Pied Piper for ex-Stern listeners still sought

Once fired, Opie (left) and Anthony are back on CBS Radio drive-time.

April 30, 2006|By NICK MADIGAN | NICK MADIGAN,SUN REPORTER

It's been four months since Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed King of All Media, abandoned terrestrial radio, but the personalities who sought to fill his shoes are still struggling to find their footing.

Audience ratings released last week for the first three months of the year show dismal numbers for most of Stern's successors in morning drive-time on terrestrial radio.

One, the former rock singer David Lee Roth, who never took to his new gig and admitted as much on the air, was fired, and replaced last week in seven major markets -- including New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- by a duo more in tune with Stern's shock-jock persona, Opie and Anthony.

The pair were bounced in 2002 from their nationally syndicated program after they aired, via a cell phone, a description of a couple having sex during a religious service in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Now, it seems, all is forgiven, as long as they can boost the shaky ratings of their stations.

At the same time, Stern's new employers at Sirius Satellite Radio had hoped to capture as paying subscribers the 12 million daily listeners he attracted in his former job, but they may have to content themselves with a fraction of that number. More than 4 million people have bought the Sirius package, although the fevered sign-up rate of last fall is less so. Besides, not all the new customers appear to have been motivated by Stern's drawing power.

"It's definitely looking like the Stern effect has slowed down dramatically for Sirius," said Tom Taylor, a radio analyst and editor of the online trade publication Inside Radio. "There was a definite Stern surge in the last quarter of last year, but now XM is reasserting its leadership."

Taylor was referring to XM Satellite Radio, Sirius' rival and the field's dominant player. On Thursday, XM announced it had added almost 570,000 new subscribers during the first quarter of this year, for a total of more than 6.5 million. The company said it could reach 9 million subscribers by the end of 2006.

XM took the opportunity to remind its subscribers of Bob Dylan's debut as a radio host this coming Wednesday, another in a line of high-profile hirings that both companies hope will bring in fresh converts.

Sirius plans to release its own first-quarter financial and operating results on Tuesday. Meanwhile, a company official who asked not to be named insisted that Stern's contribution to the company's subscriber base was "significant," given that there were fewer than 700,000 Sirius subscribers when Stern's hiring was announced in October 2004 and there are more than 4 million today.

Out of the picture

And yet Stern himself appears to be unhappy with the number of sign-ups to Sirius. He berated his adherents in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, asking why they had not "come with me yet."

Instead of sulking, Stern should be pleased with the number of people he has pulled in, said Fred Jacobs, a radio consultant.

"Howard, despite the whining and complaining, really is an incredible personality," Jacobs said. "Who else could inspire that many listeners to go out, buy a satellite radio and pay $13 a month for the privilege of listening to his show? It's impressive. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of former Stern listeners who have not taken the financial plunge to join him."

Stern's departure for the new medium of satellite radio -- where his brand of crudity is untrammeled by governmental regulations -- has, paradoxically, opened up opportunities on terrestrial radio.

"Other morning shows don't have to compete with him day and day out," Jacobs said.

The trick, though, is to keep former Stern listeners tuning in. His replacements, for the most part, have not managed to make that happen, and the results are showing up in ratings and revenue reports.

At the CBS Radio network, Stern's former employer, first-quarter earnings announced Wednesday were down 6 percent. In a statement, the company acknowledged the impact of Stern's departure -- without actually mentioning his name -- from more than two dozen of its stations. It said the decline in radio revenues reflected "weakness in the radio advertising market, coupled with the impact of programming changes at 27 owned radio stations."

Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Corp., which sued Stern in February over his plugging of Sirius while still working for CBS, conceded in the statement that the company's radio operation "is not yet achieving acceptable growth."

Referring to Opie and Anthony, whose real names are Greg Hughes and Anthony Cumia, Moonves said he hoped their "powerful new morning show will greatly improve the performance of our drive-time programming."

Not so loyal

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