Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., which liberated radio shock jock Howard Stern from the federal decency standards that he felt had shackled him, is finding that freedom’s just another word for $500 million to lose.
Since Jan. 9, when Stern debuted on Sirius, pirated versions of the shows have been made available for free via several online file-sharing networks just hours after Stern signs off. The New York-based broadcaster signed Stern to a five-year, half-billion-dollar contract in 2004.
Now, Sirius is, in a word, furious. “We don’t condone the stealing of Howard’s show, or any of the content on our more than 125 channels,” Sirius spokesman Patrick Reilly said. “We vigorously protect our intellectual property rights and we will actively prosecute those who attempt to steal it.”
It is not known how many Stern fans are sidestepping Sirius’ $12.95-a-month subscription fee by illegally downloading his show. Because most hard-core fans are used to listening to the show in their cars, presumably many of them would subscribe rather than wait until they’re in front of a computer screen.
And there is no question that Stern has been good for Sirius, which added 1.1 million subscribers in the last quarter of 2005. The company, which is behind industry leader XM Satellite Radio, reports 3.3 million listeners and expects to reach 6 million by the end of the year.
But ever since Stern traded the terrestrial airwaves for satellite, fans of his frequent interviews with porn stars have found ways to tune in to the self-proclaimed “King of All Media” for free.
A few weeks ago, when the first pirate radio stations began rebroadcasting Stern’s show on unclaimed radio frequencies in New York and New Jersey, Sirius immediately notified the enforcement bureau of the Federal Communications Commission -- the very body against which Stern has so frequently railed. The FCC in 2004 cited Stern’s show on Clear Channel for “repeated graphic and explicit sexual descriptions.”
Sirius also moved quickly to crack down on websites that streamed audio broadcasts of the Stern show. The broadcaster sent cease-and-desist letters protesting such “blatant and willful infringements” and threatening to sue unless the underground broadcasters immediately went silent.
But as each one shut down, it seemed, another sprang up.
Stern referred requests for an interview to Sirius on Wednesday. But he has raised the piracy issue on his show with a subtlety that is not his usual forte. Walking a very fine line, Stern has praised the renegade spirit that drives some fans to refuse to pay for what they used to get for free and he has pleaded with folks to just pay “42 cents a day.”
Just as the rock band Metallica experienced when it first came out against illegal downloads of its music, Stern risks sparking a backlash. After all, this is the man who built his in-your-face persona around flogging federal regulators, who he claimed were the enemies of creative expression.
There already are signs that after dishing out such criticism for so long, Stern better get ready to take it.
“Mr. Freedom of Speech himself. Mr. $500,000,000 has ordered me to shut down my PERSONAL Web site that some people stumbled upon,” wrote the operator of www.hearhoward.org, according to the Rocky Mountain News. The site made Stern’s show available for free but with a disclaimer that only Sirius subscribers should use it.
BayTSP, a Los Gatos, Calif., firm that monitors online piracy for the entertainment industry, found digital audio files of every episode of Stern’s Sirius show on every major file-sharing network.
“It’s going to impact the Sirius radio subscribers,” said Mark Ishikawa, BayTSP’s chief executive. “Why would you pay $13 a month when you can get what you want from the Internet?”
Although no one can know the total number of Stern stealers, it is clear that Stern is a runaway hit among file sharers. His shows are more popular than the TV show “Gilmore Girls” and just behind Fox’s “The Simpsons,” said Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, an online media measurement firm in Los Angeles.
The proliferation of sites offering Stern’s shows for free is an unintended result of Sirius’ consumer-friendly technology. Home adapter kits, designed so customers can plug their Sirius radio tuners into home stereo systems, can just as easily be connected to a computer. There, anyone with the right piece of software can convert the show to a digital audio file that can be redistributed online.
Sirius warned investors about the threat of piracy in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. It noted that although it uses encryption to foil those who would try to listen to its broadcasts without paying, those protections might not always prevent theft. If such bootlegging became widespread, “it could harm our business,” the company acknowledged.
But a little unauthorized exposure might not be all bad for Stern, whose curly-haired mug recently graced the cover of Esquire and New York magazines.
Industry analysts say people who hear Stern’s show on their computer might enjoy it so much, they’ll end up subscribing. Without the illegal downloads, it could be argued, Stern runs the risk of being out of earshot, out of mind.
“My view is that the more exposure, the better,” said Jeff Pollack, CEO of Pollack Media Group. “If I find content very compelling, I might say, ‘Wow, I sure want to be able to catch that every day.’ ”
But then again, Pollack said with a laugh, “I wasn’t the one who signed the check.”
The folks who sign the checks -- and will do so for the foreseeable future -- aren’t laughing.
“Pirated broadcasts are a lousy way to listen to Howard,” Sirius’ Reilly said. “The best way is through a Sirius subscription.”
Some longtime Stern fans agree.
“When it comes down to it, if you’re a true Howard fan, you want to support his endeavor,” said Pokai Liao of Irvine, a Sirius subscriber. “If you want him around for five years, you’re gonna pay the $12.95.”