Shock Treatment

It doesn't really matter whether he overtakes KQ and Tom Barnard. Either way, Howard Stern wins. And local radio loses.

Walter Sabo, a national radio consultant based in Florida, has consulted clients who've syndicated Stern and advised stations on how to neutralize his presence. He says KQ's decision to avoid an on-air pissing match is dead-on. Because, across the board, those who've been most successful against Stern refuse to talk about him, don't try to copy him, and spend every second of their broadcast talking about things happening in their respective cities. Sabo also believes Stern will ultimately prevail. "It's the same interview in every city," Sabo says "The city is always in shock. They don't think he'll beat the number one guy. And he does. And he's number one in billing. It's a pretty consistent pattern."

Sitting on the fence in New Jersey is Joe Lenski, vice president of Edison Media Research. Armed with data from every city in which Stern's aired, he says--believe it or not--that talent will be the deciding factor. Whoever makes more people laugh will be king. According to Lenski, "Tom Barnard will have to put up or shut up, because this is Coke versus Pepsi, Burger King versus McDonald's. I don't think there's a guy in the market aged 18 to 35 who's not going to tune into one if they're listening to another. They're going to compare. People really love Barnard in our research. And it's more than him. It's the whole crew. And he has been on for 15 years. But if the local talent isn't up to the challenge, Stern will expose them. Sure, all things being equal, people tend to skew local. But Howard is way more talented than 99 percent of the DJs in the country. And if he makes people laugh, they'll come back. They always do."

In the short term, Stern's presence can hardly fail to shift ratings. He's arriving on the heels of a national media storm kicked up by the film Private Parts, a semiautobiographical soft-shoe designed to give his bawdy image a mass-market upgrade. Barnard is so dominant in this market--among men and women, 18 to 34, he's beating his closest competitor by a factor of two--Stern is sure to shake up the bottom-dwellers. And, as McCarthy points out, Chancellor to date hasn't spent a dime on publicity. Their big-budget blitz will come in the fall.

"The only thing that could've happened to Chancellor is if Stern came to the market and nobody noticed," Jim Pounds says. "At the very least, they've gotten attention out of it, and a fair amount of sampling on the part of prospective listeners, which isn't a bad thing. And there's no question that any kind of shift, even a small shift in either demand or numbers, will have a demonstrable effect on the bottom line."

Even if he doesn't overtake Barnard anytime soon, Stern seems certain to become a long-term presence in the market. "It's the Howard Stern Casino," Sabo says. "You can enter the casino with him, and play all the hands you want. But ultimately the house always wins."

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