So Howard Stern is quitting the public airwaves in favor of satellite radio, eh? Good for him.

He says he’s sick of being spanked by the FCC and of dealing with the political and financial pressures inherent in corporate broadcasting, and I believe him. He says that given editorial freedom, he will take his show to new creative heights, and, well, I want to believe him.

And make no mistake: Of all the risks involved with someone of Stern’s stature jumping to satellite radio, this is the really big one, at least as far as the rest of us shlubs are concerned. Stern is saying, in effect, that the reason mainstream radio is so awful is because it’s being strangled by uptight regulators and by corporate drones who are too fearful of alienating listeners, advertisers and the feds to serve up decent programming. Now he will have a chance to prove he’s right.

If he is right, if his show crackles with the kind of piercing humor and originality Stern is certainly capable of, he should have little trouble in rebuilding at least a good portion of his current audience of 12 million listeners. And if this happens, he could introduce lots of new customers to Sirius Satellite Radio, which, for $12.95 a month and a $150 receiver, offers subscribers more than 60 channels of uncensored talk, sports, news, all kinds of music – and few commercials.

But if he is wrong, Stern will play right into his detractors’ claims that he is little more than an attention-grabbing, foul-mouthed agitator, a giggly spate of flatulence in the dull tea party that is commercial radio. In other words, the constraints Stern says are killing him could also be making him look good by comparison.

This is precisely why there is much at stake here. Not because, as some contend, this could be the death of commercial radio (the mold in the back of my refrigerator will die before commercial radio does, and it still smells better). Not because satellite radio could come of age (it will, eventually). But because Stern is about to leap across the great Pop Cultural Divide, and that has the potential to do great things.

The divide I’m referring to seems to get more pronounced by the day. Just look at the landscape. Network television – “Desperate Housewives” and “Arrested Development” notwithstanding – just gets worse and worse. Cable stations, meanwhile, keep introducing invigorating new shows and racking up Emmys. As for radio, unless you’re addicted to right- or left-wing talk, bland news/weather/traffic pablum, or the tiniest tip of the pop music iceberg, there is little on commercial radio that’s really interesting. Do you like jazz (and folks, Sade and Kenny G are not jazz)? You have at best one or two stations to turn to. On satellite radio, you have a handful, not to mention entire stations devoted to blues, world music and real alternative rock, stations that do not have to let record labels dictate which songs they play.

The divide goes on and on, but you get my point: For every medium bleached into Wonder Bread flour by financial or political constraints, there is an alternate medium with infinitely more interesting choices. And, thanks to media cross-ownership and our Internet-fueled demand for instant gratification, the divide is getting easier to navigate. Heck, cable TV isn’t “alternative.”

Neither should satellite radio be (many of the stations offered there are already available on the Internet).

And here comes Stern to stir things up some more, perhaps giving satellite radio a major boost and making all of us more likely to adopt the consumer attitudes that kids have already perfected: If you can’t find what you want on the car radio or network TV, go find it elsewhere.

Fortunately, Stern’s a bright guy. He knows that it took more than the freedom to use four-letter words to make “The Sopranos” so good and so popular; it took smart writing and great acting, too.

I’ve listened to Stern off and on for some 20 years. He can be extremely funny and very engaging. He can also be whiny, self-absorbed and utterly addicted to tired punch lines involving racial stereotypes, strippers and lesbians. When he opens his show on Sirius Satellite Radio, he’ll be looking at a huge opportunity. He’ll also have his work cut out for him. Let’s hope that freedom lets him ring true.



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