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Howard Stern is getting Sirius on the airwaves

Radio's raunchiest DJ talks to “Today” show host Katie Couric about his jump to satellite radio and his battles with the FCC about indecency.
/ Source: TODAY

How much would you pay to hear your favorite radio show, one you used to hear for free? Howard Stern is making his move to Sirius satellite radio, and Sirius is betting $500 million that fans will shell out $12.95 a month to hear more from the shock jock who brought something called “butt-bongo” to the airwaves. “Today” show host Katie Couric recently talked with Stern at his future home — a studio still-under-construction in New York’s Rockefeller Center. 

Some call it anarchy on the airwaves, but 13 million morning listeners call it their drive-time radio addiction. For two decades now, the Howard Stern Radio Show has been the home of inquiring minds, confessions of the rich and famous and of course, provocative porn-star revelations. But on Jan. 9, Stern will become the first shock jock in space — when he takes his sophomoric shtick to Sirius satellite radio.

Howard Stern: This is my place. I'm really excited about this. First of all, we actually have room in here. I mean, you can't get a sense from sitting here, the ceiling height and everything, but this is very rare for radio. Katie Couric:  What about the Scotch-guarded carpet and water-resistant surfaces for any sort of fun and games involving whipped cream?Stern: Katie, you know the truth of the Howard Stern Show, anything goes. It gets messy in here. This is a physical radio program. I mean there are people flying through, lighting themselves on fire.

With only eight shows left on his terrestrial radio show, Stern's been getting surprisingly sentimental. Radio's raunchiest DJ even apologized recently to his audience for what he called 10 years of sub-par broadcasts — laying the blame squarely at the feet of the Federal Communications Commission.

Stern: I think I came on the scene and I was this breath of fresh air, if you will, when I went on the air.Couric: That's one way to describe it. [Laughs]Stern: Yeah. Some people would probably take an opposite tack and say I was the foulest smelling odor in the building.  Couric: Stench comes to mind, Howard.Stern: That's right. [Laughs] Yeah, gas. But you know people remember a wild show with me. They remember that I say anything and do anything and I push the envelope. And what happened for so long, between the FCC, the religious right and everybody's grandmother complaining, what happened is the stations got so much pressure that I couldn't do my show anymore. It's like the erosion of the Howard Stern Show. 

Over the years, Stern and his employers have been hit with some of the biggest fines in broadcasting history — prompting Clear Channel Communications (a company which ran the Howard Stern Show on six of its stations) to permanently pull the plug.   

Couric: You're also responsible for the largest cumulative fine in history: $1.7 million dollars, in 1995.Stern: I'm very proud of that, by the way.Couric: And since you've been on the air you've cost your licensees more than $2.2 million in fines. You know, part of the fun, it seems to me, doing — commercial radio for you was pushing the envelope. There're no restrictions here. It's anything goes. So what's an envelope without an envelope to push? Is it going to have the same sort of risky tension that your show had before?Stern: I've heard so many people say, "You need the government clamping down on you to be outrageous." Early in my career I didn't have the government clamping down on me. The fact of the matter is that was my best radio. That's the radio that got me the highest ratings. That's the radio that put me on the map and now, even looking at this, I'm shocked when people say to me, "You need censorship in order to be funny." I'm not coming on satellite just so I can say the F word — that's never been my scene. That's not what I'm about. I'm all about the language of fun. If it's fun, we do it. 

Stern may be making the switch at just the right time. Though his show is still number one in nearly all of his 46 markets, his ratings have hit a slide. Some fans argue his jump-the-shark moment was the divorce from his wife, Alison, in 2001.

Couric: A lot of your shtick was sort of the poor, repressed, sex-crazed guy who was sort of flirting with the hot women and had sort of this … closet lascivious side — maybe not so closeted. We can't relate to him as much now that he's dating a supermodel and going clubbing all the time.Stern: The funny thing is my show has always been about whatever is going on in my life. The sad fact is … I'm trapped inside of me and I don't go out at all. I go to bed at eight o'clock at night. I never go out during the week. I'm in psychotherapy four days a week, pretty heavy commitment to it.Couric: Seriously?Stern: Yeah.Couric: Wow.Stern: Well, there's a lot of problems up here. [Laughs] I mean come on, look at me.

At Sirius, Howard gets not one but two channels to get out all that's in his head.  He even has his own 24-hour news team that covers any breaking stories about, well, Howard.

Stern: So we put together the ultimate ego. [Laughs]Couric: I was going to say, “What an egomaniac you are.”Stern: Well, let me tell you something, tune into it.  It is the funniest thing.  We have seven teams.Couric: If you do say so yourself, right?Stern: It's great, I'm telling you. [Laughs] You'll end up working there. The “Today” show's a real drag.Couric: Oh, God.  I hope not.Stern: You will.

But the stratosphere of satellite radio isn't even the final frontier.  Digital cable customers who want to O.D. on Howard can now subscribe to Howard On Demand — a tawdry trove of uncensored and unpixilated best-of moments from Stern’s E! channel TV show. 

Stern: It's a whole new universe. I see myself as a content provider. We have television programming, now uncensored, and we have radio programming uncensored and the two will merge.Couric: And you're going to take over the world?Stern: I'm going to take over the world. [Laughs] Everyone watch out, you're in big trouble.

He's not on the payroll until Jan. 9, but Stern is already making himself at home. He's a big fish in an even bigger pond.  Although Stern has two channels all his own, Sirius broadcasts 120 more, including 55 channels of sports, news and talk. Plus 65 channels of commercial-free music, and a lot of it is live.

Stern: That's … you know who that is?  That's INXS. That’s the band INXS. See, this is what's great. This is what's great about satellite radio.  You could walk through the halls … I would go in and interview those guys right now.Couric: Yeah?Stern: Yeah.Couric: And they wouldn't mind?  You don't think the host of the show …Stern: I don't care, that's the beauty of it. I'm obnoxious. 

Sirius has become a sanctuary for die-hard classic-rock purists, like former New York DJ Meg Griffin and original MTV VJ Alan Hunter. And where else are you likely to run into Sen. Bill Bradley (NJ) and ’70s pop icons Tony Orlando and Dawn.

Couric:  Finish these sentences. My greatest accomplishment is?Stern: My children.Couric: My girlfriend Beth loves me because?Stern: She swears because it's all about me.Couric: How …Stern: Which …Couric: …boring.Stern: … is weird. I don't think it's all about me. I think she loves me because I care about her. I'm sensitive. That might be shocking. I'm really great in bed. [Laughs] I'm being sarcastic. I mean, really … that can't be pleasant.Couric: You know what?  This is going to run in the breakfast hour, so …Stern: I'm sorry.Couric: … let's not even go there, Howard.The FCC is good for?Stern: Nothing.Couric: You don't think government, should government have a role in deciding what is appropriate or what is indecent …Stern: Of course not.Couric: …on the airwaves?Stern: Of course not. You know …Couric: Never?Stern: …you know where government used to have that approval?  Nazi Germany.Couric: Do you think, though, there are … I mean, you have three daughters, Howard.  Aren't …Stern: Yes.Couric: … some things that are just really over the line and that are completely inappropriate?Stern:  No. I've answered this question a million times. When my kids were young I wouldn't have them listen to my show.  I'm a parent, and I regulate what my kids listen to.  I don't need the government to be the parent.  If I'm a crappy parent, then I need the government involved.Couric: So you're basically saying change the channel if you don't like it?Stern: That's right. That's the way it's got to be.Couric: My biggest regret is?Stern: My divorce. I wish that didn't go down like that. That's real sad to me. You know I can't believe I'm [Laughs] divorced. But it's sad.  But, you know, you get married young and sometimes things change … in my case it did.Couric: Do you think you'll ever get married again?Stern: I don't think so. I think I screwed it up once.Couric: You didn't really screw it up.  I mean you had a happy marriage …Stern: I had a happy …Couric: … didn't you? And you've got three beautiful daughters …Stern: Yeah, but I can't imagine the biggest blow to me was that marriage not working out.  That just flipped me out.Couric: I will miss terrestrial radio because?Stern: Well, because I spent my entire career there. I feel I was responsible for building it into a powerful medium and changing the medium and I'm especially going to miss that feeling of hitting that button — putting the microphone on and instantly having access to millions and millions of people.  I never would have imagined that all of this would have happened.  You know, who would have imagined satellite radio?Couric: What if it doesn't take off in the way you hope it does?Stern: Well, you know, I'm a believer that satellite radio, whether I'm on it or not, will take off.  I think right now I'm the catalyst to perhaps get people to subscribe.  And besides, you ask me all of these questions, I'm a dumb radio guy.  What do I know?  I don't know the answers. [Laughs] I just want to broadcast and do jokes and have fun, and that's really where it's at for me.