Sirius XM eyes Stern renewal

Plans shock jock update in the coming months

NEW YORK -- Sirius XM Satellite Radio hopes to have an update on the future of shock jock Howard Stern, whose contract is up at the end of this year, before its next earnings conference call, which is in about three months.

"We hope that prior to the third-quarter earnings conference call we can have an announcement on what is going on with Howard," CEO Mel Karmazin told Wall Street at the end of Wednesday morning's second-quarter call.

While the company has previously mainly suggested people keep an ear on Stern for an update, the latest comment came at the very end of the call as president and chief content officer Scott Greenstein reminded Karmazin to mention the latest. In that context, the comments hinted at optimism that the radio star would extend his relationship with Sirius.

Wall Street observers have predicted a renewal of Stern's deal with Sirius, but at a lower cost for Sirius, possibly in exchange for less on-air work for Stern.

Barrington Research analyst James Goss said financial details and terms of a renewal will be "critical" to determining how well investors receive it. For example, a deal should balance "the potential loss of revenues without Howard Stern programming versus the costs of keeping that programming in the mix," he said.

Lazard Capital Markets analyst Barton Crockett said more than 1 million subscribers signed up with Sirius around Stern's hire in a sign of his immediate appeal, but given his high cost, the deal to date was likely more or less a wash for Sirius.

"In the dance between Sirius and Howard Stern, there is some entertainment, and they both know it," he added.

Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan predicted Stern won't get what was $500 million in stock in his current five-year deal. How does he view Sirius without him?

"It would certainly be a material loss," he said. "He adds aura like NFL Sunday Ticket does for DirecTV even if (people) don't listen."

Given his edginess though, Stern can't go terrestrial, and it's still hard to monetize Internet radio. So, "he should come back unless he wants to sit on the beach," Harrigan quipped.

In another news tidbit that created buzz early Wednesday, Sirius said it is working on a 2.0 satellite radio product that is expected to become available in time for the holiday season next year.

While providing no specifics yet, Karmazin told Wall Street Wednesday that it will offer more content and features. Management also said it could become one of the company's biggest drivers of financial returns.

Karmazin was as bullish as ever Wednesday now that Sirius has put its 2008 merger of the two big sat radio firms and the following financial crisis and resulting debt challenges behind it.

"In 2010, investors will get a real indication of how good our (performance) can be," he told analysts. "I feel really good about our future prospects."

Sirius said Wednesday that it swung to a second-quarter profit as it continued its recent subscriber momentum.

The company early Wednesday posted a profit of $15.3 million, compared with a year-ago loss of $159.6 million, which included big debt-related losses. Revenue rose 16% to $705.6 million.

Sirius ended the quarter with a record-high 19,527,448 subscribers. The quarter's net additions of 583,249 compared to a year-ago loss of 185,999. Based on the strong results, Sirius increased some of its 2010 forecasts.
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