Sirius XM CEO gone. Howard Stern next?October 24, 2012: 1:01 PM ET
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
Sirius XM (SIRI) is looking for a new CEO. Will they have to soon start searching for a new King of All Media shock jock as well?
The departure of Mel Karmazin from Sirius is a bit of a surprise, but not a huge shock. By all accounts, Karmazin was not meshing well with Liberty Media chairman John Malone. Liberty Media (LMCA) helped rescue Sirius XM at the height of the financial panic in 2009 with an investment that some think saved Sirius XM from bankruptcy. But Malone has been seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commission to gain control of Sirius.
Karmazin isn't the only one who's unhappy though. Howard Stern, the biggest star for the satellite radio company, has a contract that runs out in 2015. And he's been voicing displeasure lately about his life at Sirius. According to a story from local media news site Examiner.com, Stern said on Monday's show that he was "miserable" and "would be happier if he quit work." The Examiner.com story also quoted Stern as saying that he might look to leave his contract early.
Now of course, this may just be a case of Stern using the airwaves to try and push for better terms in a new contract. Stern has used this negotiating ploy many times before and wound up signing a new 5-year deal with Sirius XM in 2010.
"There is an issue with Howard. But there's always an issue with Howard," said John Tinker, an analyst with Maxim Group.
The Stern show's official Twitter account even tweeted this telling remark on Monday.
A spokesman for Sirius XM declined comment. Still, investors may need to be a little concerned that Stern could be, uhh, serious about leaving Sirius this time around. Karamzin famously hired Stern for Infinity Broadcasting, now owned by CBS (CBS) in the mid-1980s after Stern was fired by NBC. The two have been inseparable since, with Karmazin agreeing to join Sirius XM shortly after Stern did in 2004.
Although the relationship between Karmazin and Stern has reportedly cooled over the past few years as Stern amped up his dissatisfaction with his contract -- Stern even sued Sirius XM, alleging that he was owed more stock grants, a case that was dismissed in court earlier this year -- it seems fair to speculate about whether Stern would want to work for a new boss. Karmazin, after all, is the proverbial devil he knows.
Investors don't seem too worried just yet. Sirius shares were flat on Wednesday. The stock has been red hot in 2012 along with Malone's Liberty Media.
Traders were split on whether Stern will leave or stay with Sirius. One Twitter follower noted that Sirius has to keep Stern.
But another mentioned that Stern might want to bolt yet again for the world of online streaming radio and even mentioned Pandora (P) as a possible destination.
David Joyce, an analyst with ISI Group, said the tough question for Sirius investors to answer is whether or not a Stern exit would really be a huge negative for the company. On the one hand, Joyce said it's clear that Stern brought a lot of subscribers to the company. A chunk of them could leave if Stern did. But Joyce, who has a buy rating on Sirius XM stock, added that the fact that Stern has such a hefty contract has also added to the company's content costs.
So at the end of the day, the departure of Karmazin and possible exit of Stern may not be that big of a problem for Sirius XM. The fundamentals for the company are improving, as I noted in a column back in May. Sirius XM has been consistently profitable for awhile now and that's not expected to change next year.
What's more, the continued turnaround of the auto industry has to be considered a big plus for Sirius, given that its radios are pre-installed in many cars produced by General Motors (GM), Ford (F), Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC) and Chrysler.
Yes, Stern may mean a lot to Sirius. But the health of Detroit means a heck of a lot more.