Amid all the confusion, one move is widely speculated to be imminent. Those who will make a decision on that move aren't talking publicly, and other observers in the notoriously incestuous radio industry -- where today's competing station managers can be tomorrow's colleagues -- are loath to state opinions for the record.
But it seems increasingly likely -- and increasingly logical -- that San Francisco will soon be hearing more of the most widely broadcast voice in radio today.
More Howard Stern.
And that prospect spells trouble for the city's other morning jocks -- most notably their one-time dean, Alex Bennett of Live 105 (KITS-FM), whose most recent ratings performance was disastrous.
Stern is already on the radio in the Bay Area (in the broadest sense of the term). His morning show, beamed in from his home station in New York City, has run on KOME-FM (98.5) for four years. But KOME is in San Jose, which means its signal is spotty in much of the heart of the Bay Area. If Stern were to get on a station with a signal in San Francisco, his audience, and the potential advertising revenues that audience attracts, would rise.
And indicators suggest Stern should be headed to one destination: Live 105.
Stern is one of the most profitable properties in the portfolio of the newly created CBS Radio (now a subsidiary of Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh). And one of CBSRadio's most recent acquisitions is Live 105.
Newly installed at the head of CBS Radio and all CBS-operated TV stations is Mel Karmazin, chairman and CEO of the CBS Station Group. Karmazin was the first radio executive to recognize Stern's potential, signing him to Karmazin's radio station chain, Infinity (which later merged with Westinghouse). Karmazin, who worked closely with Stern to syndicate his show nationally, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the San Francisco situation.
But switching Stern to KITS makes enormous financial sense. As one industry watcher put it:
"Where do you get more mileage from Stern? In San Francisco or San Jose?"
Moving Stern from KOME didn't make financial sense while his corporate parent was still Westinghouse/Infinity, before the company joined with CBS last year. Stern was generating sizable revenues for the San Jose station, which Infinity owned.
Even after CBS and Westinghouse merged -- a deal that was finally consummated last month -- there wasn't enough financial incentive to move Stern into the city. The CBS stable added stations to the potential list of San Francisco homes for Stern, but none was a proper fit. In some cases, the format didn't work with Stern; in others, the stations already performed strongly in the morning or had too small a reach to justify disrupting what was working well for KOME.
But the equation seriously changed in March of this year, when CBS bought Live 105. At about the same time, Bennett's ratings began to collapse. His most recent numbers lag far behind the leaders; he has a 1.9 share of the audience vs. Stern's 4.6 and KGO-AM's 5.0. KITS General Manager Pat McNally did not return telephone calls seeking comment on a Stern move.
KOME General Manager Jim Hardy, however, insists Stern is on his station to stay. There has been "a lot of speculation," he says, "but that's just what it is, speculation." Besides, Hardy argues, KOME has Stern under contract.
But there's not much to keep Karmazin from essentially breaking a contract with himself, and moving Stern from a San Jose CBS station to one in S.F. In fact, he has more incentive than ever to squeeze all the profits he can out of his radio division. The debt incurred to pull off the CBS/Westinghouse merger is "staggering," notes Paul Colford, a former radio columnist for Newsday in Long Island, N.Y., and the author of the definitive, 1996 Stern biography Howard Stern: King of All Media.
Then again, Karmazin could simply fold KOME into KITS, giving Stern an even more impressive reach. The tactic has proven vastly successful for KFOG-FM (104.5), which bought a San Jose station and simply started simulcasting on that signal.
If that were to happen, one veteran radio executive predicts, "Howard would be Number 1 in three books." That is, three ratings periods, or a mere nine months.
But what of the argument that Stern would not play well in San Francisco, that his jokes at the expense of gays, lesbians, blacks, and other minorities would fall flat in a city where tolerance is a much-touted civic virtue?
A bona fide liberal icon, Michael Krasny, host of KQED's public affairs morning talk show Forum, predicts that Stern would do well. "Funny works," Krasny says.
In Los Angeles, the most recent major market Stern entered, "he went to Number 1 in less than a year," Colford says. "It was nothing short of historic." He says it would be hard to imagine Stern wouldn't do quite well in San Francisco, too.
Stern certainly wouldn't have much competition on the FM band.
The talk-jock pickings are so slim hereabouts that Darian O'Toole on KBBG-FM (98.1), whose latest slogan is the awkward, pseudo-machisma "ovaries with an attitude," cracked the top 10 in some demographics in the most recent ratings book.
O'Toole claims to respect Stern's abilities. He would beat KGO, the overall leader in the market, if he were on Live 105, she says. He would also handily beat O'Toole.
Nevertheless, O'Toole says, "I'm rooting for him." She argues, not convincingly, that as his numbers go up, hers will also rise. "He'll raise the beam in this market, and that's good," she says. "We need new blood."
O'Toole should watch what she's asking for. She's no match for Stern in terms of wit or shock value. She'll invite a representative of the politically correct sex toy shop Good Vibrations on her show, so they can swoon together while discussing the need for women to recognize their sexuality; Stern, meanwhile, will be telling a stripper that just looking at her is giving him a hard-on.
If Stern gets the San Francisco platform he deserves, O'Toole's days will be numbered, too.
Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.