Andy Bloom’s article about Howard Stern Monday quickly became one of Radio Ink’s most read stories of the year. That may have been because Stern mentioned it on his SiriusXM show Monday, according to one of our readers (see below), or the fact that any time Howard Stern is the subject of an article, everyone wants to know what it’s about. So, in case you missed it, here’s another look at Bloom’s detailed article about his old friend.
(by Andy Bloom) Howard and his fans were probably pleased to see the King of All Media get some long-deserved, mostly positive, press (New York Times 7/31/16, “Confessor. Feminist. Adult. What the Hell Happened to Howard Stern?”). The piece, written by David Segal, an admitted “irregular listener of the Howard Stern Show,” sums up many of Stern’s talents accurately. However, any true fan could have written a more insightful piece. The response might start with something like, “Welcome, it only took you 30 years to figure Howard out?”
A disclaimer: I am not authorized to speak for Howard Stern, and I don’t presume to do such. I haven’t seen or spoken to Howard for several years. We exchange occasional emails.
I was Program Director of WYSP, Philadelphia, when Stern’s first simulcast began (August 18, 1986) and Operations Manager of KLSX, Los Angeles, where Howard debuted July 25, 1991. I consulted many of the stations that signed Stern quickly after his success in L.A. These positions gave me a front row seat during the “rocket ride years” (1985 – 1999). Studying Howard Stern has become part of my life’s work. I could teach a college course on Stern and what has made him the most successful media figure ever.
Although the article means to be positive, it fails to give Stern credit for talent that was always present, and misses the start of Stern (and the show’s) “metamorphosis” by a couple of decades. I selected mainly a handful of articles/interviews from the 90s to establish:
1) Stern was never just the crude “shock jock” that critics and David Segal painted him.
2) Stern was the best interviewer in media, at least as early as the 1990s.
3) Stern and his show have undergone constant metamorphosis. It’s been a 30-year journey to be accepted by mainstream America, including the New York Times. While the article lists valid reasons for Howard’s changes, it is over simplistic.
The New York Times profile starts out: “Scattered among the gleefully vulgar mainstays are now-intimate exchanges that have made Mr. Stern one of the most deft interviewers in the business.” It continues, with the typical description of shock and crudity usually attributed to the Stern show, but misses much more of what Stern has always done.
Fighting the only-a-shock-jock perceptions was an ongoing battle during the 80s and 90s. When Howard debuted in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, I became the full-time complaint department. In the pre-Internet era, I responded to many letters. Here are passages that I used to respond to complaint letters (Los Angeles circa 1991).
“… Howard Stern is an immensely popular, nationally renowned comedian. His brand of satire has made him the most listened to morning radio personality in the nation…Give him an hour or two a day for a couple of weeks…It takes time to figure out the story line, characters, and, most importantly, that the entire show is satire, parody, comedy — and not to be taken too seriously. Howard’s satire is directed at everything, including himself…A Los Angeles Daily News review of Stern’s debut (L.A.) show written by a self-described, “Politically correct, Southern California feminist stated…’there were more laughs during the first few hours of the Howard Stern Show than any other morning show on the dial.’”
The reviewer stated she is a “Politically correct, Southern California, feminist,” which counters part of the New York Times headline.
Stern never thought of himself as a “shock jock.” In a Rolling Stone magazine interview (June 14, 1990): “I’m no shock jock,” says Stern. “I’m not some desperate, out-of-control loser trying to outrage people to get ratings…That’s not what my show is all about. What the show’s about is my trying to be funny, trying to tell the truth.” Robin Quivers added: “What Howard does is a real show — and not this sleazy show about sex and drugs people talk about. We’re the Ozzie and Harriet show for the nineties.”
In a cover story titled “I Hate Myself and You Love Me For it,” Esquire magazine (May 1992) wrote: “The raging riffs of Howard Stern are so funny they make us scream. Famous for his willingness to say the wrong thing…His unrelenting penchant for truth-telling serves as a kind of leveler…he is crazily funny…He simply has no competition.”
In October 1990, Radio Only magazine explained: “Howard Stern turns out to be a shrewd manipulator of morning show formatics — not just a foul-mouthed jock.”
The Orange County Register calls it perfectly in a look at the Stern show dated June 28, 1992. “His show is a mixture of celebrity interviews, references to sex and body parts, and discussions of everything from condom use (Stern strongly favors it) and abortion (he’s an abortion-rights supporter) to Rodney King (he was on the side of the cops).” This article points out that he says what people think but can’t say. Great analysis of what the show is and a great opening to the topic of celebrity interviews and Howard’s interviewing skills.
By the early 90s anybody who paid attention knew Howard was more than just an outrageous shock jock. Reviews state he is a comedian, truth teller, says what people think, leveler, charismatic, funny — crazily funny, discusses everything (with opinions grounded in facts). He’s smart. Smart enough to manipulate formatics for ratings. Along the way, we already see that politically correct feminists admit to liking him, and there’s nobody to compare him to. Howard was always more than a shock jock.
In 1990, Rolling Stone wrote about the guests for Howard’s 36th birthday show (this was the show where they pulled out all the stops). The list included Mason Reese (former “spokesmunchkine” for Underwood deviled ham); May Pang (onetime bed mate of John Lennon); Lisa Sliwa (Guardian Angels Patrol); Leonard Marshall (NY Giants defensive end); Kimberly Taylor (Penthouse Pet), and rapper Young MC. “Grandpa” Al Lewis (Munsters), Comedian Richard Lewis (Anything But Love) Stern’s mother, Jessica Hahn (PTL sex symbol), Sam Kinison, Richard Simmons, wack packers. The list consisted mostly of B- and C-level stars. Stern’s ability to make the “Wack Pack” collection of various freaks and goofballs interesting, spoke volumes about his skills as an interviewer.
The New York Times writes it’s difficult when to say when Stern started to become a great interviewer. In Mr. Segal’s estimation, certainly after joining Sirius and particularly in the last couple of years. If you take Sunday’s New York Times piece at face value, you missed 30 years of great Stern interviews.
An AP story from March 1991, highlights Howard’s interviewing dexterity. Tom Snyder was filling in for Bob Costas, and Howard was his guest. Here is the AP’s account of the appearance:
Snyder: Howard, it’s a pleasure to meet you after all these years of mutual attacks.
(Howard doesn’t bite. He is gracious, acknowledging his introduction. Snyder tries to pop him with the first question, something about “shock radio.” He doesn’t get a chance to finish before Stern interrupts.)
Howard: Are we going to work out this thing between us, first, before you go into the serious interview?
Snyder: There’s nothing between us, pal. We do this half-hour and we never see each other again.
Howard: No, no, no. There is something between us! You have bad-rapped me before. I’ve read various newspaper articles before where you have said that you don’t like what I do. Isn’t that true?
Snyder: I have said that I am not a fan of your format. I do not care for what is called “shock radio.” This is funny stuff to some people. Pal, to me it’s not funny. Now that does not make you unfunny. It makes me, uh, uh…
Howard: It makes you out of touch.
Snyder: Out of touch. OK, I will admit that I am out of touch with the Howard Stern kind of humor.
(Snyder never really recovers. Stern takes control of the interview and its direction and ends up asking as many questions as he answers.)
There is a quintessential moment when I knew Howard Stern was a great interviewer. Oddly, it wasn’t during the Howard Stern Show. In the summer of 1990, Howard was a guest on Joan Rivers’ new daytime talk show to promote his upcoming WWOR-TV show. He followed Angela Bowie. The Bowie segment was a bust. Stern and Rivers discuss how boring it was, prompting Howard to call Angela back to the set. In less than four minutes, Howard got Angela to admit to catching David Bowie and Mick Jagger in bed together. See it on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX5SK_ViA2
It was a challenge during the 80s and 90s getting A-list guests to go on the Stern show. The Orange County Register article notes: “Although he does draw some big names, many Los Angeles publicists won’t allow their clients to go on the show in spite of the huge ratings. One major publicist, who requested anonymity, said she found the show “counter-productive” and “distasteful.” A-list guests weren’t as frequent in the early days but, periodically, big stars did enter Stern’s lair.
Howard knew that his venom directed at Hollywood cost him A-list guests, but he embraced it. From a Rolling Stone cover story February 1994: “I stay home all the time. I wouldn’t go to a Hollywood party because I’m sure half the people there want to choke me and kill me.”
The Los Angeles simulcast began to change the guest list. As Hollywood started to listen to Stern, and they did from the beginning, the quality of guests started to improve. The quality and frequency of A-list guests have been on a constant upswing since.
Finally, and the third point that I want to establish, is that Stern and the show have undergone constant metamorphosis since the beginning, certainly not just since 2006. Look at pictures of Howard and watch his hair styles change throughout the years. Listen to recordings of the show throughout the years. Stern formed images with his look and learned how to use his voice, as well as audio processing. Fans could see and hear the metamorphosis.
Certainly, a big part of the problem booking A-list guests came from the vitriol that Howard used in talking about many of the biggest stars. In that era, Howard Stern was much angrier. Mr. Segal captures that in recounting Madonna’s first appearance on the show.
“I didn’t think you guys liked me,” Madonna said on the air last year. You said bad things about me.” Mr. Stern explained to her: “I used to say bad things about everyone. I was angry, quite frankly. I was an angry young man.”
Howard’s wrath has been a frequent topic throughout the years. He often spoke about constantly seeking the approval of his father, his overly protective mother, and the impact growing up in a neighborhood that exemplified “white flight” in the 1960s. Without a doubt, these were key factors driving Stern’s rage. These themes are common throughout interviews and articles with Stern dating back decades.
“Stern is proud of the way he’s changed radio. Still, he’s cranky that he remains on the periphery of stardom and underappreciated. ‘People are talking about radio again,’ he says. ‘The way I figure it, I’ve done a lot to elevate the medium. But you can’t get anyone to admit that. I don’t get it.’ He looks to the heavens before speaking: ‘Somebody, please give me some fuckin’ respect.’ — Rolling Stone, June 1990
“One vintage segment is an airing of an ancient tape of a Stern-family outing to Howard’s recording-engineer father’s studio, where Howard and his sister Ellen are quizzed on current events. Little Howard proceeds to drive his father crazy with his goofy, childish antics. Frustrated, Daddy releases a torrent of contempt, bellowing, ‘Shut up! Sit down! I told you not to be a moron!’ This refrain seemingly fuels the entire Sternian enterprise; a perpetual bee in Howard’s bonnet.” — Esquire, May 1992
The February 1994 Rolling Stone interview with Howard is a revealing look into his psyche:
RS: Besides being called a moron by your dad and raised like a veal by your mom and growing up the only white kid in an all-black neighborhood, did you have a happy childhood?
HS: No, I wouldn’t really call it happy. …I was in prison every day.
RS: How’s your self-esteem?
HS: I will never have a lot of self-esteem. I still have an inferiority complex. The way I was raised, and my father telling me I was a piece of shit.
RS: Are you happy?
HS: I don’t think I’m very happy. I never feel famous and I never feel successful.
RS: Why not?
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when Stern became “less angry” and willing to be part of the Hollywood community instead of “Me against the world.” I recall when The History of Howard Stern first aired in 2008 and Howard discussed the Philadelphia battle with John DeBella. He looked back at it as “a little crazy.” It was the first time I’d heard him say, “I was angry then. I don’t think I would do that now.”
I’m sure the Times is right: “Years of therapy and his relationship with Beth are important factors.” The change was evident by a year into his Sirius career. But still, there are other considerations.
The show has gone through various incarnations. Billy West added a different dimension and marked a distinct era. It was a different show with Jackie “The Jokeman” Martling, then with Artie Lange (I’m fans of both). The show changed again with Artie’s departure. Absent the bits they contributed, and time they consumed, allows more time for long-form interviews.
Stern has a substantially lower spot-load on Sirius/XM. Stern often ran over 20 minutes of spots per hour. Now, he probably doesn’t run 20 minutes of spots per show. The spot load makes it considerably easier to conduct the long interviews that the Times lauds.
The New York Times piece discusses the prep that goes into each Stern interview as if this is a new phenomenon Howard recently discovered. From personal experience, I can attest, it’s been part of how the Stern show is prepped for two decades. Ironically, Howard would complain about the pre-interview process before a David Letterman appearance.
My last in-person appearance on the Stern show was September 11, 2000. I was visiting with a superstar morning personality from Budapest, Hungary, Gabor Bochkor, who was visiting New York. The day before we were to come to the studio, I received a call from the Stern show, although they mostly wanted to speak to Gabor. It was a pre-interview. The questions weren’t difficult or personal, but clearly we’d be on the air, not just observing. Given the nature of the pre-call, it was mildly surprising when Howard started talking about European toilets. It was very surprising when Howard revealed additional personal information about Gabor’s mother (that wouldn’t be readily available in the U.S.). Howard’s preparation and knowledge astonished Gabor. He was visibly stunned as we left the studios.
It’s terrific that Howard Stern appears to have found some inner peace. Perhaps it’s the wisdom of years, coupled with years of therapy, and his wonderful relationship with Beth. Maybe he’s finally received the acceptance of his father? I don’t know, but good for Howard. He’s long earned the right to feel good about himself. I’m also glad that the New York Times (which Howard has long acknowledged as his, as well as his father’s, favorite newspaper) has finally, given him some credit for the entertainment he has provided so many of us for over four decades. Message to the Times: Welcome to the Party, we’ve missed you the prior 30 years
Andy Bloom was most recently Operations Manager for SportsRadio 94WIP and Talk Radio 1210WPHT, Philadelphia. He is widely credited with establishing the first Howard Stern simulcast at WYSP, Philadelphia, and the first outside of the Infinity family as well as beyond the northeastern seaboard at KLSX, Los Angeles. He has been on Radio Ink’s Best PDs In America List three of the last four years. He can be reached at [email protected]