Remember Free FM?
Don’t feel bad. It was a monumental disaster, one that most people – particularly those who were behind its inception – have chosen to block out and pretend never happened.
It was a Wednesday. October 6, 2004.
Howard Stern, the man that had revolutionized talk radio, the first host to be syndicated nationwide, who was heard in nearly fifty major markets and had the top-rated morning show in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and others, announced that at the start of 2006, he would be taking his show to Sirius Satellite Radio.The five-year deal was reportedly worth upwards of $500 million (out of which would come costs for the show).
At the time, Sirius touted it as “the most important deal in radio history,” a pronouncement that many in the media and the industry believed to be complete hyperbole, if not outright lunacy. It may be hard to remember now, when satellite radio is included in many new cars and Sirius and XM have since merged to become a single company, but at the time it was a shocking announcement. Virtually everyone believed satellite radio was a fad, not capable of competing with AM and FM, and that Stern was signing his career death certificate.
For its part, CBS Radio was losing not only radio’s biggest star, but also its biggest revenue generator, a cash cow like nothing before it:
“When he left for satellite in 2006, CBS Radio’s then-CEO Joel Hollander estimated Stern generated an astonishing 10% of all CBS radio revenue.
It was a lot more than that at his flagship, WXRK (92.3 FM) in New York. The last couple of years Stern was there, WXRK collected more than $50 million in ad revenue, and finance people said about 75% was from Stern.”
How would CBS fill such a void?
The company panicked.
CBS was so rocked by the move that they forbade Stern from saying Sirius on the air, even suspending him for a day, before suing Stern and Sirius for more than $200 million, a suit that was ultimately settled when Sirius agreed to pay CBS at least $2 million while Stern obtained control of the master tapes of the previous 20 years of his shows.
At the same time it was reprimanding him, CBS was searching for Stern’s successor. Believing it needed a star, one that could not only attract listeners, but, more importantly, advertisers, CBS approached such names as Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld, all of whom turned them down immediately. When they were unable to lure any huge stars to take over Stern’s time slot, they ultimately decided to replace him by committee.
At the same time, CBS decided to rebrand and reformat. In response to Stern moving to subscription-based radio, it introduced Free FM in eleven markets – New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Diego, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Dallas – and leaned heavily on the fact that no payments and no new technology was needed to hear the shows. CBS knew it had big shoes to fill, but I don’t think it realized how the loss of Stern affected people. As one blog post said, it ruined the morning routines of millions.
An enormous marketing campaign was undertaken. I was both living and working in Philly at the time and I couldn’t go an hour without seeing David Lee Roth. He was everywhere – on billboards, on buses, on the side of buildings. He even had his own television commercial.
Did it work?
After the first month, it was clear that almost no one was listening. Stern had been #1 in New York; Roth was 18th, garnering less than a quarter of the number of listeners. In LA, Carolla posted a 0.7 share, good enough for dead last in the market (Stern’s lowest share in LA had been 2.9). Rover was somehow even worse, with a rating of 0.4 in January, and almost impossible 0.2 in the 25 – 54 age range.
For Roth, it was especially bad. In the nation’s largest market, where Stern had long dominated, Roth’s ratings were a mere shadow of his predecessor’s: “Arbitrend ratings released yesterday show that in January, Roth’s first month, WFNY’s morning share among its target audience of 18- to 34-year-olds fell from 13.8% to 1.3%.”
According to those that had been there, Roth’s ego was his downfall:
“But when Roth got to Stern’s seat in early 2006, it all went south. He lingered a few months, long enough to go down as one of the major disasters in radio history.
‘The meltdown came day one or day two,’ said [former CBS executive Rob] Barnett, ‘when he got in the chair … and wouldn’t listen to anyone that was there to do only one thing…to help him.'”
Roth was gone before the end of April, after less than four months.
But he wasn’t the only one. Rover lasted less than nine months. Carolla hung on and lasted for just over three years before being cancelled when his station changed formats. The same was true of Opie & Anthony, the longtime Stern rivals that had initially been dismissed as his replacement who were brought in to clean up after Roth: “Opie and Anthony took over a few months later and eventually were also cashiered when the ratings never approached Stern territory.”
Still, both of those shows lasted longer than Free FM. The massive undertaking was phased out after less than two years:
“[I]t will mark the end of a brief and troubled life marked by low ratings [and] the embarrassing David Lee Roth morning show.
Defenders have noted that, perhaps ironically, the format was designed to be risky, open and controversial.”
In the end, Stern proved to be irreplaceable: “[Y]ou can measure the size of Stern’s impact by the waves that are still crashing across the pond more than three years after he left.”
Perhaps the most ironic thing has been the change in The Howard Stern Show over the past decade.
With the move to Sirius, Stern was finally freed from the shackles of the FCC and censorship. The phrase “No More Bullshit!” became the tagline of the show and Stern’s channels (originally he was given three to program but eventually became only two) as he and his crew now had freedom to do whatever they wanted.
This had certainly been the case at the beginning, with sybian rides, drinking, and other stunts that would be impossible on terrestrial airwaves, but both Stern and his show have changed in the ten years since his move to satellite – he re-upped with Sirius for five years in 2010 and again in 2015.
While Opie and Anthony kept getting into hot water and JV and Elvis were taken off the air for a prank phone call, Stern, who had racked up $2.5 million in FCC fines between 1990 and 2004, became a viable A-lister, vacationing in Cabo with Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox and enjoying a more palatable mainstream reputation as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
Now 62 years old and happily remarried with three adult daughters, Stern’s show has largely eschewed wacky bits and pranks in favor of admittedly great longform interviews in which he pulls out honesty from major stars that previously never would have considered being on the couch, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, and Ellen while formerly favorite guests like Gilbert Gottfried, Lisa Lampanelli, and Reverend Bob Levy have reportedly been banned from the show.
The crew for Stern’s television show, originally broadcast on the E! channel before becoming an On Demand channnel called HowardTV were let go without any announcement from Stern. Likewise for many other staffers that were once part of the fabric of the program. Former Stern Show co-host and current podcast host Artie Lange has expressed great interest in returning to the show as a guest, but has been denied.
Many fans feel angry and even betrayed by the show’s evolution, from the increased secrecy to the minimalizing and gentler treatment of the Wack Pack (for example, “Gary the Retard” has been renamed “Gary the Conqueror”) and lay the blame squarely at one person: Marci Turk.
The New York Post pointed to Turk as the reason for Stern becoming politically correct:
“Howard Stern has become politically correct, and the woman getting the credit — or the blame — for taming the shock jock isn’t his wife, Beth Ostrosky.
As the old Wack Pack has disappeared and loyal staffers have been booted, the woman being called ‘the Yoko Ono of the Stern show’ is the chief operating officer of the Stern channels on SiriusXM radio — Marci Turk.”
Theories about Turk’s role and influence on Stern, the show, and its attitude abound on Reddit, Dawgshed, and YouTube. In fact, Lange blames her for his not being allowed to return to the show while Mutt, creator of Stern Fan Network and former host of The Superfan Roundtable, said that his show, the various staff shows, and other non-Stern Show related endeavors were halted shortly after Turk’s arrival, but ultimately that “My assumption is the Stern Show is a multimillion dollar company & Howard realized he should start treating the running of it accordingly.” After writing this, I saw that more rumors and gossip continue to leak out.
Whatever the reason – success, age, maturity, wealth, familial concerns, new friendships, seduction by Hollywood (Howard has long wanted to be accepted as part of the famous cliques), professionalism, Getting Things Done, Turk, or some or all of the above – it’s obvious that the show is now different and nothing will change that.
I listened sporadically in college, but once I was working an office job every day, it became part of my daily ritual. I skipped a meeting to listen to the final show on terrestrial radio and was given Sirius as a Christmas gift the month prior to Stern’s debut. I even bought some stock in the company.
Maybe that’s why for me, the show’s peak came in the 2000’s. From the riveting radio of September 11th – while watching it on the news, we muted the TV and put on The Stern Show – to the final years on regular radio to the groundbreaking shows on Sirius, I felt it found the perfect balance of serious and silly. As such, I used to defend the show’s evolution to those that believed the peak came in the late ’80s or that the show’s best days left with Stuttering John.
So I understand those that don’t like what the show has become, but it’s not going to change.
When presented with this critique, Stern responded that he’s been hearing that for years and doesn’t care if fans tune out:
“People want me to be something that they…People’s perception of me is that I should do the same thing over and over and over again, I should never…People have a perception of what I should be and people love to comment on it and you know what I say? Good.
People go nuts because I’m on America’s Got Talent and that’s my sellout moment or if I have a reasonable conversation with a guest, I’m a sellout or if I don’t do some bit I did 20 years ago, I’m a sellout.
I know some people might not like my show anymore and if you don’t like it, I welcome you to leave, believe me.
I run the show the way I want to, it’s The Howard Stern Show, and whatever I’m doing now is about the best I can do. That’s it. I’m not interested in repeating material I’ve done in the past.”
You may miss the old Howard Stern, but Howard Stern does not.
None of this would have happened if he had stayed at KROQ.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.