BY SANDY WELLS
Howard Stern is the biggest radio sensation since Casey Kasem and American Top 40 or Wolfman Jack or Arthur Godfrey, Amos n' Andy, or ... the list goes on. What exactly does Howard Stern do that other radio personalities don't and can't quite imitate? Is it just the quirky chemistry he finds among his show's personalities? Or like TV's "Seinfeld," is it just brilliant nonsense? Is it the bad-boy image that draws the curious? Does Stern offer his fans a vicarious membership in a perpetual junior high school clique: the "in-crowd" that rejected them in real life?
Contradictions of Stern
The fact is that Stern has committed horrible acts to get where he is today. No radio personality has built his following by so determinedly negating his competitors. Stern is cruel, and there's no escaping it. He also doesn't play fair. He breaks the rules and gets away with it. He says things that are unspeakable and gets away with that too. If rock music once horrified parents with its sexual innuendo, Stern has done away with the need to merely suggest that sex is a universal human obsession; he just comes out and talks about it. Base Stern debases our culture, with crudeness and bad manners.
Yet he protests that he is a real family guy, who despite being tormented by libidinous cravings for forbidden flesh, adamantly maintains that he won't cheat on his wife. He's true to his roots in working-class Queens. He brilliantly illustrates the attitude of the average American married male, who, among his buddies is apt to present himself as ready to spring into action and seduce any willing female. This is the same man who goes to work every day, pays the bills and complains about the loss of family values and civic virtue.
If there's anything decent about Stern, it's that he recognizes that the average American is not overly concerned with reconciling the many contradictions governing his life. Like any tough businessman, Stern makes it a macho point of honor to skillfully bend the rules enough to crush the competition. Stern is often contrite and defensive about his behavior. He once told industry trade publication Radio & Records that it's all a matter of business. His advertisers understand the nature of his show, and they tow the line in order to reach his large audience.
Anti-social behavior has a long tradition in comedy, going back to the days of the court jester, who was licensed to speak the unspeakable in front of the royalty. Yet free speech constantly threatens to overrun the limits of political tolerance. The great Roman poet Ovid was banished from Rome for saying or writing something that went beyond the bounds of political correctness at that time. Throughout history, countless individuals have literally lost their heads for speaking their minds too freely. When Stern presided over the mock beheading of rival morning hosts Mark and Brian in 1992 - to drive home his defeat of them in the ratings - many wondered what the KLOS personalities had said that so offended Stern. Or was it merely that they dared go on the air at the same time and seek the same audience.
Stern and the FCC:
On the air, Stern dismisses Rush Limbaugh as being merely fat. End of story. Yet the former Libertarian candidate for governor of New York has more in common with Limbaugh than he'd like to admit. Both are enemies of an over-regulating government, intruding into their right to make money however they see fit. In Stern's case, the FCC is his "nemesis." Both Limbaugh and Stern, who Time magazine once paired for a cover story on talk radio, are political conservatives. They owe their careers, in part, to end of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine. Before it was abolished under President Reagan, broadcasters were required to offer equal time for opposing views to be expressed to insure a balance of opinions. On the air, Stern expressed his support for Reagan as well as New York's Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. He endorsed Rudolph Guiliani for mayor of New York and ridiculed former Mayor Dinkins (an African-American), making fun of his speech and insinuating that he's another stupid black person. Stern also made fun of Selena and Rodney King.
Most of all, Stern hates the FCC, the government agency that has the thankless task of overseeing the nation's broadcasters. Indecent Stern, known for saying naughty words on the radio, has caused his employer, Infinity Broadcasting, to pay more than $1.7 million in fines. Since the FCC waits for complaints from within the community before it acts against a broadcaster, Stern simply dismisses such acts as malicious and mean-spirited. After all, no one requires that anyone listen to his show. The principle underlying the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine was that the broadcast spectrum is no longer to be deemed "scarce" (vs. the relative unlimited potential for diversity of opinion to expressed in print) and therefore need not be regulated.
For Stern, the right to express himself overrides any right of "the people" to object to his symbolic desecration of the public airwaves. The radical right in America does not readily admit to any notions of scarcity. Nor does it care about the sanctity of the public realm whether it be the airwaves or the forests. As it turns out, Stern's ostensible views, fit right in with the conservative Weltanshauung.
Why Stern Stopped
At WNBC in New York, where Stern reached the big time in the early '80s, he was required to play records. The problem was that his improvisational style often did not work out in the time allotted in between scheduled commercial breaks and the requisite number of records per hour. According to the laws of radio, which Stern understood as well as anyone, the records could be shelved, but not the commercials. Furthermore, if the bits were successful and pleased the audience, then chances are that they'd hang around until after the commercial break to hear the next bit. The point became not to sacrifice precious moments of spontaneity for the sake of radio formatics.
In this sense, Stern was following a well-worn radio precept: Be exciting; the masses are waiting for the vicarious thrill of living on the edge. Like the early DJs who delighted their teenage listeners by "breaking" a record, playing it 17 times in a row; or by staying on the air for 72 hours straight; or like the progressive FM DJs who mixed up classical, blues, jazz, comedy records with the Rolling Stones, Stern has managed to deliver surprises with consistency.
As his show has grown and he has been able to add to his radio entourage, he has cultivated an ensemble that enjoys an exceptional rapport throughout the 4 1/2-to-five hour daily broadcast. To keep that spontaneity alive, it was imperative that he jettison the deadliest element in contemporary radio: the over-controlled playlist. Fired from WNBC in the mid-'80s, Stern reemerged on New York's classic rock WXRK less than a year later with a contract that did not require him to play any music.
What Is the Stern
Stern has a B.A. in communications from Boston University. He also passed the FCC's rigorous First Class license exam, which requires a considerable knowledge of radio's technical aspects. His father was in radio, and he followed that path in his own life. He never veered once, never gave up and sold real estate or taught high school. He stuck with it and made it his whole life. Behind the moronic masquerade on the air is someone who knows radio inside and out. Because Stern is a brilliant student of radio, he can get away with puncturing its pretensions and exposing its foibles. The real Stern knows how to push the limits without getting fired (since 1985). For that reason, many of his fellow broadcasters hate him. He has exposed the paper thin walls that have held back the rest. By the example he sets, he has humiliated legion of well-behaved broadcasters. He has also opened doors for a phenomenon he loathes: Stern clones. Radio has an infuriating knack for replicating its successes, no matter how revolutionary they superficially appear. In the case of Stern, Real Radio 97.1 represents the effort to copy his essence in the same manner that album-oriented rock radio cloned the success of free-form FM rock stations and as Bill Drake's top 40 formula rationalized the creativity of personality rock radio. That Stern doesn't want his recipe converted into fast-food formula is understandable. Fortunately, no one has quite figured out what he does well enough to duplicate it, and many radio personalities are reluctant to appear as copycats.
Future of Shock
Stern's movie "Private Parts" was released in March, just weeks before the release of a movie eulogizing the life story of Hispanic pop singer Selena. The pop star's fans, still peeved at the insensitive things Stern said after her untimely death, will derive satisfaction from seeing her movie push him off the box-office charts. Taking a cue from the ever mutable Madonna, Stern has sought to soften his bad-boy image for movie-going America. Like a radio Rocky, Stern's story told Hollywood-style makes him out to be the unlikely long shot, a hero who overcomes huge odds to make it, while being true to himself and his steadfast wife. Unlike his behavior on his radio show, his exploitation of sexual hot buttons was toned down a bit and made to seem merely risqué.
Whether Hollywood's image-makers can take credit for Howard Stern's tamer public profile remains to be seen. A mainstreamed Stern may be a fitter candidate for a late-night TV spot. As for his marriage, Tinseltown is not known for fostering stable marriages. That may be a side of screen fame that the real-life Stern will want to ponder while he still has time.