April 24, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Wall street thinks the man’s a genius. Howard Stern calls him God. The Justice Department fears he’s getting too powerful, and everyone at CBS is just trying to stay out of his way.

The man is Mel Karmazin, best known until recently as Stern’s radio boss — the guy who gave the so-called King of All Media the latitude to say anything on air. Well, almost anything. Karmazin’s only demand was that Stern not mention him by name on the show (some joked it was even a clause in Stern’s contract). But now, as Karmazin ushers Stern onto CBS TV with a new late-night Saturday show, even that taboo has been lifted.

It’s no wonder Karmazin is feeling impervious — even to the barb-throwing likes of Stern. This month, CBS chairman Michael Jordan turned the reins to the network and all the company’s other holdings over to the 54-year-old exec, who for the past year has been whipping CBS’ 14 TV stations into fiscal shape (the Eye’s stock price nearly doubled in the process). The ascension of Karmazin — who began as a CBS ad salesman and went on to create a hugely successful radio conglomerate — has been expected since ’96, when he sold his Infinity Broadcasting radio group to Westinghouse (now CBS Corp.) for $4.9 billion.

As CBS’ new president and chief operating officer, the low-key Karmazin (who seldom talks to the press and refuses to relocate his Manhattan office from its downscale Infinity space to CBS’ tony Black Rock building) will have to contend with a higher profile. Already he’s getting increased scrutiny: The Justice Department has told CBS to divest seven radio stations in major markets because it fears the airwave empire Karmazin built will enable him to jack up ad rates; and Wall Street suspects Karmazin plans to sell the money-losing CBS network but keep its profitable radio and TV stations. Karmazin dismissed such a scenario, saying it had ”no basis in fact.”

Karmazin’s other challenge? Getting along with outspoken CBS TV prez Leslie Moonves, who also got promoted. Besides the entertainment division, Moonves now heads up news, sports, and affiliate relations. The catch: Moonves must report to Karmazin, not directly to Jordan, who’s clearly stepping back from daily operations.

Although analysts anticipate sparks between the big egos of Karmazin and Moonves, a confidant of both men disagrees: ”Mel is a leader, but he’s not Napoleon. He’ll run the distribution and Leslie will oversee whatever goes on the air.” Another Karmazin pal says he’ll have no problem with the entertainment division’s high costs…as long as they pay off. ”If Mel is persuaded that Leslie’s a creative guy to be left alone, then Mel will leave him alone like he does with Stern.” Or as Moonves puts it: ”Mel and I are both action guys, but there won’t be a lot of high drama.”

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