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Friday, December 28, 2007

The History of Howard Stern on Sirius

(Disclosure: the author is a subscriber to, and an extremely minor [100 shares] stockholder of Sirius Satellite Radio)

I have to start this post off with something I don’t do often. I now admit that I was absolutely wrong from the very beginning about Howard Stern and his radio career.

I lived in Philadelphia during the 1980’s. I was a loyal listener to WMMR in Philly and their morning team, which included John DeBella, a man whose career was unceremoniously guillotined by the arrival (in syndication) of Howard Stern on WYSP in Philadelphia in the mid-‘80’s. I was a late teen/early 20’s guy who thought he knew everything there was to know about what made for good radio. Philadelphia would never embrace Howard Stern and DeBella would reign supreme. I was wrong.

I thought that the only substance to Howard Stern’s show were interviews with strippers, scatological humor and time spent with 15-minutes-of-fame types like Jessica Hahn and the lesser lights of the stand-up comedy world. I was wrong.

I figured that Howard Stern, being one of those annoying New Yorkers I sometimes ran into while living on the East Coast, would only appeal to the megalopolis along the Atlantic Seaboard. There was simply no way that a Jewish guy from New York would appeal to the heartland audience. I was wrong.

When they sliced and diced his old FM radio shows down to a 30-minute telecast for the E! Network, I figured no one would watch a litany of chromo-keyed breasts when they could be watching the evening news and a late night talk show. As the telecasts became the highest-rated show in the history of the E! Network, I once again found myself on the wrong end of the argument.

I have now been a subscriber to Sirius Satellite Radio for just short of two years. I now view satellite radio in the same way that HBO would have been viewed in 1976. It is an idea still in its infancy that has the potential to forever alter the way we listen to the radio. It took me all of five minutes of listening and scanning the music channels to realize that I had listened to AM/FM radio for the last time.

Since Howard Stern made the jump to Sirius early in 2006, their subscriber base has exploded, nearly surpassing their only rival (and potential merger partner) XM. While no usable ratings system exists currently for satellite radio, the millions of listeners added in the past two years can reasonably be considered a public stamp of approval for a now-unexpurgated Howard Stern Show.

Currently, Sirius is presenting The History of Howard Stern, a two-week special interspersed with interviews of people who are now or who have in the past found themselves in the middle of Stern’s personal and professional universe. The amount of behind-the-scenes detail in this special is astonishing, and I can’t help but recommend it to anyone with the capability to listen.
Yet the thing that is most illustrated by this special isn’t necessarily about the ascendancy of Howard Stern, but rather the continuing reaction to him by terrestrial radio. From the very beginning of his career in 1977 to the present day, Stern has encountered nothing but resistance, censorship and hostility toward his idea of how a radio show should be conducted. In his career, it can be safely stated that he made a lot of myopic people in the broadcasting industry boatloads of money despite their best efforts to cut him off at the knees. To see FM radio scramble for a new idea in his absence, coupled with technology such as the IPod slowly eroding the traditional audience for terrestrial radio, is something I find amusing.

If anything, thanks to the FCC only being worried about obscenity and not so much about rampant media consolidation, terrestrial radio is the worst it has ever been. Clear Channel, a company owned by a prominent Republican family, seems more focused on making sure that they hire DJ’s in all markets that delicately toe the Republican Party line rather than worrying about innovation. Even long-time carpet bagging losers like Mankow are turning themselves into Republicans publicly overnight in order to stay on the air under their GOP paymasters. Terrestrial radio owners force right-wing bigots like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck down the throats of America through the use of syndication, while liberal radio hosts such as Stephanie Miller and Air America Radio are forced into a nearly underground situation in miniscule markets. The big advertisers, obviously being extorted by Clear Channel and their powerful minions, won’t touch liberal talk radio with a ten-foot pole. And don’t even get me started on the doors that keep getting opened in terrestrial radio for drug-addled redneck Don Imus.

Not being a longtime diehard fan, and using The History of Howard Stern as a guide, in my opinion Howard Stern’s show is now better than ever. Free from the clutches of the FCC, his show is now no-holds-barred. In lesser hands, this kind of format would be a train wreck of can-you-top-this obscenity. Stern utilizes his 30 years of experience to operate two radio networks on Sirius, bringing compelling listening to all who tune in. His daily show, while maybe not appealing to every listener straight through for a four or five-hour period, always has one thing that appeals to someone. I tend to turn off his show when he invites strippers and porn stars into the studio. To me, the best moments on his show tend to be conversations he’s having with his staff or the random callers who get through. Underneath the fart jokes, sex chair rides and energy-draining phone calls from the ever-annoying Eric the Midget lies damned good entertainment. With the dawn of the Internet, the art of conversation is a dying one, and Stern may someday be viewed as one of the last masters of the art. With Artie Lange and Robin Quivers offering strong support in the studio and Fred Norris’ library of sounds at his disposal, Stern has taken the format of the radio talk show and turned it inside out.

Stern’s success does come with a price. Despite his newfound fortune from Sirius, you won’t see him hobnobbing with A-list celebrities. You aren’t likely to find many positive things written about him in the consolidated media. With his neurotic personality, this is not a guy that any one of his millions of fans can ever realistically dream of sharing dinner. When I think of his particular group of guests such as Elliott Offen, Bigfoot and Crazy Alice (with others, collectively called "The Whack Pack"), I'm tempted into thinking that someone in a group like this is bound to put his life in danger. Much like Valerie Solanis to Andy Warhol, I can’t help thinking that this is the kind of guy that has a crazed fan somewhere in his universe with his name on it. Longtime security chief Ronnie the Limo Driver isn’t much of a defense against someone like this who may pop up on the horizon.

The majority of Stern’s army of listeners will always admire from afar, forever dialing the show and getting a busy signal, dreaming of the 15 seconds they may someday get to talk to Howard Stern. I’ll just listen and enjoy and wish Howard Stern safe passage through the world around him, in addition to adding a heartfelt apology to him personally through the use of this blog for not having the good sense to be a fan of his for a longer period of time. When my Sirius subscription comes up for renewal in March, I’m getting the lifetime membership. I proudly state that I am now a Howard Stern fan.

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