Not so Stern: Infinity tones down trash talk

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With Infinity Broadcasting losing its most provocative and profitable personality, the radio group is counting on a kindler, gentler morning-drive show to bring in new advertisers and offset the loss of the $100 million a year it makes from Howard Stern.

After weeks of speculation as to who will inherit the microphone from Mr. Stern, Infinity last week said former Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth and late-night talk-show host Adam Carolla will take over the shock jock's morning-drive broadcasts in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Mr. Stern remains on the air through Dec. 16, when he leaves to begin a new five-year gig with Sirius Satellite Radio.

"Radio needs a little kick in the butt, and this is shaking up the marketplace," said Matt Feinberg, senior VP-radio at Zenith Media, who in 15 years has only worked on one Stern deal. "This will clearly open up the time slot to more advertisers."

Mr. Stern's bawdiness scared away many national advertisers, yet the program generated $100 million in annual revenue for Viacom-owned Infinity-5% of the division's annual revenue. In New York, where his audience is just less than a million, Mr. Stern commands anywhere from $3,500 to $4,500 for a 60-second live read.

Taking a hit

And while Infinity CEO Joel Hollander acknowledges the company will "take somewhat of a hit in 2006," he hopes to make up that loss "over time with money from new accounts we weren't able to attract to Howard's show both nationally and locally. ... Certainly we're not going to get $3,500 out of the box but we're going to get good rates because we have good products."

While seeking out tamer, advertiser-friendly talent wasn't the sole purpose of Mr. Hollander's talent search, "now that we're going down this road, it's a bonus," he said.

Media buyers are optimistic about potentially expanding their morning-drive options and thus increasing competition in radio's most expensive daypart. But buyers are split in the advice they're giving to clients: Some promote a wait-and-see approach, while others will consider Infinity's new morning-drive shows in their first-quarter buys. Agencies will look at the demographics and ratings for other dayparts on Infinity's stations, keeping in mind Stern's halo effect, said Sue Johenning, exec VP-director of local broadcast for Initiative. "As buyers, we deal with this every year as we look at the new lineups in TV."

John Cowan, VP-media for TrimSpa, which has been a Stern advertiser for five years, will probably wait a month, he said, before assessing whether he will advertise on Stern's replacements. (He said he'll probably make the decision whether to advertise on Mr. Stern's Sirius channels before he'll decide his advertising plans on Infinity.)

Several buyers suggested Infinity will have to offer a TV upfront-style ratings guarantee with make-goods due if the new shows don't deliver the audience. Buyers won't see Arbitron ratings for the new morning shows until about three months after they debut.

"Any marketer or buyer worth their salt, unless they have a crystal ball, is going to cover themselves on it," said Rich Russo, director of broadcast at JL Media.

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