He once fought the FCC. Now, Stern is fighting something more daunting – irrelevance.
I had a curious way of feeding my Howard Stern addiction in the ‘90s.
The shock jock was still on terrestrial radio at the time, and the digital revolution was roughly two decades away.
What was a superfan to do? I improvised.
I hauled my slim boom box to work every morning, loaded with the longest playing blank tape I could find. Then, after parking at the office lot I turned on Stern’s show, hit “record,” and went to work.
Voila! I sat at my desk while the boombox captured the next hour of Lesbian Dial a Date, the Wack Pack and other Stern hijinks.
That feels like a million years ago, both personally and culturally speaking. Stern eventually moved to satellite radio. Years later, I left him behind for good.
Or so I thought.
We recently bought a “new” car (circa 2015) and the dealer quietly included a three-month SiriusXM membership free of charge. For less than $5 more I extended the deal to six months.
Howard Stern was back in my life, unexpectedly. Only I knew it wouldn’t be the same. This wasn’t the insecure, out of control Howie I savored decades ago. That Stern was long gone, something I realized when I let my then-Sirius subscription lapse in the 2000s.
The Stern of my youth was brash, needy and a complete original. He mocked everything, no questions asked. He fought the FCC, fellow shock jocks and being a suburban husband and dad to three young girls.
While every radio show host sang the praises of parenthood, Stern kevetched about spending time with these messy, mindless mini-adults.
He was me, and you, and every other listener without the power to lash out at life’s foibles. Only he was funnier than our funniest friend, poking holes in everything from politics to pop culture.
Nothing was sacred.
I wrote an ode to his show for a Pittsburgh newspaper in the mid-90s, and Stern read it on the air. I woke up one morning, heard him say my name, and slammed a blank cassette into that very same boombox to record it.
Co-host Robin Quivers even made fun of my last name. Glorious!
That recording remains one of my prized possessions.
Slowly, sadly, that Howard Stern faded away. To his credit, the transformation took a very long time. The emerging Stern had plenty of Hollywood chums, a young model wife and a dwindling fire in his belly. A weakened Stern was better than 95 percent of his fellow broadcasters, but something vital faded over time.
So my daily habit slowed and, one day, I went cold turkey. I haven’t regretted cutting the satellite cord. Over that time I became a husband, welcomed two crazy boys into our family and embraced a politically-charged career in entertainment reporting.
Howard and I were on two very different paths, and I had my memories of his very best shows. But I still checked in on Stern now and again. I followed news headlines of his latest shtick, wincing when he became a judge on “America’s Got Talent.”
The “old Howard” would have mocked that show into extinction, not clamor for a place on its stage.
Every Stern snippet assured me I had made the right call. So did his 2019 book tour on behalf of “Howard Stern Comes Again,” a collection of celebrity interviews. The new, enlightened Stern expressed embarrassment for the jokes he once told five days a week.
A part of me died hearing that.
Here was Stern, radio’s baddest bad boy, bowing to the PC Police for old jokes. He didn’t apologize for them, technically, but he said he’s aghast at some of the things he said. You know, the “things” that entertained millions for years. Decades, in some cases.
Surely, the Howard Stern I knew and loved was no more.
Yet here I am, driving a car with SiriusXM where Stern is just a button click away. So I’ve been listening. Some things haven’t changed an iota:
- Co-host Robin Quivers’ laugh, ever youthful and winning
- Fred Norris’ incomparable audio “drops.” It feels like every show and podcast does a poor imitation of his sonic wizardry
- Howard’s on-air belches (they’re still gross)
What different now?
The new Stern schedule is the first clue. Stern only does three original shows a week. In his prime, each episode would sail past the 10 am hour mark. He couldn’t leave the microphone without sharing one … more … thing.
A joke. An insult. An impression. Yes, even a final belch.
It’s impossible to keep that passion roaring indefinitely.
Stern is still pulling his punches, probably moreso than ever. It’s something I noticed after he switched to satellite radio. He recently played clips of Jimmy Kimmel crying at the Kobe Bryant memorial service. The Old Stern would have torched Kimmel for the overt display of affection.
Heck, did Kimmel play on the same team as Bryant? Did they co-host a show together? What’s with the tears?
Bryant’s death was a tragedy, full stop. Kimmel cried as if the two went to the same elementary school together and never lost touch.
Instead, Stern danced around the subject because he and Kimmel are buddies off mic. A potentially great bit became generic show biz blather.
We don’t need Stern for that.
Stern also called longtime colleague Sal Governale a “racist” recently for the latter’s dopey statements tied to the Coronavirus. Governale’s rant wasn’t smart or interesting, but Stern’s quick lunge for the Race Card sounded nothing like his old self.
On Feb. 25 the host brought up Dwyane Wade’s transitioning 12-year-old child. It’s one thing that Stern and Quivers both cheered on the transition at that tender age … let that argument fall where it may.
Stern went beyond that. He chided rapper 50 cent for making a joke about the matter.
Yes, in 2020 we’re not allowed to tell certain jokes about certain groups. And here’s Howard Stern, of all people, helping to reinforce the “new” rules.
I didn’t see that coming.
Some of the funniest Stern show bits of yore had Norris dropping canned laughter atop Quivers’ somber headlines. It was cold, mean, and tasteless.
I loved it. It didn’t mean I was a bad person, or that I wished ill on anyone. Tasteless jokes can be an effective way to process tragedies large and small. Sometimes, laughing at inappropriate things feels good … cathartic even.
What did Jerry Seinfeld say? “Jokes are not real life.” We’ve forgotten that simple rule.
The old Stern shtick came to mind when Quivers hesitated before mentioning a particular headline last week. She hemmed, and hawed, and finally brought up how director Steven Spielberg’s daughter embraced life as a porn star.
The subsequent conversation was the kind you could hear on any show or podcast. It’s a tragic tale. The young woman appears troubled. The great director must be miserable, even if he’s publicly supporting her.
Fine. Great. Few would disagree with those views.
The Old Stern would have run roughshod over it. He’d make it darkly comic, and sad, and somehow outrageous in his inimitable way.
“Hey, maybe we’ll get her in the studio, Robin …” he’d crack. It’s not an approach for every listener, but it’s what made Stern Stern. Take him or leave him. Many did the latter.
It’s why he dominated the air waves for so very long. He zigged while literally every other broadcaster zagged. He made awkward, inappropriate comedy because sometimes we just wanna laugh and be inappropriate, too.
I miss that America. Here’s betting you do, too.
I started listening to Stern again for another, more personal reason.
The battle for free speech, to me, may be the biggest issue of our time. Surely the man who waged war against the FCC would have something to say about the horrors of Cancel Culture.
A friend who never stopped listening to Stern say he’s defended fellow comics on this front, but I haven’t heard any of that yet. Stern seems more engaged by High Pitch Erik’s dating woes or arguing over classic TV show themes.
His voice, his legendary status, is sorely needed in the free speech fight. While Adam Carolla, Ricky Gervais, John Cleese and a select few rage against the Thought Police, Stern is taking a more subdued approach.
Maybe if the PC Mob came for him he’d change his mind. Perhaps that’s why he’s suddenly embarrassed by his decades of classic comedy material.
Stern signed another massive deal with SiriusXM in 2015, vowing the contract would be his “final five years in radio.”
Here’s betting he won’t stay true to that pledge. In six months, though, I won’t care either way.
I’ll be forever grateful for the Old Stern, the Old Laughs and the Old Days when he made me lug a boombox to work so I wouldn’t miss a syllable.