Howard Stern didn't announce his plans for 2011 yesterday afternoon.

That bears pointing out, because a simple misunderstanding of comments made by Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI) CFO David Frear at an investor conference yesterday raised hopes of the satellite radio giant's iconic star finally announcing if he will be returning to Sirius after his five-year deal runs out next month.

A reporter asked for an update on Stern. Frear asked if the reporter subscribed to Sirius. No?

"You should get one this afternoon and listen to the show," Frear responded. "He'll tell you."

At first glance, it seems as if Frear was simply suggesting that the reporter go out and subscribe to hear the news first, directly from the source. Sirius XM has hinted in the past that if -- and when -- an announcement will be made, it will happen live on Stern's show.

"If you want to hear what Howard's plans are, you should just listen to Howard," CEO Mel Karmazin said during the company's first-quarter call. 

Frear's comments yesterday and Karmazin's comments from six months ago aren't materially different.

Yes, it's true that Sirius XM initially told investors that it expected to make an announcement before its third-quarter call. That deadline came and went earlier this month. The only thing that we know for sure is that we'll all have our answers when Stern hits the air -- or does not hit the air -- come January.

Negotiations obviously continue. If it set any kind of precedent, XM didn't sign Opie & Anthony until after their final show under their original contract.

Stern has options:

  • He can strike out on his own, launching a subscription plan through Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) App Store or perhaps even Amazon.com's (Nasdaq: AMZN) Audible. It would be a challenge for him to make anything close to what he's making through Sirius XM that way, but he would have complete freedom and flexibility to call his own shots.
  • Terrestrial radio isn't dead, and Stern can always return to his CBS (NYSE: CBS) roots. Censorship and FCC restrictions make this an unsavory option, but some will argue that Stern was at his peak when he was entertaining more than 10 million commercial radio listeners by occasionally coloring outside of the lines.
  • We can't dismiss tech giants with tens of billions in the bank to make up for lost time. Landing the magnetic Stern would provide instant traffic to Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) Zune Pass or Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG) inevitable launch of the cloud-based Google Music. 
  • Retirement? The guy has clearly earned the right to hang it up and enjoy his wealth while he still can.

Karmazin will naturally counter that Sirius XM is approaching 20 million subscribers, and that is largely because of satellite radio's wide spectrum of programming. Roughly half of its subscribers don't have access to Stern's show anyway. Stern may have put Sirius on the map, but satellite radio isn't a passing fad that hinges on a single content producer.

Keeping Stern for a few more years would help cement Sirius XM's status as the only game in town for premium radio, but losing him won't be fatal.

Will Stern come back to Sirius next year? Share your thoughts in the comments box below.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a subscriber to both Sirius and XM. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also a member of the Rule Breakers analytical team, seeking out the next great growth stock early in its defiance. The Fool has a disclosure policy.