The History of Howard Stern on SIRIUS Satellite Radio

I confess: I’m a diehard Stern fan. My mornings wouldn’t be the same without Howard, Robin, Fred, Artie, Gary and the rest of the show’s extensive universe, live and uncensored on Sirius Satellite Radio. And this coming week features what’s being billed as one of the most ambitious radio projects ever undertaken, a documentary called The History of Howard Stern, which will spend many hours documenting his life and career in three separate acts, Act I of which airs this week in five programs.

The Stern show is like no other in the history of the medium. It’s given rise to many imitators and changed the face of the FM band in the process, but none of them come close to the original. In America, everyone has heard of Howard Stern, some who love and some who loath. In Britain a few may remember his biographical film Private Parts, and, for those who don’t, Martin Bashir recently introduced Howard in a half-hour profile of the man he calls The Best DJ You’ve Never Heard on BBC Radio Four.

HowardIt’s a show that’s hard to quantify. Stern earned the nickname ‘shock jock’ for what he does, though he contends (and I agree) that the purpose of the show was never to shock people, but rather to entertain through a certain no-holds-barred humour in which almost everything comes second to comedy. A caller with a high-pitched voice gets through because he’s funny to listen to. A dispute between the show’s staff members becomes a heated on-air exchange for its entertainment value. A news story in which Stern has a vested interest becomes an entertaining rant lasting 40 minutes, complete with sound effects by Fred and improvised impersonations. A suicidal caller on the edge of the Brooklyn Bridge is entertained by Stern until the police gets there, after which Stern puffs himself up as a hero. And people with an interesting quirk of some kind; a vigorous anger, a turbulent personal life, a fierce racist streak, a prevalent stutter, a strange voice, a physical abnormality or a mental illness all find a home in the Stern family ‘Wack Pack‘. All of this is dealt with refreshingly frankly and with a satirical sense of humour that’ll brighten up anybody’s day.

This frankness extends to all parts of the show. A cheesy Christmas gift from one staff member to another will provoke merciless teasing. Artie’s heroin abuse, obesity and alcoholism has become legendary. Robin’s large breasts and the fact that she was molested as a child is the topic of daily song parodies submitted by listeners. George Takei’s homosexuality is a continual source of humour. Sal’s wife has an “emotional friend”. Richard lacks basic hygiene. Gary’s teeth and lips are huge. Howard’s own life is an open book, about which no secret is kept, and it is as self-depreciating as anything else. The show is about life itself, all of it, whether tamer broadcasters will discuss it honestly or not.

Listener calls and emails are at times both fiercely critical and very supportive, and both kinds regularly make it to air (in fact the ones most enjoyed by Howard seem to be the outright hostile – for better comedy value). These types of interaction are almost exclusively Howard’s: no other broadcast on radio or on TV would be so confident as to air with such gusto the negative feedback of their audiences.

Then there’s Stern’s love of controversy. He has sparred with rival talk hosts Don Imus and many more. He’s fought a bitter fight against the FCC, the government body which fined his show more than any other in the history of media for “indecency” and other infractions. He’s wrangled with his bosses and been fired from most of the radio stations he ever worked for. And his show has broken more ground (and more rules) in the history of broadcasting than almost anybody else. Games and bits. Nakedness. Gender. Race. Size. Money. Celebrity. Sex. The Sybian. Nothing is off-limits.

‘Are You Smarter Than A Fifth-Grader?’ was a Stern segment years before the Fox TV game show. ‘Dial-A-Date’, ‘Lesbian Dial-A-Date’, ‘Bestiality Dial-A-Date’ and more were his brand of fun and humour, the best of which played with the fact that so few other broadcasters would be able to get away with breaching the topic in such a lighthearted way. Former writer Jackie Martling pioneered the live writing technique that persists on the show to this day, whereby, as events on the show progressed, lines would be written for various cast members on-the-fly and then used to enhance the comedy.

Howard & BethAll of this attracts the attention and acclaim of the rest of the entertainment industry. It’s considered an honour to be invited on the Stern show, and many big names are guests and regulars on the show: from Donald Trump and Martha Stewart to Paul McCartney and William Shatner, Sacha Baron Cohen, Toby Maguire, 50 Cent, Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore, Charlize Theron, Maroon 5, Ricki Lake, AC/DC, Arnold Schwarzeneggar and many more on a weekly basis. The musical guest appearances alone have been the focus of day-long radio specials on Sirius, since guest artists are encouraged to perform live on the show when they visit. From full band performances to low-key acoustic renderings, the show has collected a huge library of some great music performed live in its own studios. And Howard himself is a popular guest on Letterman and other nighttime TV shows, though he’s a hard guest to book, since he openly hates doing them.  In short, the Stern show is a juggernaut in the celebrity world, and highly in demand despite Stern’s tenacious interview technique.

Is it ‘libertarian’? Maybe… Howard actually pitched a run for governor of New York at one point under the libertarian ticket, though it was probably more of a stunt than anything. But the show is freeing, certainly, and Stern’s fight against the FCC was a fight for freedom from government censorship. Howard leans toward somewhat libertarian-rooted politics at times, though at other times he finds a home on the Left. Despite being a show which has been criticised for its use of schoolboy-style humour, it’s also a smart and analytical show where satire and parody are used to comment on the state of society at large. It has a lot of intelligent listeners, it doesn’t attempt to change the world, but treats the world as it is and people as they are without taking anything too seriously, and that’s refreshing.

And Stern is being paid for it. His current contract is worth $500 million for five years with Sirius Satellite Radio, and the ratings prove it’s worth it. Subscriptions to Sirius (which cost $13 per month) are up from 600,000 when Howard signed up 2 years ago to almost 8 million subscribers today. The state-of-the-art studio suite is a broadcaster’s dream, on an upper floor of the Rockefeller Center in New York, where over 60 employees work on the show on a daily basis, including a news department devoted to Stern show news and a television department which broadcasts Howard’s TV channel to cable, featuring footage from the show.

The History of Howard Stern promises to be a fascinating narrative of the story of Howard personally and of the show. It includes interviews with every relevant individual, including Howard’s parents, teachers, former employers, even Kevin Metheny (whom Howard labeled “Pig-virus” on-air when they worked together at WNBC). It also includes hours of original audio, some never heard since they were originally aired decades ago. As someone in radio myself, I look up to Howard as a broadcasting genius, and there’s no end to what people like me can learn from him.

If you subscribe to Sirius Satellite Radio, you’ll have a chance to hear the first five installments of The History of Howard Stern starting on Monday and finishing on Friday this week. And if you don’t, now’s your chance to sign up! The show has never been better, and Howard Stern continues to make radio history every day.