Howard Stern’s Next Move
- Reduce the Howard Stern Show to 2 hours per day, but expand it to 5 days a week with Thursday/Friday and some entire weeks being pre-taped. Expand the number of shows per year, yet decrease total hours broadcast.
- Take advantage of the Archive by creating themed shows with specific viewpoints that could also be repackaged to be distributed through Sirius’ other platforms.
- For those listening to the linear broadcast, have a managed schedule to ensure the same content would not be heard during the same timeslot on other days.
Once again, it is everyone’s favorite five-year tradition! Since signing with what was then Sirius in 2004, Howard Stern has been on a regular cycle of reaching near the end of his deal before signing a new one. This year is no different (November 2020 at the time of this writing), appearing set to go down to the wire. Stern has stated on the air that he would like things to work out and continue, but seems hesitant to commit to the now Sirius XM Holdings, Inc. (holdings including music streaming service Pandora and podcast platform Stitcher, among others), henceforth just called Sirius. Unlike years past where there seemed to be a question of will he/won’t he, Stern projects an eagerness to continue. That begs the question, then:
If Howard Stern is happy with Sirius XM Holdings and wants to continue the show there, why can’t the two sides come to a quick agreement?
In the last two contract negotiations, the deals were both announced in December — December 10, 2010 and December 15, 2015, to be precise. Whatever the money component of these deals and any future deals may be is besides the point; what matters to Stern is the workload and work/life balance. This can be plainly seen in how many days Stern works per week and how many shows per year he must produce. At the beginning of the original contract in January 2006, Stern started 5 days a week, but dropped to 4 days over time. This began in February 2006 with the main show mostly going every other week and eventually led to Stern broadcasting his last Friday on October 6, 2006 (don’t say “working” because Stern will say he is always working and preparing for the show). The pattern continued into Thursdays being dropped after December 15, 2011 (although there have been occasional shows on Thursday like November 16, 2017 due to a scheduling snafu and the need to make up a day).
Being on only three days a week has created an unfortunate situation, though. Stern presents his show as the program people listen to in their cars while stuck in traffic, but how can that be when he is missing two entire days a week? Or how can he be topical when there is a gap of 4 days between the Wednesday and Monday shows? It might have made more sense to go Monday/Wednesday/Friday, but that would have led to a situation where Stern “felt” like he was still working those skipped days, thus losing the point of limiting the days in the studio.
We will not get into the long vacation stints because that is what the contracts have allowed. The key component here is that Stern is only beholden to put on a certain number of shows per year, not a particular number per month. In 2008, The Howard Stern Show peaked out in its airings on Sirius with 162 episodes. By 2020, that number had dropped to 112. As such, it must be clear that Stern wants to spend less time in the studio (or remotely broadcasting into the studio, as COVID-19 has gifted us). Thus, in any new contract we need a few rules:
- Currently Stern is in the studio 3 days a week times 4 hours a day, totaling 12 hours per week. Any contract must have Stern be committed to less than or equal to 12 hours per week.
- Stern will still only want to have “studio days” be Monday through Wednesday at a maximum.
- Stern has complained about the length of shows being 4 hours, which is much more difficult at his age and energy level.
There are other considerations, first with the fans:
- The 3-day a week format (Monday through Wednesday) is awkward and leaves much to be desired.
- Because of how the replays work, linear listeners may end up hearing the same segments over-and-over again instead of new-to-them content. The schedule has to be modified to make sure the same segments are not played at the same time on different days.
- There is a general shift to more on-demand consumption.
Finally, there is Sirius’ considerations:
- The company is moving away from being “Satellite Radio” and becoming a media and advertising distribution platform.
- As such, having shows in formats and propagation methods that meet the audience will be more valuable to it than linear programming.
- They are very flexible so long as they are getting a proper Return on Investment (ROI).
That all said, how can we ease these tensions of these different stakeholders?
The New Howard 100
One of the core elements of Stern joining Sirius was the creation of his own channels. This has coalesced into Howard 100 and Howard 101, the former of which currently plays the live show and replays it in a loop the rest of the day and week. Over on Howard 101 is the West Coast replay of the show, the Wrap Up Show, Sternthology (clips of old Stern shows), and the occasional special presentation. Originally, Howard 101 was filled with more content and other talent such as Bubba the Love Sponge and Scott Ferrall, as well as the staff having their own platforms. Over time, all of this has been cut down to the few differing shows that are left, lowering the overall value proposition. This seems to be a result of Stern’s contract stipulating the money he is paid is both for himself and the production costs of his channels, so funneling all that money towards his show is the logical end result.
As can be seen, then, there really is not enough content to fill two channels. Therefore the first recommendation for this contract is to either drop Howard 101 or just make it a 3-hour delay from a revamped Howard 100. The rationale will become clear shortly as we move into that second recommendation; a brand new schedule and set of shows for Howard Stern:
Above, you can see a schedule guidance for the main programming hours of a newly revamped Howard 100. Let’s go through a regular day together to discuss each component and show.
Beginning at 7:00am eastern time we have the quintessential Howard Stern Show broadcast live. However, instead of being a 4-hour marathon, the show would be cut down to just 2 hours to keep it tight and focused. Whether it was a day checking in with the staff, playing bits, taking calls, reading the news, or whatever it may be, that would still be up to Stern. At the end of the 2-hour block, the show would immediately replay from the beginning and do it again as various audiences came online to catch the show from the beginning.
Now, as noted before, Stern does not want to be in the studio more than Monday through Wednesday but the audience wants to hear him 5 days a week. To resolve this tension, Stern could pre-tape the Thursday and Friday shows. In order to stay topical, though, only Thursday’s show should be taped directly on Wednesday, immediately after the live broadcast. This could be a continuation of what happened during the week or getting to elements they were not able to during the live broadcasts.
The show on Friday, though, should be dedicated to being an interview show. This resolves many issues at once. Stern considers himself one of the greatest interviewers of all time and wants to show off his prowess, so he could have a regularly devoted show to do so. At the same time, many potential guests are put off by the early time — especially those in different timezones — and would be open to taping at more convenient intervals. At the same time, many of these interviews could be taped in advanced and played when appropriate. This is a common practice in podcasts and — since Stern does not engage the audience during interviews anymore — there would be no loss in taping these well in advance.
That is not to say Stern could still not have an interview during the live broadcasts. This is is not a suggestion that interview shows be relegated to once per week, only that there is definitively at least one per week that is pre-taped. At the same time, it does provide valuable insight to Stern, his back office, and Sirius about how those shows do in comparison to the more “regular” shows. Better analytics and audience tracking is a core goal of Sirius, especially as they transform into an advertising distribution system.
With all of these changes, we have alleviated many of the tensions listed before.
- Stern has shorter shows and only has to be in the studio for 3 days a week
- Stern only has to produce 10 studio hours per week, with plenty of room to tape bank shows (more on this later)
- The audience gets 5 days of new programming instead of 3
- Sirius gets better analytics and ad sales, and also gets “podcastable” shows
This last point is fundamental as Sirius could repackage the show (or the other shows we will get to shortly) for distribution through Stitcher. Maybe the shows are delayed for a month, maybe the shows on Sirius are ad-free while full of ads as a podcast — these are details that can be worked out. At the end of the day, a 2-hour show is highly distributable through other mediums than just the main Sirius methods. And the rest of those shows (that we will discuss in the next section) also work the same way: 2-hour buckets with a particular theme and approach.
Putting the Archive to Work
Howard Stern’s Archive is vast, covering over 40 years of history that is ready to be mined. At the moment, though, it is barely being scraped to its great depths. Just having random clips on Sternthology does not do this resource justice, and that is where each of these next batch of shows could shine.
The first of these shows is a new version of the Wrap Up Show that would be called “Wrap Up and Stern-pedia”. One of the reasons that there needs to be a 4-hour gap from the end of the live show until the beginning of the Wrap Up Show is so that the archive can be searched and clips pulled. As Jon Hein, Gary Dell’Abate, Rahsaan Rogers, and any guest discuss what happened during the main show, they could also introduce and play clips that relate to what happened that day to history. If Howard talks about Joan Rivers, they can play a piece of an interview with her. Should Robin Quivers talk about Fred Norris’ bachelor party, they can play a snippet from it. When a caller makes a reference to Jackie’s cat Timmy, they can pull segments to explain Timmy to a newer audience. In other words, the show will act as an “encyclopedia” to the entire history of the show, delving into topics for new and old audiences alike. This method gives The Wrap Up Show a purpose it severely lacks and takes advantage of all of that tape.
The Archive, though, can be used for a number of pre-taped use cases. One of the main issues with Sternthology today and shows like Master Tape Theater in the past is that they are essentially random excerpts. Over the years, the “Tapes Team” has put together many fantastic specials such as “The History of Howard Stern” and “Richard Retrospective” that work because they tell a story in long-form. And that is where the next show “Stern Plotlines” comes into play. Instead of being made up of these slapdash bits, Plotlines would spend at least a day and up to a week telling a story solely through clips. As an example, here is the Plotline for when staffer J.D. Harmeyer was trying to have a relationship with former high-priced call girl Ashley Dupré (summaries in full, part, or reduction via Marksfriggin.com):
As can be seen, we have now told a complete narrative through just clips from the Archive, which also gives the show a hook to bring people back each day. People want to consume a story to completion, and a tale like this one can leave them hanging each day to come back for the next installment. And this particular Plotline covered nearly 10 months of content; others may take pieces spread out over years!
That is not to say that randomness does not have a value, too. The last of these Archive shows is “This Day in Howard History” and it is exactly what it sounds like — playing clips from the show on the same date in the past. It would become a fun trip through time, but the randomness would be contained to a raison d’etre. And should Sirius and Stern decide that the main show should not be redistributed through other platforms, at the very least “Stern Plotlines” and “This Day in Howard History” could easily still be done so.
Now, we have covered the main new shows and what happens during normal listening hours, but the linear station is still 24/7. Because of that, we need to fill the remainder of the broadcast day. We’ll start with the evening hours:
Immediately after the end of the daily programming, the Howard Stern Show would be in a replay cycle such that it would start with the show 5-days prior and keep playing each one until it literally reached the day before. We can see this more clearly if we follow Monday evening from above into Tuesday evening from below:
So, we started with the prior Tuesday show; went to Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; and ended up back at Monday’s show plus “Wrap Up and Stern-pedia”. In that way, yesterday’s show, wrap up, and Stern-pedia acts as the lead-in to the main show, creating a continuity. At the same time, these rotating schedules mean that at no point late at night or early in the morning will the same show ever be replaying in the same timeslot. Those listening to the linear path will be assured to hear something different each time they tune in (unless they tune in randomly, and even then their probability would be for “new to me” content).
Over the weekend would be a different approach as well. This starts with the last of our new shows on Saturday morning: “Best of the Week”. This is not a new concept at the Howard Stern channels, but it is taking it to its sensible conclusion. The premise is simple in that there would be 10 hours of programming a week that must be condensed into 4 hours, so it becomes the last repackaging of the same content, yet presented in a unique way.
After this show, the other programs could repeat back-to-back, starting with “Stern Plotlines”. This would become another way to consume the program by getting the entire story at one time instead of in pieces — binging it, if you will. This programming block would continue until a repeat of “Best of the Week”, followed by a marathon of “This Day in Howard History”. Finally, the week would conclude with “The Howard Stern Show” and “Wrap Up and Stern-pedia” going in a repeating pattern until it was time for the next show on Monday morning, ending in a perfect circle.
With all of the new programs set up, the final schedule for the week would look like this:
With this, we have resolved all of our competing tensions save two particular items. First off is a question of money. We are not going to touch that because that is a private affair between Stern, his agent, and Sirius.
What we can concern ourselves with is the number of new shows (both live and pre-taped) that should be required. At 112 days times 4 hours per day, we are saying 448 hours is the maximum to be produced. With a 2-hour show, that would now be 224 shows. However, there are usually around 260 working days (weekdays minus major holidays) in a year, so this would be 86% of those days compared to the 43% Stern does now. It seems like there can be a compromise here where Stern is putting out more shows but does not have to work every week. If we say that Stern should have between 10 to 11 weeks of vacation, let’s make the math easy and say he should have 60 days of vacation. With that, the ask will be for 200 shows (77% of working days), amounting to 400 hours of content during the year.
That would seemingly also result in 120 studio days, which is an issue because it increases Stern’s time from 112 studio days. However, though we have said shows would normally be “live” in the Monday through Wednesday slots, it does not mean they have to be. Several of those could be pre-taped or banked as well with different content. Thus at the end of the day, Howard Stern is working less days, hours, and times yet the listeners have more content on a regular basis. In the same vein, Sirius gets programs that can be repackaged to their other assets. This becomes a win-win-win for all of the stakeholders involved, and all it takes is a completely different approach to this particular Howard Stern contract negotiation.
J.P. Prag is the author of NEW & IMPROVED: THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Is there a way to save America and ensure justice and freedom for all? There is… if you are willing to rethink and rebuild the entire Constitution! You can read an excerpted version here on Medium:
The Constitution is a fallible document that was built on compromises and threats.