Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2004 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

Howard Stern as visionary? | Howard Stern makes for one weird Moses. The federal pharaohs have judged the shock jock a plague unto the airwaves. When he says naughty things, they whip his broadcaster with fines. Stern has vowed to leave traditional radio for the promised land of satellite radio — where the Federal Communications Commission can't touch him. And he's urging his tribe of 12 million listeners to follow.

It remains to be seen how many Stern fans will go to radio they have to pay for (plus buy new equipment). Sirius Satellite Radio thinks many will, and is giving Stern $500 million(!) to bring them its way. Sirius charges $12.95 a month for the service.

Stern's appeal frankly escapes me. His bathroom humor is not funny. His grossness has no redeeming social value. Something about Howard Stern attracts the coveted 18-to-49 male audience, and I don't want to know what that is.

Yet I feel the pull to join him and other AM/FM refugees now streaming into the land of no commercials and jazz that flows on five channels. More than 3 million people have already made the crossing, with the great majority signing up with XM Satellite Radio at a cost of $9.99 a month.

What subscribers to either satellite service get is over 100 channels of digital sound. Like Latin music? XM has a basic offering plus three other channels specializing in Mexican, tropical or Latin jazz. Its news channels carry BBC, ABC Radio, Fox News and other readers of current events.

And there's talk without chains. Because satellite radio is not readily available to the non-paying public, the FCC has no control over what goes on there.

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For people who actively avoid Howard Stern, following him into satellite radio might sound counterproductive. But that is not the case, because it's a lot easier to shun him on a satellite service with dozens of alternatives. Perhaps Bob Edwards, the former host of NPR's "Morning Edition," is more your speed. He's now on one of XM's channels.

Back at traditional radio, you get a lot of right-wing screamers and endless commercials — now up to 20 an hour. The music stinks, too. The rock is mostly Top 40. Lovers of classy music used to camp out at public radio. But NPR is steadily replacing its classical, jazz and folk-music programs with more yakking.

Small wonder audiences are fleeing traditional radio. The group leaving the fastest is the 18-to-24 crowd, which is happily customizing music programs on their iPods.

Let me assure readers that I am not a shill for satellite radio. In truth, I have yet to sign up for it. My media shelves already groan with TVs, laptops, DVD players, VCR players and boom boxes. There's a radio/tape/CD player in the car. Meanwhile, my checking account bleeds with charges for cable, high-speed Internet, Netflix and TiVo. Do I really care to start monthly payments for radio?

I also want to put in a kind word for free speech. There are worse things than having Howard Stern say wicked things on the air. One is watching official hypocrisy rise to new levels of indecency. We're supposed to forgive and forget that Vice President Dick Cheney hurled the f-word at a U.S. senator, but applaud that the FCC hounds Howard Stern for no greater crime.

Note the federal censors' class system in determining who can say or hear what. When it comes to bawdy talk, Shakespeare equals or exceeds anything coming out of Stern's lips. But since the general public — not to mention the FCC — doesn't understand the Bard's English, no one objects when a Shakespeare play gets read over the airwaves.

Stern's radio contemporaries also get away with stuff because they say it in fancier ways. Don Imus told Time magazine that his show has "a veneer of sophistication that probably inoculates us from the Federal Communications Commission." The I-Man added: "I really don't think anybody at the FCC is bright enough to figure out what we're doing."

It's truly tempting to follow Stern across the parted sea and wave bye-bye to the FCC on the other shore. Let the bureaucrats spend eternity glued to AM/FM. And may the plague of commercials render them crazy.

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.