Satellite radio may become the cable TV of radio

Sunday, April 18, 2004

NEW YORK -- If traditional radio decides Howard Stern is too hot to handle, satellite radio is waiting with an armload of wet T-shirts.

Even if the prince of "shock jocks" stays where he is, the two nationwide satellite radio companies hope the Stern controversy can help them become the radio equivalent of cable TV -- a popular destination for racy, raunchy, unregulated content.

When the National Association of Broadcasters meets Sunday in Las Vegas, much of the table talk will center on the unprecedented scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission, record indecency fines and the threat that the FCC could yank the licenses of repeat offenders.

Like cable television, satellite radio is not subject to federal indecency scrutiny because it is available only to paid subscribers. So the indecency dust-up has satellite radio companies executives salivating.

XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, the No. 1 and No. 2 players, lose money and have only 2 million subscribers total. But subscriber numbers have been growing quickly, and Stern has been talking on the air about a move to satellite radio.

Stern started ruminating about a move to satellite after the FCC fined Clear Channel Communications $475,000 earlier this month for indecency on Stern's show. Clear Channel then dropped Stern from its six stations that carry his show.

Stern's show still airs on 35 stations and has an estimated 15 million listeners. His contract is with Infinity Broadcasting and the company has repeatedly said it would stand by him.

An Infinity spokeswoman refused to comment about the contract this week. Stern did not return an e-mail requesting comment.

Hugh Panero, president and chief executive of XM, which has 1.7 million subscribers who pay $9.95 a month for the basic package, said his company would be happy to talk to Stern.

"In the radio business, there are few celebrities and talents that have lasted 20 years, and he's one of them," Panero said this week during a satellite industry panel discussion. But he added that any talk of Stern moving to satellite is premature, given the Infinity contract.

The satellite stations have been trying to lure a larger audience with local traffic and weather and big-name sports. Sirius will carry all NFL games this year, and XM has a deal with NASCAR.

But executives at both companies have bigger ambitions. They would like to become the radio version of cable TV.

Both radio companies already have sexy shows.

XM's adult fare includes the "Raw" hip-hop show and the Playboy radio station, which airs the "Playboy Advisor" and a show "Night Calls" with hostesses Juli and Tiffany.

Sirius, which has 261,000 subscribers who pay $12.95 a month, has a show called "Raw Dog Comedy," which it advertises as "uncensored, unregulated and undeniably funny."

Bubba the Love Sponge, whose name was Todd Clem before he legally changed it, is rumored to be in talks with Sirius, said Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio. The talk show host was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Sirius has courted controversy before.

Its TV advertisement with busty "Baywatch" babe Pamela Anderson washing a car by sliding across it in micro-shorts and a wet tank top and buffing the chrome with her bottom was voted most sexist ad of the year by the Advertising Women of New York earlier this month.

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