Dan Gillmor: I’m no fan of Howard Stern’s vulgar humor on his radio talk show. But I cheered when he lifted a virtual middle finger to his current employer, signing a deal to take his program to satellite radio.

It’s almost beside the point whether Stern will justify his extravagant new financial arrangement, which will reportedly pay him $100 million a year starting in 2006. Something bigger is afoot — an overdue shakeup of the medium itself.

Radio today has sunk into stagnant mediocrity. It’s not all a wasteland, but genuine choices have narrowed amid corporate homogenization and government censorship.

Technology and creative thinking have come to our rescue. Producers of audio programming have an array of inexpensive and easy-to-use tools, and much more flexibility in delivering what they create. Listeners are huge winners. From satellites in outer space to neighborhood broadcasting to our portable MP3 players and even our phones, we can get what we want, when we want it.

There will still be room, when the transition is finished, for traditional radio stations and networks — assuming they don’t successfully conspire with politicians and their entertainment-industry buddies to stifle the innovators, as they’ve pretty much done with Internet radio. The old guard will have to provide higher quality if it wants to survive.

Stern’s move has gotten the most attention. It’s a shot across the bow of the commercial conglomerates, including Clear Channel Communications, which earlier dropped his show, and Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting, which produces it. But an even more essential message is the one it’s delivering to would-be censors.

Government blue-noses in Congress, the White House and the Federal Communications Commission have been trashing the First Amendment in their zeal to police what they consider on-the-air indecency. Stern has urged voters to oust George W. Bush, and his radio program has been the most visible target of sanctions. His declaration of independence is a boost to everyone’s freedom of speech.

Stern will be appearing on the Sirius satellite system, one of the two major extra-terrestrial providers of programming. Along with XM, Sirius offers an enormous variety of programming, with more coming all the time.

If Stern and Sirius make this work, the floodgates will open. No doubt some stars will remain on the traditional airwaves, but they’ll have even more leverage with the stations and networks that hire them. Power will move toward the entertainers, and away from the broadcasters.

Satellite radio isn’t just a mass-audience medium. It enables niche programming to succeed, when the niche can attract a national audience that would not be sufficient in a given community to support the program.

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