in Houston carry Howard Stern?
"A lot of folks have the feeling that Howard is more trouble than he's worth from an advertiser and a community standpoint," says Jim Trapp, program director of KTBZ, The Buzz. "I'm not necessarily in agreement with that conclusion, but it just boils down to the fact that Howard will guarantee, once every six months, that he'll say something that gets everybody pissed off, and that's part of the show. There are a lot of advertisers who will vote against the outrage by not advertising on the radio station, and that scares people."
Stern's controversial nature does scare off some advertisers. His shtick and cast of politically incorrect sidekicks don't help, either. His regular cast of characters includes Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, Crackhead Bob, Fred the Elephant Boy and Daniel Carver "The Ku Klux Klan Guy," who rates movies instead of with stars or boxes of popcorn with burning crosses. Stern's guests include A-level Hollywood talent, strippers and porno stars, and people with physical deformities. His features include "Black Jeopardy" (a game in which contestants take on "African" names like Kareem In-My-Coffee or Jesse Jackoff and must begin their answers with "What am" or "What be"), "Lesbian Dial-A-Date" (self-explanatory) and "Who's the Jew?" with host "Kurt Waldheim Jr."
For Stern, nothing is taboo. He makes racial slurs that would get the Greaseman, the city of Washington's popular on-air talker, fired five times over. That Stern's sidekick Robin Quivers just happens to be black allows him to get away with it. Stern also spanked a bare-assed woman with a fish while she tried to sing. He had a man play the piano with his penis, which resulted in the first of Stern's many FCC fines for indecency. He also asked porno star Jenna Jamison's father to identify his daughter's vagina from a lineup of five vagina photos, which Jamison's father did. The staff applauded, and a Stern affiliate was fined. While breaking social mores, Stern has cost his parent company, Infinity Broadcasting (a division of CBS), more than $1 million in FCC fines. Technically Infinity's payouts are "donations" to the U.S. Treasury, something to ensure it can purchase more radio stations. For Infinity Broadcasting, the fines are a small cost of doing business. Stern is its cash cow.
"In terms of negative publicity, Howard is a saint compared to some much-less-talented yet highly paid jocks," says Los Angeles-based talent coach Dan O'Day. "Howard doesn't get arrested for drug use. He doesn't get sued for slander, for invasion of privacy or for violating clear-cut FCC regulations or for endangering public safety.
"The biggest risk that Howard presents to his affiliate stations comes from the wrath of the FCC in regard to perceived violations of the highly subjective 'indecency' rules. And the facts behind the instances in which Howard's stations [generally limited to Infinity stations] have been fined are laughable."
Stern's style of radio is listener-intensive. Instead of repulsing advertisers, Stern should be attracting more and commanding higher ad rates than shows that garner similar ratings. Ratings measure the number of people listening. They don't measure impact. Howard Stern has more impact than "ten in a row" shows, which often with their commercials become background noise for a listener. Stern, however, commands attention. His fans are passionately loyal, and many will do anything to promote him. Remember the Stern fan that called up ABC news during O.J. Simpson's Bronco ride? There are hundreds of other examples of Stern supporters doing most anything to get his name on national television. Stern's audience usually supports his nonradio efforts. His two books both topped The New York Times Best Seller list, his television show on E! is the network's highest rated program, and his movie, Private Parts, was a modest success (though it did not meet expectations). Only his late-night syndicated television show has been a real bomb.
"The term 'fan' is obviously short for fanatic, and sometimes you find them attached to everything in life," says Stern fanatic Kevin Renzulli, who produces the King of All Media Web site (www.koam.com), an Internet shrine to Howard Stern. The Web site, which celebrates "Ten Years of Kissing Stern's Ass!" is an outgrowth of a Stern newsletter Renzulli started in 1989. Renzulli receives no compensation from the show, though he has been hired by Stern in the past to assist on projects such as Stern's "Crucified by the FCC" video and Private Parts.
"People who are very loyal fans of Howard and the show are no different than people who follow a major-league baseball team," Renzulli says.
Talent coach O'Day sees three reasons why Stern fans are so loyal to him. "One, he entertains them. Two, they view Howard as honest, even courageous, in voicing his opinions. Three, among Howard's deepest core audience are young adult males with very limited aspirations and horizons. They peaked during high school or earlier, and their lives already have settled into a deadly routine of unrewarding work and alcohol-fueled weekends. To them, Howard represents wish fulfillment: to say whatever they want, to refuse to take crap from anyone, to flirt with the beautiful women, to be wealthy and in control of their own destinies."
Simply, the impassioned response to Stern's program makes advertisers money. But because he is cutting-edge, some major players in the Houston market, such as Coca-Cola and Six Flags, refuse to advertise with him. It's the ultimate catch-22. The reason Stern's successful is because he's cutting-edge. The reason he turns off advertisers is because he's cutting-edge. That's the price of being controversial, and it's one of the reasons Stern is not Houston. Controversy is also one of the main reasons he was dropped in Dallas.
In Dallas Stern was one of the market's top air personalities. His KEGL-FM show was consistently a top-three show and was No. 1 in five of his last eight ratings periods. When KEGL was purchased by Nationwide Insurance in early 1997, Nationwide didn't want the negative image associated with Stern's programming and decided at the corporate level to drop him. Nationwide also claimed it could not sell the Stern show to advertisers in Dallas, though Stern claimed his show tripled the station's morning revenues.
Stern was to be dropped by KEGL on September 5, 1997. But on July 22, 1997, in one of the most memorable radio bits of the past few years, he raked a KEGL spokeswoman over the coals on the air for 25 minutes about his being dropped by the station. Angered by Stern's actions, Nationwide dropped him three days later. While Stern's tirade was great radio, it didn't help his cause. His show has been out of Dallas for two years, and there is no indication it will return.
Whatever happened in Dallas, however, doesn't explain why no one in Houston has attempted to make Stern work. Rock 101 KLOL Program Director Max Duggan feels the answer is simple. "Three words: Stevens and Pruett," he says, referring to his station's morning radio duo. "I think they really are the main reason he's not here. He's not been shy about challenging morning shows around the country. He's been very vocal about it. But Stern and his people have been hesitant to come here, and I think that's probably reason number one, two and ten."
The Buzz's Trapp disagrees. "The minute Howard is on the air in Houston, Stevens and Pruett are over. Howard would kill them overnight, take them apart. Howard's real good at focusing and turning the competition inside out. He attacks mercilessly."
Stern has torn up his share of competition in other markets. He decimated Philadelphia top dog John DeBella. In Los Angeles Stern destroyed Rick Dees, Jay Thomas and Mark & Brian (though Dees is rebounding). In Syracuse Stern landed in second place during his first ratings period, and in the latest ratings book is No. 1. Instant success, however, is unusual for Stern. It usually takes one to two years for his show to catch on in a market. It took him six years to beat Brother Wease in Rochester, New York.
As his late-night syndicated television show suggests, Stern doesn't always have the Midas touch. He was unable to defeat the Greaseman in Washington, D.C., until Grease changed his home bases to Los Angeles and Atlanta while pursuing his own syndication deal, which ultimately failed. Stern's success in Chicago has been qualified at best, and he has yet to make a serious dent in Austin and several other markets.
"In some markets he hasn't done all that well because the New York attitude and act just don't play as well," notes Jeff Scott, program director of KKRW, The Arrow. "I've often wondered why he hasn't come here. Howard's act would probably get interest here, but I don't know how long it would play or how much of an impact it would have on the market."
Houston's market conditions make Stern's arrival here anytime soon unlikely. Since his audience is 70 percent male and mostly white, his raucous style really lends itself only to rock/alternative formats. The most logical fit for Stern in Houston would be KLOL's male-skewed active-rock format, but Stevens and Pruett are putting up solid numbers and making a big profit. There is no reason for KLOL to rock the boat.
The Arrow's classic rock format would be a decent fit for Stern. He has been successful on classic rock stations. But aside from the fact that KKRW is happy with Dean and Rog, KKRW and KLOL are both owned by Chancellor Media. As such, KKRW and KLOL are programmed more to complement each other, not compete. If KKRW were to carry Stern, it would cannibalize Stevens and Pruett's younger audience and thus undermine Chancellor Media's obvious corporate goal of total market dominance.
The Buzz, which is owned by Clear Channel/Jacor, has a younger audience and intuitively seems like a great place for Stern's rantings. Trapp says he has even considered putting Stern on KTBZ. "We just can't see how to make it work financially," he says. "He costs so much money that from our standpoint he's cost-prohibitive. It doesn't matter how big his audience is it would be difficult to make our money back on Howard. We've never been able to look at it and see how it makes any sense."
Like any other business, the bottom line in radio is the bottom line. In addition to asking for a large annual fee to carry his program, Stern requires that radio stations give him a certain amount of their commercial inventory and a percentage of the station's profit. Since morning shows can generate more than 50 percent of a radio station's revenue, a radio station cannot afford to lose one nickel on Stern. It's unlikely the station will make up that loss and turn a profit with the other dayparts.
"He is just very expensive," Duggan says. "If he is successful, which he often is, but not always, then you might have a viable product. But if he's not, if you're not gangbusters right out the chute, then you're going to be losing a lot of money."
Says KKRW's Scott: "If you have a lesser-name show, just a couple young guys that hit it off, if they have a reasonably successful middle-level show, they may make more money for the company. So sometimes Howard is not the best answer."
With the prospect of Stern's coming to Houston rather bleak, fans have to get their fix through his television shows. Though Houstonians don't get to hear Stern's daily radio show, he continues to be a major force in that industry, and his career is still on the upswing. Just how good is Howard Stern, and how long will he last?
"Howard certainly is, barring anything else, compelling," says Scott. "He makes people turn up the radio and listen to what he's going to do next, and that's the key of most successful morning shows. Where Howard goes too far is in embarrassing his guests and making them look bad. You can do that for a while, but eventually you run out of guests that are willing to put up with it. Howard also has a tendency to get mean-spirited sometimes, to lesser-known people that he invites to his own show. When you appear to be attacking people for the sport of it, audiences can turn on you."
Says KTBZ's Trapp: "I think he's one of the most brilliant 'sit-down,' as opposed to 'stand-up,' comics there is. He's quick-witted and a lot smarter than people give him credit for. He's undoubtedly one of the marquee names in broadcasting. You just can't escape the Howard phenomenon. I've been listening to people tell me since 1992 that Howard was over, and he ain't over yet."
His style of radio will continue to create controversy and continue to make money. That's the bottom line.
Fan of Howard's?
Who listens to Howard Stern?
Don't let anyone tell you Howard Stern appeals only to unwashed males under 25. Stern's demographics are actually quite lucrative for advertisers.
5.6 million people listen to Howard Stern every week.
74 percent of his audience is 25 to 54, the most coveted demographic in radio.
64 percent of his audience is 25 to 44.
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57 percent of his audience has a household income of $50,000 or more.
33 percent of his audience has a college degree.
61 percent of his audience is employed in white-collar occupations.
Source: Scarborough Qualitative Research for Howard Stern CBS-owned affiliates/Howard Stern Ad Network.