NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Is the show over for Howard Stern?
The shock jock himself was wondering that on the air Tuesday morning just hours after the announced resignation of Mel Karmazin, the president of media colossus Viacom Inc. and Howard Stern's bulwark against indecency control advocates.
In a mood that was trademark Stern -- alternately somber and feisty -- the morning radio host expressed his dismay over the exit of his longtime backer. "This is sadder than the "Friends" ending," deadpanned Stern. "If it wasn't for Mel, I'd probably be a telemarketer right now."
Stern, 50, has reason to be concerned. Karmazin first hired Stern in the mid-1980s, after Stern was dumped by New York's WNBC, and helped turn Stern into a national celebrity. Over the years, as Stern repeatedly ran into government crosshairs over a show known for its explicit and salacious discussions about rough sex, masturbation and the virtues of slavery, Karmazin also emerged as one of Stern's chief public defenders.
"You may not like the humor," Karmazin once told Time magazine, "but that is why every radio has an on-off button."
Time to sign off and move on?
Viacom (VIAB: Research, Estimates) inherited the Howard Stern show when it bought CBS Corp., which Karmazin then headed, in 2000.
With Karmazin now out at Viacom, media analysts suggested Tuesday three possible outcomes for Stern: one, Viacom determines that, for all the headache, Stern's too valuable to lose and resigns itself to ongoing battles over his on-air commentary; two, Viacom yanks Stern off the air and sends him into exile while paying out the remainder of his contract. The third option is: Stern's agent negotiates his release and Stern jumps to another broadcaster.
"I think the chances of [Stern leaving Infinity] have definitely increased," said Kit Spring, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus & Company, Inc.
Sumner Redstone, Viacom's chairman, said in a morning conference call that neither Stern nor any other talent have contracts that allow them to leave now that Karmazin is headed out. Leslie Moonves, the chief of CBS who is now co-president of Viacom, said during the call that he planned to meet soon with Stern to reassure him that the company was not looking to oust him.
"One of the things we have done successfully at CBS is nurture talent," said Moonves, who now shares the president's job with Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV Networks. "It will be an important part of my job to make these guys happy, and I think we will do that."
But analysts pointed to a recent government crackdown on programs deemed offensive and said there's reason to wonder about Stern's future at Viacom. Stern, for one, has been a key target of the increased oversight. In April, Clear Channel Communications (CCU: Research, Estimates) dropped Stern from six stations after the Federal Communications Commission voted to fine the No. 1 U.S. radio station owner a total of $495,000 for indecent comments on a recent Stern show.
Viacom itself came under heavy fire earlier this year when Janet Jackson flashed her breast during a Super Bowl half-time show produced by Viacom's MTV Networks. Among other things, the incident prompted calls by legislators and conservatives for greater oversight of radio and television broadcasts.
What's more, Congress is now considering legislation that would significantly boost the fines levied against broadcasters for indecent material. If the bill passes, analysts said Viacom could decide Stern's not worth the risk.
A spokesman for Stern declined to comment on his future at Viacom. Stern himself indicated during Tuesday's show that his prospects are not looking strong. With the FCC hanging over Viacom's head, "I know our days have been numbered," he said. "But now our days are really numbered."
Stern also said he had a meeting later in the day with Joel Hollander, president of Viacom radio unit Infinity Broadcasting, but didn't expect much to come out of it. "I'll just get a bunch of B.S. today, but we'll know where we stand in about a month," Stern told listeners on Tuesday.
If Stern exits Viacom and with Clear Channel side-lined, the only real option for the shock jock would be satellite radio, analysts said. The two dominant satellite radio operators are XM Satellite Radio Holdings (XMSR: Research, Estimates) and Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI: Research, Estimates).
The key question is whether XM or Sirius would be willing to shell out the millions to lure Stern & Co. Analysts were split on that. "It's not quite economical yet for them to do it, although they both have cash on the balance sheet," said Steve Mather, an analyst with Sanders Morris Harris. Echoed Jack Myers, an independent media research analyst: "The economics of it are not going to be easy. They're going to have to give up a pound of flesh."
But Spring, of Stifel Nicolaus, thinks the satellite operators are more than willing to pony up to attract Stern's audience. Plus, he noted, satellite radio would be an ideal match for Stern because it's subscriber-based so there's a lot more freedom to air shows like Stern's without running afoul of regulators.
"Just like 'The Sopranos' fits HBO better than NBC," said Spring, "I think that Stern's content probably is a better fit for satellite radio than regular radio."