If Howard Stern follows through with his threats to leave or retire when his current Sirius XM contract expires, his departure would be a crippling blow to the company. Even if he decides to sign on for a few more years, the extremely popular host just turned 60 and has often said he won't be like Don Imus or Larry King, clutching a microphone until he is dragged away from it. So, whether it's 2015 or a few years later, Sirius XM has a huge problem on its hands.

When Stern joined the then Sirius Satellite Radio in January 2006, the struggling company had 600,000 subscribers. Now, having merged with rival XM, the combined Sirius XM, in its fourth-quarter financials, claimed 25.56 million subscribers.

And though the company does not release ratings for any individual channel, a large amount of its paying customers listen to Stern primarily, if not exclusively. In fact, back when Stern was making news about leaving rather than take a pay cut from his rumored $100 million a year salary, Forbes reported that 60% of Sirius' audience listened exclusively to the controversial talker.

Even if that number was an overestimate or has fallen as Sirius XM has grown its subscriber base, the potential subscriber loss from a Stern departure could mean a stunning business hit. With a mid-priced Sirius XM subscription costing $14.99 a month, a loss of 1 million subscribers would mean $14.99 million a month or $178.8 million a year -- a huge loss even when you subtract Stern's salary.

If only a million subscribers leave with Stern, the blow is manageable. If the number were considerably higher -- and there are strong reasons to expect it would be -- the news could destabilize the company. Unlike in television, where the next hit is always potentially one pilot season away, there are no short-term solutions in radio.

Stern's current deal expires in December 2015 and, if you believe the radio hosts persistent on-air rants, he could go to a pure Internet play or simply retire. When the host took his show to Sirius from terrestrial radio, the stations he was on tried a number of alternatives, including David Lee Roth, Adam Carolla, and later, younger Stern knockoffs Opie and Anthony. None of those shows succeeded. The David Lee Roth Show earned a market share of 1.8% in January 2006, down from the 7.9% Stern attracted the prior month. Today, Roth is back fronting Van Halen, Carolla hosts a successful podcast, and Opie and Anthony have a dramatically lower profile than Stern's channel on Sirius XM.

The flagship terrestrial stations that aired Stern's show not only struggled to replace him, many of them had to change formats, in no small part due to his departure. Stern's flagship, New York's K-Rock even had to dump its rock format and move to Top 40. In Boston, Stern's station WBCN, one of the most iconic rock stations in the country, simply went away. 

The New York Daily News reported in 2009 that when he left for satellite in 2006, CBS Radio's then-CEO Joel Hollander estimated Stern generated an astonishing 10% of all CBS Radio revenue. According to the same Daily News article, that number was even higher at K-Rock -- the last couple of years Stern was there, the station collected more than $50 million in ad revenue, and finance people said about 75% was from Stern.

Will people cancel?

One of Sirius' strongest attributes is that it has had a very low monthly churn -- losing just 1.9% of subscribers per month in 2012, the last full year for which results are available. That number is especially impressive when you consider it takes into account people who get a free subscription with a new vehicle and must choose to stay a customer and pay after the trial period.

Still, with so many of its customers fans of Stern more than of Sirius XM, you have to imagine there will be a large migration if he leaves. That number would likely be much greater if Stern decided to stay on the air, but move his show elsewhere. Both Yahoo  and Apple's iTunes were rumored destinations when his contract was last up. It's also possible that Stern, who has famously butted head with his bosses at pretty much every stop on his career, will simply partner with a company on the technical side and take his show to the Internet under his own flag.

Alternative hosts

Sirius has thrown money at a number of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, who Stern famously ranted about as she received $18 million a year (according to The Hollywood Reporter) for a deal where she appeared on the channel in an original show for just half an hour a week. Martha Stewart also got millions for her now defunct channel. And channels branded to Maxim and Cosmopolitan magazines have come and gone.

Realistically, as was proven when Stern left terrestrial radio, there is no one person or even group of hosts who can fill his seat. The best bet for Sirius, if Stern were to retire, would likely be to keep his two channels -- Howard 100 and Howard 101 -- on the air with a mix of repeats (the company will own more than 30 years of shows by 2015) and new programs featuring various Stern sidekicks.

If Stern stays on the air, it's unlikely his audience would stick around for the Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate show or even for sidekick Robin Quivers, and it's unlikely any of Stern's main cast would ever desert their boss.

But if Stern hangs up his mic, perhaps Sirius XM could entice him into an ongoing relationship by employing his crew (whose post-show futures he has often worried about on the air). Howard 100 and Howard 101 without new Stern shows would not be the same, but having the channels with new programs from familiar people in the Stern universe may very well stop the subscriber bleeding.

The next step

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The article If Howard Stern Leaves, Will Sirius XM Survive? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributor Daniel Kline is long Sirius XM. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Yahoo! The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Sirius XM Radio. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Paul Harrghis

Over 12 million listeners? If you count total listening hours/year maybe. I saw an ex Sirius employee post that stern gets about 90,000 listeners/day. Opie and Anthony are the best show on the platform. Sirius give them zero resources or promotion. They pay for a $1 million party, then sack half a dozen great DJs, who work LIVE. Who wants to listen stern comment on material from 5 years ago, after he had already given up on quality radio? Old stern can be downloaded, live current material is the only thing that can really compete with iPods and terrestrial radio.

February 17 2014 at 11:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Van Allen

this article was obviously wrote by someone who doesnt even listen to radio frequently lol

February 08 2014 at 1:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Tom Van Allen

well for one stern only does a show like what, once a week i think now? and he has 40 years worth of back radio and video segments for replay value so he knows he can keep dough rolling in for a long time after he dies. if he leaves it wont affect anything at all. it will make sirius BETTER. right now howard hogs all money so no other shows get anything. broken mic f u use it, broken keyboard f u use it. howards bday party cost the company a million bucks, yet when someone else wants to throw a festival the company trys to make them pay 300k lol MAKES THEM PAY. him leaving would be the best thing

February 08 2014 at 1:09 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Dolores Chipperson


January 19 2014 at 11:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Are you on drugs???????????????

January 18 2014 at 8:31 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Half the subscribers listen to Stern exclusively? Who paid you to write that? I would bet a large chunk of subscribers don't even get Sterns channel, as you don't when you have basic XM. And the fact that Opie and Anthony (who are not Stern knock offs, welcome to 2005) have a lower profile channel is a testament to poor management by Sirius being as they are a drastically more entertaining show at the moment. Stern is past his prime, many former stern die hard fans such as myself no longer listen and converted to O&A.

If Stern leaves I don't see a drastic amount of cancellations at all. The service is worth way more than just stern, who only does about 6 love shows a month anyway.

January 17 2014 at 1:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tom.skerit's comment
Rodger Wonker

I uh, invented kissing Ho Ho Hollywood Stern's ass.

Face Reality, Howard had an amazing career but he hasn't been funny or interesting in YEARS.

January 19 2014 at 9:59 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

If he leaves, I'm gone. I can get all other content via other means (read: free, such as iTunes Radio).

January 16 2014 at 1:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Christian Ehrhardt

A few years ago I would have quickly said if Howard wasn't on Sirius I wouldn't subscribe but now I couldn't imagine going back to listening to regular radio-- Stern was definitely the reason I got the service but his show won't make or break me being a subscriber. That being said if I had to choose between him doing his show on Sirius and not I'd of course prefer him to continue.

January 16 2014 at 10:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Stern is on 3 days a week and is on vacation about 20 weeks. I listen to him but he is just going thru motions now as he is TV star/judge. Sirius has so much more to offer I think the only effect if Stern leaves will be saving on his salary. He brought a buzz when he began at Sirius but those days are gone.

January 16 2014 at 9:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

He crippled siri back in 2006..........

January 15 2014 at 4:42 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply