In his farewell to broadcast radio yesterday, Howard Stern’s theme was that he and his audience were the last of a dying breed — and that breed is mass media: “There will never be another radio show like this. There will never be another audience like this… We are all the last of a dying breed.” Afterwards, I walked down Sixth Avenue by NBC — the mass-media company that fired Stern and soon went out of the radio business — and thought: dying breed, indeed.
I suppose Stern had to write that obit. But the truth is that he is — and has been for sometime — the first of a new breed. Many of the themes I see in evolving and exploding media are or have long been reflected in Stern. I don’t mean to turn him into a subject of academic abstraction — I listen because he’s funny. Period. Nor do I mean to turn him into the farting McLuhan. But consider:
: I have argued, ad nasueum, that the essence of media in the future is not just content and not distribution but relationships. Well, that is what Stern’s show is all about, always has been. The warped Dilbert society in his office provides half the entertainment and the rest comes from how he interacts with and busts both guests and fans. It’s not content but the chemical reactions among people that make the Stern show so addictive.
: You’ve heard me say until you’re blue in the face that media is conversation. It always should have been, only now it can be. Stern is all about conversation. So is talk radio and cable news, you might say. But those aren’t real conversations; those are Claymation ping-pong games.
: The highest ethic of this open-source age, I’ve argued, is transparency. Well, Stern had made his career on honesty pushed to and past the limit. All the rest of broadcast and mass media has a manufactured voice made of plastic and chrome. Even former CBS News President Andrew Heyward says that news must rediscover an authentic voice. Well, Stern has long had that. Oh, I know, you’ll remind me that he’s still a showman and that he’s not exactly like that off the air. But he’s not making it all up; he couldn’t. He’s bringing out the voice inside. Unlike us, he says the things he thinks. He says the things we think but won’t say. That makes broadcasters uncomfortable, just as the raw voice of blogs makes newspeople uncomfortable. It’s the sound of the future.
: Stern has long respected the content created by the audience; he makes shows out of it. The opus of song parodies about Bababooey alone is amazing.
: The recurring theme of media today is that the people are taking control. At least since the FCC starting attacking him and certainly since Clear Channel canned him, Stern has been about leading a revolt against power.
: And yesterday, Howard and Robin talked about what it was going to be like having a smaller audience on Sirius. Oh, they always valued and bragged about their huge audience. And you could argue that they were just rationalizing when they said that perhaps their audience grew too big. But the truth of media in the future is that there will continue to be more use of media spread out among more, smaller audiences. The mass of niches.