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Illicit Downloading of Stern’s Show Soars Fivefold

Times Staff Writer

Illicit downloading of shock jock Howard Stern’s shows increased fivefold Thursday after the Los Angeles Times reported on the broad availability of bootlegged versions of his Sirius Satellite Radio program on Internet file-sharing networks.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” said Aram Sinnreich, managing partner of Radar Research, a Los Angeles media consulting firm.

In 2004, Sirius hired Stern on a five-year, $500-million contract in hopes of wooing new subscribers to its $12.95-a-month satellite radio service. He helped deliver more than a million new subscribers before he even took to the microphone Jan. 9.

But almost immediately, pirate radio stations in New York and New Jersey began rebroadcasting the show on unclaimed FM radio frequencies, and websites began streaming it online without permission.

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Sirius was quick to take legal action and, in an ironic twist, to seek help from Stern’s longtime nemesis, the Federal Communications Commission.

Internet file-sharing sites, which allow potentially millions of computer users around the globe to exchange audio recordings, represent a challenge that comes as no surprise to Sirius. In recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the company acknowledged that piracy could “harm our business.”

The extent of that harm is still not fully known. Mark Ishikawa, chief executive of BayTSP, a Los Gatos, Calif., company that monitors online piracy for the entertainment industry, described the surge in downloads Thursday as “waking the sleeping giant.”

But because companies like Ishikawa’s count the number of files being exchanged at a given point in time -- not the number of thieves -- an exact tally of what Sirius is losing is not available. Ishikawa did say, however, that the numbers of files being swapped quintupled overnight.

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Ever since Napster popularized free music downloads in the late 1990s, the recording industry has been attempting to quash online piracy by suing file-sharing companies and individuals.

The head of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, the industry’s lobbying organization, said the theft of Stern’s shows was just another example of how piracy could dry up investment in entertainment.

“Sirius, the music community and other property owners are in the same boat,” association Chairman and Chief Executive Mitch Bainwol wrote in an e-mail. “We want and deserve a fair return on our investment. When that return is compromised, so too is the risk-taking necessary to bring new content to fans.”

But Rex Perez, a Stern fan, said Sirius inadvertently set the stage for online piracy by refusing to make the show available to those who prefer to tune in on their computers rather than on Sirius radio receivers.

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The 31-year-old math professor at Santa Monica Community College said he bought a lifetime subscription to Sirius because he thought he could listen to Stern’s show online.

Only later did Perez discover a disclaimer on Sirius’ website: Although its 68 commercial-free music channels can be heard online, “some talk shows aren’t included” -- most notably, Stern’s.

“Howard is the only thing I care about,” said Perez, who has written to Stern and Sirius, encouraging them to stream the show online.

So far, he said, he has received no response.

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