Is Sirius XM Losing its Head?

Mel Karmazin may not be at Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI  ) for much longer.

With Liberty Media (Nasdaq: LMCA  ) closing in on majority control of the satellite radio provider -- and Karmazin near the end of his contract -- Sirius XM's CEO is hinting that he will be moving on come January.

"My instincts today are that Liberty does not need me at the company," Karmazin said at an investor conference on Wednesday.

Is the longtime media CEO simply jockeying for leverage, or trying to pin his plans for retirement on a scapegoat? It's hard to say. Karmazin didn't do a good job of selling himself.

"I have historically been expensive," he argued against his favor. "It's very clear to me that if I were Liberty, I would sit there and say I'm not sure we need Mel."

Historically expensive? At 69, it's hard to tell if Karmazin is gunning for a big payday, or orchestrating a proud retirement. Karmazin has certainly made no bones about slashing costs on the content end of his company, even as contracts of some of its more magnetic stars came up for renewal.

Cheap is fashionable
Sirius XM's content and programming costs have declined by 3% over the past year, even though revenue and subscribers have moved higher.

Sirius XM has a major advantage that its satellite television siblings do not. As DirecTV (NYSE: DTV  ) and DISH Network (Nasdaq: DISH  ) have no choice but to pay elite cable channels more and more money with every passing year, passing the cost to customers in the form of chunkier monthly bills, Sirius XM can cherry pick the content it carries.

Deals with professional sport leagues and music royalties may move higher, but Sirius XM can stuff the rest of its channels with proprietary content. It's easier than you think to find capable on-air talent that welcome the opportunity to reach Sirius XM's 22.9 million subscribers without commanding big contracts.

Maybe it's time for fresh thinking
Karmazin was the right CEO at the right time. He helped draw top talent to Sirius. He orchestrated the combination of Sirius and XM as a merger of equals, even though Sirius had fewer subscribers. He has kept costs in check to the point where profitability and cash flow are growing a lot faster than the media giant's top line suggests.

However, it may be time for a change.

Liberty Media's John Malone recently criticized Karmazin, calling his focus "short term" at a time when the company should be ramping up its Web services.

Sirius XM is certainly moving in that direction. The introduction of Sirius XM 2.0 late last year, and the recent rollout of on demand programming for its streaming customers, show that Karmazin isn't afraid of the Web-tethered future.

Before the end of the year -- in what may be Karmazin's final act as CEO -- Sirius XM plans to introduce customized radio to its online accounts.

Taking on Pandora (NYSE: P  ) is a pretty popular sport these days, but it's easy to see why Malone wants more streaming sizzle out of the satellite radio monopoly. Sirius XM's subscriber base has climbed 9% over the past year, but Pandora's active listeners have soared 48% over the past year. It's true that Pandora's listeners are largely freeloaders, but if Sirius XM can expand its online offerings to make its premium platform more magnetic to new listeners, and stickier to existing subscribers, it would be beneficial to Sirius XM.

Karmazin may not be that person. He may not want to be that person, either.

During the company's second quarter call, Karmazin said that the situation regarding his contract should be resolved by the Sirius XM's next conference call in early November. It was easy to believe that he was working on negotiating a contract extension at the time, but maybe it's just a farewell party to give the company a few weeks to drum up a succession plan.

Sirius XM is alive today because of Karmazin. If it thrives tomorrow, it may be because of somebody else.

Running of the bulls
I remain bullish on Sirius XM's future. It should come as no surprise that I'm promoting the CAPScall initiative for accountability by reiterating my bullish call on Sirius XM for Motley Fool CAPS.

I also just put out a premium report on Sirius XM Radio, detailing the challenges and opportunities that await investors who  are both long and short the dynamic media giant. A year of updates is also included with the report. Check it out now.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz calls them as he sees them. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story, except for Liberty Media. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.


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