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Bubba, relaunched

He cried the day he was fired from his Tampa radio job. Now, he's signed on with Howard Stern, and going national.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published December 11, 2005


[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Bubba the Love Sponge Clem kisses his 3-year-old son, Tyler Clem, at his home near Tierra Verde before taking him to preschool earlier this month. He and Tyler's mother share custody. Clem's new job on satellite radio starts Jan. 9.

To understand Bubba the Love Sponge's latest career move, you need only understand a simple concept: The Rub.

Coined by his longtime pal, superstar wrestler Hulk Hogan, The Rub was what happened when a no-name wrestler stepped up against the Hulkster. Even if he was pulverized, that challenger left the ring far more famous than when he entered - as if a bit of Hogan's superstardom came off during a clinch.

Bubba the Love Sponge Clem is about to get The Rub from the King of All Media.

"At the end of the day . . . Howard Stern chose me first," said the guy once known as one of the Tampa Bay area's most popular radio personalities, now poised for a career rebirth Jan. 9 as afternoon drive-time jock on one of Stern's satellite radio channels, Howard 101.

"Howard and I are on the ground level of the next big thing in radio," added Clem, 39, who legally changed his first name from Todd to his on-air handle years ago. "When (satellite radio) does blow up - we'll be the pioneers. And Howard was the only person who has given us an opportunity."

Few would have predicted this 21 months ago, when Clear Channel Radio showed Clem the door after he incurred a record $755,000 fine from federal regulators - just before company officials were due to face Congress to talk about broadcast indecency.

The shock jock who earned a seven-figure salary calling women "b----" and showcasing the slaughtering of a boar on air, now admits he cried that day, certain his career in traditional radio was over.

"I've been fired 10 times. They never tell you when your last day is," said Clem, who remains irked that he (along with an Atlanta radio duo) was the only radio personality to lose a job over last year's crackdown on broadcast indecency.

"These last two years has been a tough time. I found out who my friends were and what really matters. I've definitely been humbled."

Within weeks, he was negotiating a deal with Sirius, which was inexplicably put on hold. While waiting and wondering, Clem made a quixotic run for Pinellas County sheriff - which he still swears was not a publicity stunt.

Sirius' foot-dragging was explained in October 2004, when the company announced a $500-million, five-year agreement with Stern. Uprooting the superstar shock jock from his longtime home at Infinity Broadcasting, the new arrangement gave him control of two satellite radio channels and a bank-busting level of funding.

Tired of the indecency crackdown and corporate radio's restrictions, Stern was heading to an environment with few content rules and no fines for X-rated talk or explicit material. Tired of playing second fiddle to XM Radio (Sirius expects to notch 3-million subscribers in December to XM's 5-million), Sirius decided to back up the money truck and snag radio's biggest name.

"Howard Stern going to satellite is analogous to Michael Jordan leaving the NBA," said radio industry consultant Fred Jacobs of Stern, who assembled an audience of 12-million mostly-diehard fans by syndicating his show in 60 markets nationwide. "They're losing a major star."

Aware that Sirius would need more shock jock programming and assured by the company that Stern was interested in his work, Clem wasn't worried by the new deal. By November 2004, he was meeting personally with Stern to discuss the possibility of landing on one of his satellite channels.

Just like that, Clem had gone from industry pariah to participating in a project that could redefine the radio business forever.

In fact, Stern's move has crystallized the turmoil facing the radio industry these days. Accused of being too conformist, too focused on profits, too homogenous and too boring, the industry now faces the possibility that this departure is the tipping point that will turn satellite radio into major competition.

And Bubba, who landed happily near the center of the storm, has a new lease on life in radio.

"We're going to do the kind of radio we used to do," said Clem, remembering the days before the indecency crackdown when he had strippers collect toys for charity. "I'm not going to go buck wild. But if I have a girl in there and say "Whip out your milk dispensers,' I can say that without worrying."

* * *

For years, it seems Big Radio has taken its audience for granted.

Allowed to consolidate into huge conglomerates, giant companies such as Clear Channel and Viacom-owned Infinity have bought large numbers of stations (more than 1,200 outlets for Clear Channel and 179 stations for Infinity), focusing on the most profitable formats.

But the explosion of digital technology changed everything. Suddenly, Big Radio's biggest weaknesses - staid playlists, too many commercials, a lack of local flavor outside morning and afternoon drive shifts and limited station formats - have all peaked at the same time.

A look at Tampa's FM dial reveals nine religious stations, five rock or classic rock stations, four country stations and four adult contemporary stations. By contrast, Sirius offers 120 channels of content, from Bruce Springsteen's E Street Radio music channel to 15 channels of talk shows.

"Terrestrial broadcasters are going to have to do a lot to hold on to the audiences they have amassed," said Jacobs, noting that some companies have cut down on their commercial loads and are working to develop HD digital radio, a technology allowing a single station to broadcast multiple signals.

But Charlie Ochs, Tampa Bay market manager for Infinity Broadcasting, warns against reading too much into the current turmoil.

Stern's show, airing on an AM station Ochs supervises, WBZZ-AM 1010, never notched huge ratings in the Tampa Bay area. Ochs hasn't even announced what will take the morning slot when Stern stops doing new shows on Friday.

"The last time I checked, human beings still have just two ears," he said. "There's so much out there, I think we're kind of on technology overload. I know terrestrial radio is going to survive. It always does."

And competitors still in the world of traditional radio remained skeptical of Stern's impact.

"Howard Stern had (12-million) listeners. On satellite, he's going to go down to a few hundred thousand. He's minimalizing himself," said Todd Schnitt, a longtime rival of Clem's who now hosts a morning show on WFLZ-FM 93.3 as M.J. and an afternoon talk show on WFLA-AM 970 as Schnitt.

"There are plenty of good morning shows around the country. What are you really going to get on satellite radio that you're not going to get on a really good morning show?"

Those who already have Sirius subscriptions have gotten a peek at the answer to Schnitt's question.

Already, Stern has aired Tissue Time with Heidi Cortez, featuring a former Playboy model delivering phone sex stories; The Howard 100 News showcases news reports prepared Daily Show style on all things Stern; and a parody of Barbara Walters' hit daytime show The View featuring women who are supposedly drug-addicted prostitutes.

In Tampa, Clem said he has spent $250,000 building a 2,500-square-foot studio near the city's airport outfitted with a stripper pole and custom-made torture rack. Strung with Christmas lights and featuring the latest technology, the space will allow him to film shows for a line of uncensored DVDs and more.

Of course, Stern announced his Sirius deal when the FCC was aggressively levying fines against radio companies. Last year, the shock jock incurred $495,000 in fines against Clear Channel (which once aired his show in several markets), and Infinity settled a number of Stern-related fines in 1995 for $1.7-million.

"Everybody's afraid to open their mouth now," said Bob Lassiter, a 29-year radio veteran who left the business in the mid '90s after years at WFLA-AM. "One of the joys of listening to a show like Stern's was the element of danger - how far can he go? What can he get away with? If you can say or do anything (on satellite), where's the danger in that?"

Sirius' own figures estimate it needs 1-million new subscribers to cover the cost of hiring Stern. Can two champions of the working class male find success after moving their shows where fans must buy a $50 receiver and pay $12.95 per month to hear them?

This transition could be the worst of all possible worlds. Stern could lose contact with his legions of fans (studies show just 20 percent of Stern's audience is expected to follow him), while Sirius could see a failed $500-million investment hobble its company. Infinity could lose millions of listeners to rival stations.

"We've just got to be that much better than free radio," said Clem. "Working class guys will spend money if they think what they're buying is good. And when I talk to Howard he says, "We're no longer giving stuff away for free, we're selling tickets to a movie.' "

* * *

This is what jokes about strippers, enemas and flatulence can buy you: Snuggled in a cozy, high-end development near Tierra Verde (residents' average age: 56.7), Clem's home is a million-dollar tribute to his bachelor dad lifestyle.

Workmen install a new home theater room (complete with 110-inch television) while Clem shows off a workout room packed with 18 exercise machines and a spacious living room with a baby grand piano and a huge blue aquarium.

Clem won't say what he earned annually during his heyday, except to note it was "a little bit north" of a reporter's $1-million guess. His agent worked out a settlement where he would continue to be paid well into 2006.

Indeed, when Clem starts his satellite radio show Jan. 9, he will be receiving two paychecks - his severance pay from Clear Channel and his new salary from Sirius. He says his current deal pays more than he earned in terrestrial radio.

Clem, now 80 pounds lighter with a new workout regimen, can imagine what former rivals are saying. That he is riding Stern's coattails; that he won't appeal to a national audience; that he and Stern will vanish amid the smaller audiences of satellite radio.

"At the end of the day, nobody in this town wants to see me pop my head up and do well," said Clem, who often fostered rivalries by insulting other jocks on his ribald shows. "I'm working for and with the biggest person in the industry . . . and they all would love to have my spot."

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press. Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or

727 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/

[Last modified December 11, 2005, 02:31:36]


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