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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2005

    Godspeed, Howard Stern

    Godspeed, Howard Stern


    If the following reads like an obituary, in a sense it is.

    Howard Stern’s last show on free radio airs Friday; after a brief hiatus he will return in early January on Sirius satellite radio, which has offered him a contract said to be worth $500 million over five years. I won’t be following him to satellite. I love Howard Stern; he was one of our few national radio stars, a groundbreaking talent. His show has given me many a guilty laugh, brightening the gray freeway in the morning, but I don’t commute much anymore and I’ve already got subscription fatigue from the cellphone, cable, Internet, health club, and TiVo bills that come in the mail every month. Another $12.95 a month for radio? I don’t think so.

    That’s not a rap on Howard Stern. On any average morning Stern exposed to open air the way we think at our basest, most unkind moments, when our thoughts aren’t adulterated or moderated by the need to maintain a sociable veneer: the racism, sexism, stereotype-ism, pettiness and meanness that lurk somewhere beneath the surface of even the most sanctimonious Mr. and Mrs. Grundys—especially the most sanctimonious.

    This is the essence of comedy, as has been well understood since ancient times. Stern would send a man out to quiz homeless drunks on current events, then they’d bet on whether each answer would be wrong or right. (Porn stars got treated the same way.) The quintessential Stern bit was sending his henchman Stuttering John to a fancy media do like a premier to ambush stars at their phoniest moments with queries about their menstrual cycles or sexual habits. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t enjoy watching the air escape from a preening, self-regarding celebrity?

    Let’s not forget that one of the most extraordinary radio broadcasts of all time was the Howard Stern show of September 11, 2001. I heard it years later, broadcast as a rerun. Nothing delivers the immediacy of that awful morning as the way Stern and his goofballs reported the events downtown to each other, in sudden shocked seriousness and absolutely genuine dismay and fear, knowing no more than the rest of us, all in real time. You want reality programming? This was so real it’s hard to listen to without breaking into a sweat.

    That said, on a normal day one never could tell how much of the Stern show was truly spontaneous. The regular psychodramas featuring the staff ganging up one another, complaining about each others’ laziness, stupidity, even poor personal hygiene, may have been scripted to within an inch of their lives, or they may have been as genuine as the cloudbursts within a big family. It certainly sounded real, but that might merely signify how good they were at their jobs.

    The fact is the show was, by turns, hilarious, horrifying, and compelling. There are bits that still make me laugh out loud when they come to mind, in all their appalling tastelessness. By the way, the show could also be stupefyingly boring. Stern wasn’t above toadying to the mighty like anyone else; he genuflected to George W. Bush after 9/11, changing his tune only after the administration started cracking down on broadcast standards. You know what? Sometimes I changed the station to NPR.

    That seems to be a capability denied to the numerous bluenoses, official and self-appointed alike, who stepped up their attacks on Stern in 2004, in the wake of the Janet Jackson thing at the Super Bowl. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, sensing the main chance, made Stern the symbol of all that society supposedly found objectionable on the air—Stern’s 12 million listeners be damned. The summit of hypocritically false piety was reached by Clear Channel Communications, which pulled the show off six of its stations. As I wrote at the time:

    The network's rationale was that a recent Stern segment that included references to a crude epithet for blacks, anal sex and the size of various peoples' genital organs "blew right through" a "line in the sand" the network had drawn against indecency.

    One might conclude from this that Clear Channel had a right to be shocked. However, as a frequent listener to the Stern show, I can state without fear of contradiction that there has probably not been a single day in the last 10 years in which all three of those references haven't been an integral part of the program. In other words, if Clear Channel truly drew a line in the sand, it carefully drew it at a point it knew Howard Stern had long since crossed.

    In 1997, with the release of Stern’s rather touching autobiographical movie, Private Parts, there was a lot of armchair analysis in the press about the secrets of his success. One constant in the discussion was his rigorously monogamous relationship with his wife, Alison. It was said—and it was true—that the conservatism of his domestic life was what enabled him to be so raunchy on the air. The constant leering and slavering over naked women and porn stars would be too scary and odious for listeners to accept if they thought he was really acting out all these verbal impulses.

    And it was true: the corny jejunity of his home life reduced all the wild talk to just banter. It secured Stern’s role as an everyman, because every man deep down ogles and fantasizes about porn stars but doesn’t touch. Most, like Stern’s radio persona, would be worried about whether they’d measure up if they did touch. Stern understood that it’s human nature to talk big and act small, and he wasn’t afraid to locate himself smack in the middle of that peculiar neurosis.

    Then he and Alison divorced. During the happy-marriage years, the story line was that if they ever broke up the change in his image would destroy his popularity. It sounds right and at some level he must have believed it, because he promptly entered into another monogamous relationship, although this time with a glamorous model. To hear him discuss it on the air, it was a marriage in all but name, and he hadn’t changed. The message was echt Stern: You can be living with a lingerie model and still be a meeskite.

    The show appeared to suffer an audience decline starting about then, so the concerns about the host’s changed persona may have been well placed. This, along with the big payday, may even have had a lot to do with Stern’s move to satellite—possibly more than the FCC crackdown that Stern blames for the move.

    Will Stern thrive on satellite? Who knows? In the short term, Sirius and Stern can claim the new contract’s a win-win: Sirius has gained over a million new subscribers since the deal was announced, more than enough on a straight revenue basis to pay for the contract, albeit a fraction of Stern’s terrestrial audience. It also won instant renown for Sirius and a big boost in its efforts to draw even with the No. 1 satellite service, XM. Stern gets the money and the freedom, although part of what made his show work was the tension between its content and the legal and social edge.

    But that’s rather beside the point. Howard Stern is departing a popular entertainment medium, probably for good. Down here on Earth, we’ll miss him.
    No One Knows Everything. Only Together May We Find The Truth JG

  2. #2
    PhilosophyGenius Guest
    I'm getting one soon. A Sirius radio seems pretty coo. One thing that's kinda dumb is how he's unsensored now, so is his new tv shows (which you have to pay for), but his website still blures out boobies.

  3. #3
    beltman713 Guest
    Subscription based website next, stay tuned.

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