Taking Howard Stern seriously

The man who makes his living talking louder than everyone is suddenly quiet. His eyes close behind trademark shades, his hand rubs against the table between interviewer and interviewee, his foot dangles aimlessly at the end of lanky, nattily clad legs. The most obnoxious man alive is suddenly, for a very brief moment, calm and contemplative.

"I don't know," he says, his familiar voice unfamiliarly soft. "I don't know why."

These are words Howard Stern doesn't utter very often. He, after all, knows everything, and he'll remind you of that for four hours every day--four hours of pissing on and pissing off, four hours of taunting the government, four hours of roasting sacred cows and feeding the charred flesh to his ravenous audience. He knows how to make millions and still come off as the Everyschmuck, the lonely suburbanite still dying to become part of an entertainment community that views him as the vulgar outsider. He knows how to befriend mayors and governors and Donald Trump...and Crackhead Bob.

But as he sits in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Stern struggles to explain why he's still on the radio after almost two decades. The man, looking uncharacteristically dapper in a black suit, a black-and-white checked shirt, and two-tone spats, can't find the answer in his hip pocket this afternoon.

"I'm tired of getting up at four in the morning," he says, looking almost as exhausted as he says he is. "I've got to admit that. I do have a passion for radio still. That's why I signed another contract. I've got four years left on a five-year deal that took me a year to figure out. I've got four years left on that, and I'm still frustrated that I'm not in every city in the country. It disturbs me that guys get credit for shit that I've done."

Perhaps, then, it's about the money. After all, Stern's annual worth is estimated in the low to middle eight figures: He's currently heard in 35 markets around the country, each of which pays him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the right to air his show. His two books, 1993's Private Parts and 1995's Miss America, were bestsellers for months; he sold his first book to Paramount Pictures for more than $1 million. His New Year's Eve pay-per-view special grossed about $16 million at the beginning of 1994.

And now, it's likely that his first real foray into the world of Hollywood, the autobiographical film Private Parts, will become a blockbuster--even if it doesn't transcend the cult.

But Stern shakes his head, dismissing the money as only the rich can. "I really don't have an answer for you," he says again, sounding even more sincere, even more tentative. "I don't think it's the economics of it that drive me anymore. I always thought that was the reason, but I knew deep down in my mind that it wasn't. I got into radio at $96 a week, and when I got $150 a week, I said, 'This is fine. I know I can live.' It just didn't matter to me as long as I was on the radio.

"There's some need that is fulfilled in all of this. There's some sort of verbal drive or wanting to..." He stops himself again. "I always thought it was about proving to my father I wasn't an idiot. But I think I've done that. So why am I still doing it? I don't know. I just like it. Maybe that's it. Maybe I love doin' it. I really can't say for sure."

In the end, the question is not "Who is Howard Stern?" but "Why is Howard Stern?" The first question is too pat, almost too easy to answer: Howard Stern is both self-hating demagogue and caring father, husband, and son; he's the brilliant loudmouth millions hear on the radio every morning and the very private figure who hides in his basement once the "On the Air" light is dimmed. He's all these men at the same time--just like any actor once he puts down the script.

"What's he like?" That's the oft-posed question, even among people who listen to his radio show. "No, what's he really like?" Just as you'd expect, if you're at all paying attention--funny, thoughtful, honest, guarded, self-deprecating, arrogant, terrified. He's a 43-year-old Jewish boy from Long Island, New York, who became a media myth by talking about his dick and by figuring out how to say racist things without being a racist himself. He's miserable all the time, growing more pathetic the richer and more famous he becomes. He's scared of failing, more fearful of succeeding. He's a mama's boy who sends his daughters (ages 13, 10, and 4) to Hebrew school, and just like any sexually frustrated middle-aged man who has been married for 20 years to the same woman, he goes to topless bars to blow off a little steam.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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