By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The self-proclaimed King of All Media (which might not be such an arrogant claim anymore) is still regarded as a goof, the accidental celebrity who panders to the lowest common denominator and makes one hell of a living by saying "penis" for four hours a day. He's written off as a juvenile, racist, sexist, monomaniacal son of a bitch who likes to jerk off and dreams of cheating on his old lady--especially by those who have never listened to the show. And so Stern is not defended by journalists or his fellow broadcasters when the Federal Communications Commission levies millions of dollars of fines against him and his bosses at Infinity Broadcasting; he is left instead to fend for himself.
And then there was the time when Stern was at Washington, D.C.-based radio station DC-101 in the early 1980s and the station withheld pay from him because he was going to New York's then-prestigious WNBC. Even though Stern was supposed to stay on and finish out his "ironclad" (Stern's word) contract, DC-101 had found Stern's replacement and forced Howard off the air prematurely. When Stern took his grievance to the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors union, he was told the union might consider his case. It didn't.
And then not long after he went to WNBC--and went to number one in New York--he was fired. Take that, funny boy.
The most recent issue of Los Angeles magazine features Stern on its cover painted as an Academy Award--a vision of gold and hair. The cover also trumpets a story inside written by Stern himself, "The End of Hollywood as You Know It." But Stern did not write the piece; indeed, he had no idea the magazine was going to run an article with his byline, and he's outraged. The magazine says the idea was approved by Stern's publicist, but Stern says he found out about the story when he was in L.A. two weeks ago and saw an advance copy of the magazine. What apparently happened was that Stern gave an interview to one of the magazine's writers, who then turned around and wrote a piece using some of Stern's own words while writing the rest as though he were Howard. But anyone could tell Stern didn't write the article: Unlike Private Parts or Miss America, there's not a single funny line in it.
If Stern had been Jack Nicholson or Kevin Costner or Madonna or some other celebrity primed for a wet ass-kiss, this would never have happened. But for some reason--perhaps because he forces the audience to sniff his dirty laundry every morning, making him somehow more like Us and less like Them--journalists still feel they can mess with Howie. Why not? He's a phenomenon, a mistake slipped through the back door while no one was watching.
"This is just fucking outrageous," Stern says of the Los Angeles piece. "They would never do that to anybody else, but people feel like they can get away with that shit, that I'm up for anything. It goes down to even when I'm doing these photo shoots now. They'll call up and go, 'Hey, you wanna take your hair and put it in a braid and then you'll be hanging from the ceiling?' It's the goofiest fuckin' shit. They wouldn't suggest it to anybody.
"They have this perception of me that I'm just a fucking freak. And yes, to some extent that should be there. I'm pretty insane on the air, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure I'm not insane off the air--I'm just pretty good at disguising it. I guess because of the nature of what I do, people think that they can take liberties and know what I want, when in fact they don't know what I want or who I am."
Most telling is that one critic dismissed Stern as a "hype" after a New York press screening of Private Parts--and this guy liked the movie. It's typical: Stern's still repudiated when he isn't being ignored. Typical of the reaction to Stern was the first line of a National Review book review of Private Parts when it was released in 1993: "The secret of Howard Stern's success is that he does not deserve it."
Stern smiles--and stiffens--when he hears that line read back to him. "There's something interesting there," he says. "Maybe this is why there's a lot of hostility from a lot of my critics: He doesn't deserve to be famous. For some reason, they just have this feeling I don't deserve it. I mean, I certainly feel that way about myself, but why should they feel that way?"
Those who would dismiss the show as toilet talk and racist humor miss the point. If it's about stereotypes, it's also about poking fun at those who created them; it's about sex, but it's also about a guy who rarely has any. Stern's the brilliant idiot of talk radio--the smartest 15-year-old in the world, as one pop-culture critic refers to him. Unlike most call-in shows, this one's all about the host and his "wack pack," the friends and freaks he stuffs into the studio every morning from 6 to 10 a.m.--the celebrities (William Shatner once went willingly into the Homo Room), the deviants (one regular guest is a porn star who set the world's gang-bang record--and Stern still has to ask whether she'd sleep with him?), and the defective hangers-on with speech impediments who are there to amuse the host.