The Future of Howard Stern … at Least What We Think It Is

(FYI — no links today, this is a full blog about Howard Stern’s future. If that doesn’t interest you, just leave now, no hard feelings. I’ll have nothing but news and links on Friday.)

By the end of the month, the world should know Howard Stern’s plans.

The operative word is “should.”

if you say you know what he's going to do, you're lying

if you say you know what he's going to do, you're lying

The self-titled King of All Media — and at this point we can probably remove “self-titled,” because really, he earned that moniker — is in what appears to be complicated, somewhat contentious negotiations with satellite radio company SiriusXM over the next phase of his career. After 18 months or so of callers, newspapers, staff members and Stern himself publicly weighing his future career choices when his landmark five-year, $500 million contract expires at the end of this year, we’re at the same place we started.

We don’t know jack squat.

Stern couldn’t be clearer with his message that he’s reiterated about 10 times a day for the last six months on his show— he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. His staff, even his closest on-air confidants and long-time partners Robin Quivers and Fred Norris, claim they’ve received no semblance of a hint or direction as to what he’s going to do. If anyone knows, it’s the closest-guarded secret since the Warren Commission locked away its findings.

At least with Stern, we won’t have to wait until 2017 to find out the answer. It “should” be coming in a couple weeks. But like Stern’s entire career, you just don’t know.

He has dropped some hints, and if you’ve listened closely enough, you might get some idea as to what he might be doing and the options he’s being presented with:

you'd want to retire and stay home all day too if she was at your house.

you'd want to retire and stay home all day too if she was at your house.

OPTION 1: Quit the business, retire with a gazillion bucks to sit on, a house in the Hamptons, a posh Manhattan apartment, a smoking-hot supermodel wife to hang out with and family to enjoy. This is where a bazillion people, including me, say, “THAT’S WHAT I WOULD EFFING DO IN LESS THAN A SECOND!!!” But we’re not him. We haven’t spent the last 30 years building and cultivating the biggest and most powerful radio empire in history against hundreds of radio executives who told him he couldn’t do it. Or even that they wouldn’t let him do it. We don’t know the sacrifices he had to make to build that empire. Though he’s never said publicly, that dogged pursuit of his impossible dream likely contributed to the break-up of his first marriage, and who knows what it did to his relationships with his friends and family — including his three daughters. You can hear in his voice that he regrets not being able to have the normal life his friends have had, a life where he didn’t have to get up at 4:30 every morning. He’s been reduced to being a hermit — self-imposed or not — because this empire he’s created has resonated so religiously with so many people that he can’t go out in public without being bothered, accosted or even threatened. It’s not like he’s alone — heads of corporations make those sacrifices, so do celebrities like movie stars and big-time athletes. But very rarely do any of those types of people get to dictate when, where and how they plan to exit whatever stage they’re on. Howard Stern has that opportunity and has earned every right to relinquish his throne whenever he damn well pleases. ODDS: 100-1. This can’t possibly be how Stern envisioned his radio departure — shrouded in secrecy and questions — and any attempt to put together a farewell show now will fail miserably. The lack of a proper send-off will eat at him for years of his retirement … and he knows it. He does not want to go out like this.

when your "bro" tries to kill himself and you still say it's the best experience of your life, then you're really, really happy

when your "bro" tries to kill himself and you still say it's the best experience of your life, then you're really, really happy

OPTION 2: Re-up with SiriusXM for another couple of years. Or one year. Or six months. Or another five-year contract. Who knows? All we know is this: that in the middle of what seems to have become a very difficult negotiation between Stern and SiriusXM, he’s gone out of his way to praise the company and profess unequivocally that the last five years have been the best and the most fun of his career. And that’s with an employee and major, valued piece of the show attempting suicide earlier this year, sooooo … he must really like it there. However, the company isn’t in the most stable of positions and may not be able to afford Stern. He got cheesed off Monday when he heard the company’s CFO hint there could be a paycut in his future, then spent 20 minutes Tuesday telling the guy exactly what he could do with his paycut, the first time he really let loose on a SiriusXM executive. Hey, at least it took almost five years, right? ODDS: 2-1. If we’ve learned nothing in the last 30 years of listening to Stern, we know one thing — he’s intensely loyal, almost to a fault. Sure, Stern’s probably asking for a lot of money, better hours that could include afternoons, a decrease in days that could only have him showing up for work two times a week — but the guy’s earned it at this point. If something doesn’t get done with SiriusXM, it ain’t Stern’s fault.

OPTION 3: Find another medium. This is where things get dicey. There are literally hundreds of sub-options here, and I’m assuming that every start-up Web radio network on the planet has approached him with some kind of half-cocked offer that he’s spent the last year sifting through. Then there are probably people telling him to start his ownWeb network. Then there are podcasts, including a possible, but now-refuted, marriage with Apple. Just because that rumor was a hoax doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to another, similar deal with Apple or Verizon. And while he won’t be replacing Simon Cowell, there hasn’t been a TV network created that wouldn’t break the bank to nail down some kind of talk show with him. ABC Family would figure out some kind of way to make it work if it could. ODDS: 5-1. Over the summer, Stern professed a desire to keep working in some capacity, just not with the “frequency” that he does now. Four-day weeks and eight-week-a-year vacation schedules are apparently quite taxing (end of sarcasm). Who knows if that has changed? But over the last few weeks, he has said he’s not ready to leave the business. All we can do is take him at his word.

do you really think he'd want to go back to this?

do you really think he'd want to go back to this?

OPTION 4: Go back to terrestrial radio. Umm, this isn’t happening. If it did, Stern would completely lose all the credibility he’s spent 30 years building after saying for the last five years 1. How much he hates terrestrial radio and everything it stands for 2. How completely dead the format is 3. How he’d never go back there. It would be a slap in the face to all of his devout followers — if it sounds like a cult, it’s pretty close — and we know he values his fans above all. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. ODDS: 500-1. Nothing is impossible.

OPTION 5: Something else. If you were listening in 2003 and your buddy told you, “If you want to hear Howard’s show in three years, you’re going to have to pay for it on satellite radio,” what would your reaction have been? Fear? Laughter? Physical violence that ended with a swift spin kick to the back of your buddy’s head? Whatever it would have been the prevailing feeling likely would have been disbelief. Yet, a couple months later, we were hearing of the deal between Stern and some two-bit satellite outfit. Within days, his fans were figuring out how to do the unthinkable — pay to keep Stern on their radios. To now think there isn’t some kind of mystery option we don’t even know about is to be ignorant of the history of the man who has proven time and again not only to be the most powerful force in radio, but a slick businessman who relishes being on the cusp of the Next Big Thing — even if we’ve never heard of that Thing. ODDS: 50-1. This is like betting the field, it covers the vast territory of “everything else.” Politics? Professional chess? Astronaut training? Hardcore porn? It’s all up for debate.

We just don’t know. The only prediction I have is this — the longer he goes without making an announcement, the less likely it is that he’ll stay with SiriusXM. At this point, the fact that there hasn’t been some kind of announcement tells me he’s leaving satellite, but has agreed not to say so until after the start of the year so that SiriusXM can get as many people as possible to re-up their subscriptions for 2011.

But that’s just a thought. We should have learned by now it’s a bad bet to say we know what Howard Stern’s plans are.

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