Howard’s Beginning

How this most proper of cities launched Howard Stern, this most improper of celebrities

Thanks to Stern, Infinity’s New York station was riding high, but the same couldn’t be said for the company’s Philadelphia outlet. The idea to simulcast Stern in Philly started with Bloom, although no one at the time could foresee the impact of such a move. "Our collective vision was just to shake things up," recalls Bloom, currently vice president of programming for Greater Media Inc. in East Brunswick, New Jersey. ”’YSP had been dead. We couldn’t get noticed. The important thing was to get the station on the map."

"I remember one afternoon Andy Bloom and I were in a bar, and the guy standing next to us was telling the bartender ‘God, I just can’t believe what John DeBella was talking about this morning — he’s so outrageous,’" recalls Stevens, who, in addition to his duties at ‘YSP, serves as the general manager for Infinity’s Washington, D.C., station, WJFK, and Baltimore’s WLIF. "Well, Andy and I were familiar with Howard Stern. I mean, DeBella had probably just had one of his Gonzo Hawaiian Shirt Fridays and he might have actually said the word poop. We just looked at each other and said, ‘This town doesn’t know outrageous.”’

Shortly thereafter, Stevens traveled to New York to meet with Karmazin. He told the company president he didn’t feel he was making progress turning the station around, and Karmazin agreed to pitch the idea of a Philly simulcast to Stern.

"If it hadn’t been for Mel convincing Howard that it was the right thing for Howard, I’m not sure it would have ever happened," Stevens recalls. "Of course, the way he pitched it to him was embarrassing. He said, ‘Look at their ratings, Howard; they can’t go any lower. You’ve got a chance to be a hero there.’ I was more tentative than Mel about it, because I hadn’t worked for him long enough to unlearn some of the bad habits you learn in radio, which are ‘don’t take chances’ and ‘don’t do anything different.”’

In fact, Karmazin has made a career out of taking chances. The 49-yearold New York native built Infinity into the nation’s largest holder of radio properties-22 top-ten stations in 13 markets, with three more on the way-by, at first, buying under-performing stations in major markets, turning them around and then "trading up" to larger stations. Lately, Karmazin’s game plan has shifted, and Infinity has begun buying successful stations, such as WIP here in Philadelphia and Los Angeles’ KRTH-FM, for which the company has offered a record $11 0 million. (As part of its ongoing vendetta against Stern, the FCC has delayed Infinity’s purchase of KR TH and two other stations pending agency investigation of new complaints about Stern’s "indecency.")

Traditionally, radio stations are built around format. Karmazin, conversely, pays top dollar for personalities. In addition to its syndication of Stern and other Infinity talent such as Don Imus, WIP’s morning team and Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht (okay, so Karmazin isn’t always an astute judge of talent), the publicly held company recently bought a 25 percent share of the Westwood One radio network, parent company of the Mutual Broadcasting System, which distributes Larry King, Jim Bohannon, Pat Buchanan and Casey Kasem. And his investment in talent rather than concept has paid big dividends: Last year, Infinity’s revenues increased by 30 percent, reaching $205 million, and its profits jumped to $90 million from $64.3 million in 1992. Things have been so good, in fact, that Karmazin, when asked about Stern’s eye-popping earnings, has said, "Howard is very underpaid for what he delivers; when Howard’s paycheck comes across my desk for a signature, I smile." (He and Stern are reported to be friendly, but Karmazin, an intensely private man, nonetheless included in Stern’s 1990 contract — worth more than $10 million over five years — a clause prohibiting the jock from talking about his employer on the air.)