Is Howard Stern About to Change the Media Landscape - Again?

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Charles Sykes/Invision via APHoward Stern arrives at "America's Got Talent" 10th season kick-off in New Jersey last March.
Howard Stern loves to work himself into fits of righteous anger.

Not long ago, the management of his present employer, Sirius XM (SIRI) satellite radio, became the target of his ire. Stern was upset that, according to him, they had agreed to a later start for his regular live broadcast, but then conditioned this upon his renewing his current contract with them.

Since then, Stern has strongly hinted that he won't do so. What's inconvenient about that, as far as Sirius XM is concerned, is that the agreement expires at the end of this year. And Stern hasn't only been arguably its top attraction, he's one of the main reasons for its success.

The company isn't as dependent as it once was on the controversial DJ's audience. Nevertheless, it goes almost without saying that his departure to another media outlet would hurt its results. But more broadly, it would almost certainly reshape the industry the company operates in.

Changing the Dial

For evidence of how much broadcast media has changed in a short space of time, look no further than the part of it that made Stern (in)famous. When he was coming to prominence in the early 1980s, the only choice for talents like himself -- gifted of voice but not handsome enough for TV -- was terrestrial radio.

It's no stretch to say that Stern was a key figure responsible for taking that medium out of this world -- literally. Satellite radio came into its own near the end of the 20th century, but it wasn't really a viable business until he became part of it.

He signed his first contract with Sirius Satellite Radio (as it was then officially known) in 2004, and for several years was one of its few bankable stars in the years before the company acquired other big-name voices (such as Jenny McCarthy and Dr. Laura Schlessinger).

In that time, the company grew its revenue to over $4 billion last year from $242 million in 2005, and has been consistently profitable on the bottom line for years. Total subscribers over that stretch of time grew to 27.3 million from 3.3 million.

The Many Stations of Broadcast Media

Stern has even more of a chance to shift the industry's gears today.

That's because a wide range of media is readily available for talents like his. This includes podcasts, internet broadcasters such as Google's (GOOG) YouTube, and websites custom-built for any purpose a talent like his might require.

If he were to ditch Sirius XM, Stern would have no shortage of venue choices for broadcasting his show. He'd likely want a rich patron to shell out for it -- it's estimated to cost Sirius XM around $100 million per year.

That's a lot of scratch, and it's assuming that he's happy to work for his present budget. A company would need deep pockets not only to afford him, but to build out the assets and marketing that it would need to retain an audience once he retires (he's 61 years old).

The most likely suspects are companies in the tech sector that could conquer new worlds with Stern-powered momentum. For instance, both Google and Apple (AAPL) have or are planning to roll out streaming audio services in the not-too-distant future, and have nascent car media platforms. What better way to leverage these elements than by making the shock jock the top live broadcast attraction?

With many quarters of good financial performance behind them, both companies are sitting on a mountain of money -- Apple's cash and marketable securities at the end of its most recently reported quarter stood at more than $33 billion, while the same figure for Google was over $65 billion.

If one of them could nab Stern, it could instantly establish itself as a big player in the broadcast world, in addition to its dominance in other businesses. As we've seen with Sirius XM, once Stern's on board, it becomes easier to attract other big-name voice talent.

Before long, if such a company played its hand well, its chosen platform might become the go-to choice for "radio" broadcasting, leaving its predecessor technologies in the dust.

To Control the Airwaves

No one needs to be told that technology is evolving at an ever-speedier rate. This is especially true of broadcast media. If Stern moves his show to a new home, the company managing that asset will become what, to a degree, Sirius XM is now -- a cutting-edge form of media dominating its corner of the broadcasting scene.

Motley Fool contributor Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Google (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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