Stern debuts on pay radio

Times Staff Writer

For all the hype about a revolution, the pay-per-listen Howard Stern, who debuted Monday morning on Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., was remarkably similar to the former free version.

The uncensored Stern, finally beyond the long arm of the Federal Communications Commission, whose standards of decency he blamed for driving him from the public airwaves, was surprisingly tame. In fact, it took more than 20 minutes into his 5-hour-plus opening show for the groundbreaking shock jock to use the "f-word," an act he immediately suggested was an innocent slip.

"I have a personal rule not to curse," said Stern, who later chided a show regular for using the potentially offensive word, diligently bleeped from terrestrial radio. "We're going to go to new places, and that doesn't mean the f-word." Otherwise, added the 51-year-old radio personality famous for urging female guests to remove their tops, the show would degenerate into pornography.

As much a testament to his media savvy as his immense popularity, Stern's departure from terrestrial to satellite radio has generated unprecedented amounts of press coverage and television appearances for a modern radio personality. Stern's much ballyhooed move is being carefully tracked by industry observers and his morning drive-time show is being widely viewed as a litmus test for satellite's profitability.

Thus far, the news has been very encouraging for Stern, who signed a five-year deal with the New York-based company in 2004 for $500 million, which includes costs for his new studios, marketing promotions, staff, stock options and his salary. Since bringing Stern on board, Sirius subscriptions, which cost about $13 a month, have gone from approximately 600,000 to now more than 3.3 million.

Sirius announced last week that those figures surpass previously agreed upon subscriber targets and that Stern and his agent are entitled to 34.4 million shares of company stock valued at about $220 million -- roughly double what they were worth when the shock jock was originally signed.

Despite a more temperate program than what Stern critics might have guessed -- or his ads suggested -- the inaugural show reveled in its newfound freedoms. In addition to light to moderate swearing above what would have been permissible on his old show, the satellite version engaged in sexually frank talk and imagery.

For example, in a comic segment Stern intercut Stevie Wonder's 1984 hit "I Just Called to Say I Love You" with sexually graphic language left on a voice mail by television host Pat O'Brien last year. Stern said he was glad he could finally air the bit without restriction.

"The Howard Stern Show" officially launched live on Sirius' Channel 100 at 3 a.m. PST. A delayed broadcast for the West Coast begins on Channel 101 at 6 a.m. PST. The Monday-through-Friday show is tentatively scheduled to last four hours, but the first week's shows are expected to run longer.

However, within 15 minutes of its opening, the show ran into technical glitches, including problems with Stern's microphone. After a Tom Petty song was played, the problem was resolved, though problems continued to pop up periodically.

Longtime listeners would have recognized much of the morning's pace and proceedings with Stern taking callers, discussing the news with co-host Robin Quivers and breaking up over sidekick Artie Lange's wisecracks. During a press conference midway into the show, Stern, who'd been teasing the audience that he might have married longtime girlfriend Beth Ostrosky, denied the rumors.

He also tried to call David Lee Roth, the former Van Halen frontman who has taken over his old slot on terrestrial radio in major East Coast markets. Stern wanted to give Roth some free advice -- stop ducking negative phone calls from listeners -- but he was unable to reach Roth. (Comedian Adam Carolla took over for Stern in many major West Coast markets last week.)

The first satellite show introduced a new member of Stern's radio cast: "Star Trek" cast member George Takei, who revealed last year that he is gay. The former TV star, who lives in Los Angeles, will be in Stern's New York studios this week and then will continue to record bits for the show in California.

For satellite listeners, the strongest shock from Stern's new program may be yet to come -- commercials. The first-day broadcast contained none -- Stern played the Bruce Springsteen song "Prove It All Night" to give the staff time to go to the bathroom. Today, contrary to Sirius' commercial-free promotions, Stern's show will run about six commercials an hour.

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