One or more could fill Stern's vacant morning drive-time seat in January, when the radio icon surrenders his syndicated kingdom for Sirius Satellite Radio. But it's time to face the truth, for better or worse: terrestrial radio may never see another Howard Stern.
"He is irreplaceable," said Michael Harrison, founder of the trade publication Talkers magazine. "Stern is one of a kind, among the very, very small handful of people that were THE broadcasters of the 20th century— and carrying into the 21st."
Love him or hate him, Stern remains an extraordinary industry figure. He boasts a national audience larger than even his ego, advertising revenues bigger than both, a three-decade career that expanded from broadcasting into television and publishing for the self-proclaimed King of All Media.
He's the First Amendment poster boy, warring with the Federal Communication Commission, and the biggest star on satellite before his first Sirius show even airs, with a five-year, $500 million deal.
Most of all, he's a tough act to follow.
Stern's syndicated show hit No. 1 in the ratings in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles — an unprecedented achievement. In the most recent Arbitron ratings, Stern had New York's WXRK-FM at No. 1 in the mornings; in afternoon drive, the station slipped into a tie for 17th.
For the 27 Infinity Broadcasting stations that carry Stern, "he leaves a big hole," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio. "The challenges are steep."
Stern stations were expected to take a major financial hit, with estimates of about $100 million in lost revenue for Infinity. There's the promise of lost audience, too; a July study of Stern fans showed just 5 percent of his estimated 12 million listeners plan to stick with his ex-stations once Howard abdicates.
"This turns a lot of listeners loose," said Taylor. "The competition has been looking forward to this for a long time."
A top radio executive, speaking recently with Billboard Radio Monitor editor in chief Scott McKenzie, said taking over for Stern was a no-win proposition.
"His feeling was you want to be the guy replacing the guy who replaced Howard," McKenzie said. "Because no matter who the first guy is, Howard's audience is going to hate him."
Earlier this year, Infinity chief Joel Hollander said his stations will use five or six different Stern substitutes next year. "He's not replaceable" by a single person, Hollander said at a gathering of advertising executives last month.
Hollander made calls to "The Daily Show" host Stewart, comedian Goldberg and reporter Rivera about the gig, although he's yet to announce any replacements.
The 51-year-old Stern has said that Roth will take over in New York, while Carolla will replace him in Los Angeles. In other markets, Stern sees the future as diminished.
"I think people of lesser talent will become stars," Stern said in one of his many on-air rants about post-Howard terrestrial radio.
Despite his reputation as purveyor of sleaze, strippers and sex acts, Stern was also able to lure A-list guests like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stevie Wonder, along with hit musical acts like Weezer or the Foo Fighters. The ability of his successors to do the same is a major question mark.
And then there's the FCC crackdown on indecency. Since the FCC has already stopped Stern from doing the Stern show, how can his replacements fill the void?
In some ways, McKenzie said, that could turn into a positive.
"To have a Howard clone or a `Howard Light' just won't cut it," McKenzie said. "The audience is going to figure that out quickly."
Meanwhile, Stern's terrestrial radio career grows inexorably shorter. On the Sirius Web site, a clock counts down the months, days, minutes and seconds until Stern's contract expires at 12:01 a.m., Jan. 1.
At the same time, the clock is ticking on finding radio's next Howard Stern — if there's one out there.
"Why not?" asked McKenzie. "We see it happen with television — stars just emerge out of nowhere and stay there. It would be terrific for terrestrial radio to find a replacement for Howard that works."
Infinity Broadcasting and CBSNews.com are both owned by Viacom.
By Larry McShane