Given the climate, if Stern returns to Sirius, "he's not going to get $500 million again," said Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce. Robert Eatman, the agent for Sirius talents Opie & Anthony and rapper Nick Cannon, agreed that Stern is "probably not worth" $500 million to Sirius now.
But the question will be just how much less Sirius can pay and still keep Stern.
Stern accounts for about $80 million of Sirius' annual programming costs, which have totaled $365 million over the past four quarters. The $80 million covers Stern's salary, wages for his staff and production and operating expenses, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The remainder of the contract was paid in stock.
There are no independent ratings available to track the popularity of Stern's show, which airs Monday through Thursday mornings. But he has been so important to Sirius that he was the sole radio talent mentioned in SEC filings from 2006 through 2009 as a party whose failure could hurt Sirius' business. (Automakers were also among the listed entities.) In his first year at Sirius, Stern received a stock bonus worth $82.9 million because Sirius' subscriber count exceeded an agreed-upon target by more than 2 million.
Stern could leave to start a new venture, perhaps a subscription service that sends his show to PCs and mobile devices. Sirius already streams Stern's shows online and through the iPhone. Or he could explore more options in cable TV, where his first pay-per-view special, "Howard Stern's Negligee and Underpants Party," was offered in 1988.