By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Howard Stern remains good friends with David Letterman, the first man to expose Stern to an audience outside New York. When Stern was working at WNBC in the mid-'80s, he regularly showed up on Late Night. He was a wacked-out bar mitzvah boy, Jewfro and all, in Hell's Angels garb, and Letterman seemed endlessly amused by Stern's bad-boy rants.
They would often speak on the phone about, among other things, their disdain for NBC and their affection for broadcasting. Letterman and Stern had found a way to transcend the cliches and revitalize their respective mediums; they breathed new life into moribund formats, brought in audiences who would have never thought about watching TV talk shows and tuning in to morning talk radio.
Letterman had his Stupid Pet Tricks; Stern, Lesbian Dial-a-Date. Letterman had Larry "Bud" Melman; Stern, Stuttering John and Fred the Elephant Boy. Stern introduced Letterman to the joys of ridiculing Richard Simmons, and in return, Letterman helped make Stern a national star. But where Letterman aspired to make great television, to become part of his medium's rich heritage, at first Stern just wanted to fart on the radio.
Now he's not so sure he hasn't become part of the very institution he claims to despise so much--radio, which he often refers to as a couple of steps below circus clown on the entertainment food chain. He is enamored of the medium's possibilities, hateful toward those in it.
"At some point, it's just, 'Gee, I just want to be able to make a living and be in radio, and I don't want to lose my job,'" Stern says. "I've talked to Letterman recently about this topic. Here he is about to turn 50 still doin' it, and there's something driving him as well. He's miserable doing it, and yet he's driven to do it. I don't think anybody [starts out looking] at it like you're part of a legacy or this or that, but I guess I do want to prove something. Who knows? I truly don't have an answer why I still do it. I just need to do it. I don't want to walk away from it.
"Maybe it's because [you] work so long and you get the shit beaten out of you for so long. Like [when I was] at NBC, you assume they know what you're doing, but they don't, and they undermine you and try to get you to lose your job and ruin your career. The people you're working for are trying to ruin your career!" As Stern's voice rises, so does he--almost out of his chair.
"It's frightening. So maybe now, when you've got some control and power, you go, 'Wow, I finally got here. I don't want to give this up--not yet.' I'm just coming into my own, really, when you think about it. Now I'm in a different situation. I can...Well, am I really? I got the government on my ass...it's always something."
Maybe the reason Howard Stern doesn't trust success is that each time he accrues a little, he can't quite wallow in it. Something always stands in his way.
Indeed, when Stern went to Los Angeles in 1991, one of L.A. radio's top talk men, Tom Leykis, predicted the show would die. "People in Los Angeles do not like insult humor, for one thing," he told the L.A. Times. "And for another, folks here don't really like New York or New Yorkers." Variations on Leykis' comments could be heard when Stern debuted in Dallas the following year: That obnoxious New York Jew won't last a year in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
And yet, by late 1992, Stern was number one in L.A., marking the first time a radio jock was at the top of the ratings charts in both of the nation's biggest cities at the same time. He went to number one in Dallas two years later, and he tops most of the 35 markets he's currently in.
But just three weeks after Stern hit number one in L.A., the FCC hit him with a $105,000 fine. It was one of many he'd get--not the first, not the last, not even the biggest. In December 1992, Stern--through his stations in New York, Philadelphia, and Manassas, Virginia (Washington, D.C.)--was fined a total of $600,000, which was then a record for the largest fine ever imposed. But Stern knew the FCC was sending a message, and he says now it was the first time he really knew that he and the government were in it for the long haul.
"They timed it just so because I was getting real heat when I went to number one in Los Angeles," Stern says. "They were gonna teach me a lesson, and they won. They did. They just keep coming."
On September 1, 1995, the FCC announced that it had settled the complaints against Stern: Infinity Broadcasting Corporation--which was sold to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in December 1996--had agreed to pay $1,715,000 to the U.S. Treasury to get the government off its back. In exchange, the FCC agreed to wipe the slate clean: Any subsequent fine against Stern would be dealt with as a first offense, which carried a significantly lighter fine. And, indeed, when Stern's Richmond (Virginia) affiliate, WBZU-FM, was slapped with a fine in October 1996 for broadcasting "obscene, indecent, or profane language," the amount was a mere $10,000.