How Howard Stern Became 'King Of All Media'
Media consultant Ben Grossman — who shares my deep respect and affection for Howard Stern — told me about a visit he had not too long ago with his seven-year-old niece. Grossman, who was my successor as editor in chief of Broadcasting & Cable, had a grip-and-grin photo of himself with Stern on his desk. “Oh my God, you know Howard Stern!” his niece squealed.
For a second, Grossman was “mortified” at the thought that his niece was listening to a radio show infamous for its sex-toy-riding strippers, Wack Packers and hardcore parodies about co-host Robin Quivers. “Then it dawned on me,” Grossman said. “My niece knew nothing of the radio show. To her, Howard was the cool, funny judge on ‘America's Got Talent .’”
That anecdote illustrates one of the most successful rebranding stories ever. Through a savvy use of TV, social media, online video — and, of course, satellite radio — Howard Stern has become a cross-generational mainstream powerhouse. His long-time self-coronation as “King of All Media” holds more truth than ever before.
Yes, I know the conventional media trope that Stern ceased being an A-List media force once he left terrestrial radio for a king's ransom in 2006 to join the sleepy Sirius with only 600,000 subscribers. The truth is, Stern has a wider audience than ever before. Post-merger, Sirius XM today has more than 25 million subscribers, and it has been estimated that as much as 60% of those subscribers tune in to Stern. Millions more stream his celebrity interviews posted online. A recent interview with Madonna garnered more than 250,000 views on YouTube alone. Online video from Howard Stern’s “60th Birthday Special” was watched by hundreds of thousands more.
Decades of live radio and meticulous research — in addition to years of psychotherapy — have made Stern the best celebrity interviewer around. While there's no shortage of R-rated humor, what's mostly on display is a still-hilarious, but wiser, Howard Stern. He's a vocal advocate for gay marriage, LGBT issues — and, along with wife Beth, has become the kind of animal rights advocate he might once have mocked.
His move to “America's Got Talent” in 2012 was part of a Stern blueprint to build on his core audience and become part of the mainstream. Three seasons in with Stern, the series is a solid summer hit for NBC, unusual for a show in its 10th season. Last week, it was the top-rated non-sports show on network TV.
Stern spends plenty of air time promoting “AGT” on his radio show, and uses his social media might to lure in viewers. His Twitter account, @HowardStern, has 1.62 million followers alone, aided and abetted by the hundreds of thousands who follow his sidekick Robin Quivers and the various other members of his radio crew.
As he always does, Stern is making noise about leaving Sirius when his contract is up at year's end. He moans about being stressed out by the demands of “AGT.”
Keenly aware that he's successfully repositioned himself, Stern can truly design a wide-reaching next act. He could decide on a move a la Jerry Seinfeld's successful Crackle series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” or go with an interview show on Netflix or Amazon Prime -- all places that need him, and where he could have complete artistic freedom. Likewise a series with a premium network such as HBO or Showtime would hold the same creative freedom.
My bet is that the King of All Media will go with a “have-my- cake-and-eat-it-too” strategy. Whether he sticks with his current suite of outlets or cuts deals elsewhere, plan on a next act that on one platform is fine for you to watch with your seven-year-old niece — and one that's best enjoyed by grown-ups only.