12.12.2006

Stern Wants to Rule the (Satellite) Universe!

by Rick Rockwell

Can we stop Howard Stern and his patron/boss Mel Karmazin from ruining radio all over again? One can only hope that’s possible.

Some of you may have missed it, but Howard Stern and his brand of so-called shock radio migrated off of the terrestrial radio airwaves this year. Now, you can only find new Stern on Sirius Satellite Radio. When this happened, I said, “good riddance.” I have never understood the appeal of Stern, or Don Imus, or any of their talk radio brethren who masquerade as disc jockeys with something important to say or supposedly something funny for the audience. For my money and time, I’m interested in music and those folks are responsible for chasing music out of drive-time radio.

The so-called defenders of free speech have made Stern and his ilk into icons: the supposedly hip, who go on the radio to fight the dreaded Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Do the defenders of the media ever really listen to Stern’s shows? Those shows are no more than the rants of arrested development; the conversations of someone who never advanced beyond certain teen-aged obsessions, spurred on by a crowd of sycophants.

If you want to pay for that, go ahead. I’m just glad it is no longer polluting the free airwaves.

And if you really want to listen to funny discussions that bend the rules of what is permissible, then please listen to a real comedian, like George Carlin. Not Stern. And not any of the various copycats who have sprung up trying to imitate Stern.

Folks need to remember, there’s about eighty years of law that establishes the radio airwaves as public space. Not private space. First Amendment arguments to defend Stern don’t apply because the airwaves are not there for his private communication pleasure. They belong to everyone. So there need to be standards of what can and can’t be discussed because we all share those airwaves. Because Stern wanted to continue to attempt to shock us with his language (which is an obvious economic ploy based on seizing ratings through sensationalism: the term shock radio is just a way to brand and market that sensation) he was forced to go elsewhere.

That brings us to satellite radio.

So far, the law says satellite radio is private space to be programmed by whatever network sets up the proper technology. (Let’s not get into the science and technology, because satellite radio actually is a mixed system: it also uses ground repeaters which do use public airwaves not always direct satellite signals.)

This year, Sirius Satellite Radio banked on Stern and Karmazin, an executive who also ran interference for Stern when they both worked for Viacom. Stern became the poster boy for Sirius: he was going to sell enough radio subscriptions to make the corporation profitable. Except that didn’t happen. The company keeps adjusting its projections for subscribers. It seems only six million folks are willing to pay for Stern and all the other attractions on Sirius. Not enough yet to make Sirius profitable.

The solution: merge with the competition, XM Satellite Radio. Karmazin has been angling for a merger almost since he became CEO of Sirius, although he officially denies this. Quoted by The Washington Post, in a speech, Karmazin recently said, “consolidation brings value….”

Well, of course it does. What he means by consolidation is actually another term: monopoly. Merge Sirius and XM and that’s what you get. Corporations love to be monopolies because eliminating competition guarantees profit. Or they love the world of limited competition and oligopoly, one that Karmazin understands well from his turn at Viacom. Notice what Viacom (through Infinity Radio) and Clear Channel have done to the commercial radio dial in the past decade? If you don’t listen to radio now, what those corporate forces have done could be the reason.

Three things stand in the way of Karmazin and his merger dreams: the Justice Department, Congress, and the FCC. Is it any wonder that Stern is an attack dog against these forces?

Wake up and see Stern for what he really is folks: a shill for corporate control of communication and less diversity of opinions on the radio. That’s the real reason to tune him out.

(Rick Rockwell served as an advisor on telecommunications policy on Capitol Hill in 2003 and 2004.)

(Photo by Bialy-Fox of Flickr, used with a Creative Commons license.)






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