Everybody knows Howard Stern has moved to Sirius Satellite Radio, but rival stations and radio industry observers admit they're not sure where his young male listeners have gone.
"I think they're looking around. They sure haven't become (satellite) subscribers," said Tony Bruno, the veteran sports-talk host currently on KMPC-AM (1540) in the morning. "They're punching buttons, the same as on TV."
Arbitron numbers for the January-March period, the first since Stern left terrestrial radio on December 16, won't become public until this Thursday, April 27. However, a study by Jacobs Media, a radio-consulting firm, predicts: "As the Arbitron Winter survey results are released, there will be some happy local morning shows that have shown tangible growth since Stern's departure to Sirius. First, they have been successful in enticing former Stern listeners to their shows, and secondly, they no longer have to compete directly against him."
The study, based on more than 25,000 responses from listeners to rock-format stations around the country, estimates that 70 percent of Stern's regular listeners stayed with terrestrial radio shows during the morning drive hours. While 22 percent of respondents called themselves "regular listeners" of Stern's program, 63 percent never listened to him.
Among those who were regular Stern fans, 19 percent have moved to Sirius and another 9 percent plan to move. But 29 percent have switched to a different morning radio station, and 42 percent stuck with the same station where Stern broadcast before the switch.
In the Los Angeles market, that means KLSX-FM (97.1), now the forum for TV host and comedian Adam Carolla. Competitors in the talk category include "Mark & Brian" on KLOS-FM (95.5); "Kevin & Bean" on KROQ-FM (106.7); the "Mancow Morning Madhouse Show" on KLAC-AM (570) and "The Tony Bruno Show" on KMPC-AM.
And in the 25-54 age male demographic the golden segment for advertisers it turns out Stern didn't exactly hold a monopoly. Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association in Los Angeles, said Stern barely ranked in the top five for reaching his core of men 25-54 and didn't make the top 20 for reaching persons over 12 in any given week.
"If all of (his listeners) had followed him to Sirius, you would lose them out of the morning drive," Garber said. "But very few did, and they didn't listen to just Howard and no other radio station."
The dissipation of Stern's audience reflects the way modern consumers use radio, Garber explains. It functions as a social network or virtual neighborhood that they can participate in while working or driving. The typical person belongs to several of these social circles, switching back and forth among them on impulse.
"The average person spends 75 percent of his or her time with two or three radio stations. People pick these social networks and live in them," Garber said.
For Bruno, this channel switching explains the growing popularity of talk radio for both listeners and advertisers. "What's important is time spent listening, and the reason morning radio has switched to talk is because people listen to talk longer," he said. In contrast, on music-format stations, every new song provides an exit point for listeners to decide to stay or switch.
With the departure of Stern, "one of the neighbors who was popular just moved away," Garber continued. "You're not going to hear from him. Somebody else bought his house. That's kind of where we are right now. But the house didn't go away, and no one has boycotted the neighborhood."
Bruno can speak with authority about the adaptability of radio audiences. After his contract expired with Fox Radio, he went silent for seven months before re-emerging last year with his current syndicated show on Sporting News Radio. During the hiatus, listeners didn't mourn they just switched channels and kept driving.
Garber figures about 15 percent of Stern's audience probably followed him out of the market, an estimate close to the Jacobs Media study's finding of 19 percent. "There's a little core audience that bought Sirius, but that's not 6.5 percent of the market," she said.
Instead of moving to satellite radio, most listeners simply moved to one of their other already established social networks. These local stations enjoy one clear advantage over satellite radio: They're free, while Sirius costs about $13 per month.
Infinity Broadcasting, owner of KLSX-FM, touted that advantage from the moment Stern decided to leave. In October, the company announced that "as part of its Howard Stern replacement strategy," its stations would re-brand themselves as "Free FM."
Like other former Stern competitors, Bruno expects to see improvement in his Arbitron numbers this week. His hopes have been bolstered by e-mails from Stern listeners who have moved from sex talk to sports talk. At the same time, he enjoys the best of both worlds through an agreement to distribute his show non-exclusively on XM Satellite Radio, the competitor to Sirius. Bruno can now boast: "I have more people who can hear me than Howard Stern, for the first time in my career."
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