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Howard Stern in Space


Howard’s agent negotiated, as is his practice, without consulting Howard. XM’s Panero was prepared to pay Howard close to $30 million a year. But Sirius’s offer was, as Panero put it, “shocking.” At a time when Sirius had not quite $13 million a year in revenue, it offered Howard a hundred million dollars a year, about eighty in cash, the rest in stock, for five years. And that’s mainly for “The Howard Stern Show.” Sirius wanted Howard’s imprint to be larger. The company gave him two channels to program, for which it will pick up most of the tab.

On October 6, 2004, during his regular K-Rock show, Howard made his announcement. Instantly, he’d changed the radio game. Howard’s millions of fans went up for grabs; it was a more profitable audience share than, as Hollander put it, “at any time in my 27 years in the business.” Howard vowed “to bury” Clear Channel, “you sons of bitches.” But the immediate competition pits Howard directly against Infinity.

For Howard, the private moping was over; indeed, the stars seemed to be aligning. The following month, Sirius announced that Mel Karmazin, former COO of Viacom, was coming out of retirement to be its new CEO, its third. Karmazin is a superstar executive whose arrival added its own cachet to Sirius, and to satellite radio generally; also, he may be the only radio exec Howard has ever called a friend.

On September 30, 1985, Howard was marched out of WNBC, fired for, among other offenses, being impossible to manage. (Howard had aired a running fight with his bosses, one of whom he referred to as “Pig Virus.”) That same day, Karmazin, then CEO of Infinity, called to say he had to have Howard. At the time, Infinity was a chain of half-a-dozen stations, and Karmazin was known mainly as a terrific ad salesman. “I don’t think anybody should think in terms of my skill set being involved in creating radio programming,” he says. Yet even Karmazin sensed that Howard was on to something. “Everyone’s boss is an asshole, right?” he says. “That sort of makes for great radio.” As long, Karmazin knew, as he wasn’t the asshole boss. Howard’s contract stipulated that he couldn’t mention Karmazin on the air.

Karmazin turned Howard into Infinity’s franchise player. At Howard’s insistence, Karmazin bucked the wisdom of the time—that radio was a local medium—and put Howard on in Philadelphia, eventually in Los Angeles, and syndicated him. Not that there weren’t tensions. At one point, Howard says, he stormed into Karmazin’s office. “If you guys start inhibiting and editing me, I’m going to lose my audience,” Howard told Karmazin. “How the fuck do I stay No. 1?” Still, when the FCC came after Howard, Karmazin stood behind him, to a point. Eventually, though, Karmazin says that the FCC stopped processing his applications to buy radio stations, and he settled. (That 1995 settlement cost Infinity $1.7 million.)

“I’ve got some kind of weird rebirth going on,” Howard says. “All of a sudden, I’m like the old Howard Stern. This stuff just rushes into my head.” He makes it sound like a mental illness.

By 1996, Karmazin had built Infinity into a chain of 44 stations and sold it to Westinghouse, CBS’s then-parent, where he became the largest individual shareholder. When CBS merged with Viacom in a deal worth $37 billion, Karmazin was appointed the company’s No. 2; in the initial bear-hugging, he seemed likely to succeed Sumner Redstone, Viacom’s now 82-year-old CEO and chairman. Redstone made it clear he wouldn’t observe generational niceties and step aside. (“He’s full of shit,” Karmazin says of Redstone now.) And so, in 2004, Karmazin, then 60 years old, exited Viacom, intending to retire.

At least that’s the story Karmazin tells me in Sirius’s glass conference room at Rockefeller Center, situated dangerously close to both Eminem’s and Martha Stewart’s studios. Karmazin has white-gray hair, furry black eyebrows, and large white teeth. He’s a compact man in a good business suit who was once in line to run a vast slice of the country’s media (and, in that capacity, dismissed satellite radio as a nice niche business). Why is he at the helm of an eleven-year-old company that’s never made a profit?

After leaving Viacom, Karmazin tried golf. “I hated that,” he says. He traveled. “I really don’t want to travel anymore,” he says. Karmazin is the poor Queens boy who took an office job for the air-conditioning. He attended college at night and thrived in business, in part because he famously trimmed costs, and also arrived early. (He says, “It wasn’t like I was a visionary or anything.”) To this day, he says, he’s first in the office, at 6:30. “I turn the lights on here,” he says. Even sitting in a conference room, Karmazin constantly pushes himself away from the table, gliding on a wheeled chair, a pantomime of energy-to-burn.

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