Monday, January 03, 2011

Return of the King: Why Five More Years of Howard Stern Is Sirius Cause for Celebration

Happy New Year.

Today is the first workday of 2011 for most of those fortunate to be employed, although as I've corroborated with a number of people, far too many of those who do have jobs are under-employed, overworked (often due to departmental downsizing), underpaid, under-appreciated, unenthusiastic and, while most have the decorum not to complain, seemingly pretty miserable.

So while I certainly am trying, and hopeful, to land something worthwhile in the not-too-distant future, I remain thankful for what was a rather enjoyable and gratifying 2010, even without substantive employment.

Beyond good health and wonderful relationships with friends and family members, I am quite grateful to the myriad creative folks--from part-time local actors to long-dead classical composers--who once again so greatly enriched my life with performances and creations that not only provided hours of entertainment, but truly significant emotional nourishment. I have tried to share many of my passions and pursuits on this blog, and hope that whether you are particular to opera or baseball, Renaissance painting or Radiohead, all of the above or anything in between, you have found some merit in my meanderings, even when our tastes don't match.

For today I am opting to sing the praises of the self-proclaimed "King of All Media": Mr. Howard Allan Stern.

Someone to whom I am not only thankful for years of entertainment--in December 2009, I ranked Howard Stern second among My Favorite Entertainers of the 00s (behind only Bruce Springsteen)--but quite grateful that just three weeks ago, on his last contracted day on air at SiriusXM, he announced that he had renewed his deal for another 5 years.

I know it may sound hollow to those who hate Howard or those who just don't bother to listen--often one and the same, particularly since he's been on satellite radio--but there would be a considerable void in the brainwaves of my life if I wasn't able to hear Howard Stern four days a week (plus rebroadcasts), most weeks of the year.

Given that Stern is, by far, the highest paid radio personality in history and that studies have shown that his audience is far more educated and affluent than many might assume, I'm not sure why I feel compelled to write of my affinity almost as a defense, or at least a justification. Although as a regular listener I know that more than 90% of his shows' content would be fine for teenagers--and the other 10% not much worse than much of what passes for mass culture these days--I am an adult listening to subscription-based programming that can't be accessed by accident. 

Howard Stern & wife Beth (photo:
And yet, openly admitting that I'm an avid Howard Stern fan still feels a bit like being caught looking at a Playboy in a bookstore, hidden between the covers of TIME.

In fact, I can't deny that it's crossed my mind that writing and posting this might not be the smartest thing at a time when potential employers can easily access one's entire online footprint. But while none of this should really reflect on my capacity to do excellent work--as I always have in the past--I hope that anyone who might hold liking Howard Stern against me not only avoid any hypocrisy, but factor it below my never having taken drugs, driven drunk, been arrested, gotten a speeding ticket, caused an accident, insulted a co-worker, started a fist-fight or danced topless on Daytona Beach.

OK, I did that last one when I was a freshman in college, but I don't think it was caught on tape. Heck, I don't even care much for pornography.

But then, Howard isn't nearly the lewd provocateur nor misogynistic hate-monger that many non-listeners may presume (or that the silly "Shock Jock" moniker seems to denote).

Sure, I'll switch the station if my Mom's in the car with me--one of the great things about Stern's show on SiriusXM is that it repeats all day, making "drive time" listening largely irrelevant--but even when Howard is at his most profane or perverse, which is honestly only about once a month, it's not like he's saying anything she hasn't heard from a theater stage.

And truly, although very little truly offends me, I find Stern and his longtime cohorts (including Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Gary Dell'Abate and formerly, and hopefully sometime again, Artie Lange) often at their least compelling when discussing naked porn stars in the studio. Although even here, "haters" would likely be shocked at how humanely he treats his guests, I much prefer when Stern is interviewing more mainstream stars or just discussing everyday minutia with Robin. (For a guy who many people associate with "going over the edge," Stern has an almost perversely uncool attraction to American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, The Bachelorette and almost all lame reality TV.)

No less a respected commentator on American life than Roger Ebert has said that there's "no better interviewer than Howard Stern; he asks what people want to know." And while there are some questions Howard asks that make me a bit queasy--and even days when I just choose to "change the channel"--in a world of artificial, publicist-ratified drivel, Howard Stern dares to be real, honest, open (and self-deprecating) about himself and expects nothing less from his guests.

Sure, most "A-listers" avoid him, but there are few stars who've answered Howard's most inquisitive questions that I haven't gained more respect for, although I also admire the guests that know how to artfully avoid anything they don't want to discuss.

A few weeks before Christmas, the three members of Wilson Phillips came in to promote their new holiday album and wound up discussing sexual acts, but far beyond being prurient, it was really just a refreshingly candid conversation. I've never cared all that much about Wilson Phillips, but I couldn't get out of my car; it was that compelling. Demonstrating his rare gift for going from salty to sweet in the same sentence, Howard was able to elicit intimate details from Chynna Phillips, not just about her bedroom preferences with husband Billy Baldwin, but about her feelings about her father's ("Papa John" Phillips) incestuous relationship with her half-sister Mackenzie Phillips, and about Mackenzie's decision to go public with the revelations.

Now, I may have just mentioned a boatload of topics you might never wish to hear discussed, but if nothing else, you have to admit there's nowhere else you would. Although Howard has rightfully complained, especially when he was frequently fined for things he said while on terrestrial radio, that Oprah often gets away with talking about much more intimate topics, demonstrating not only the double standard of the FCC, but much of the public. And I think it says something that co-host Robin Quivers, who provides a remarkable counterbalance to some of Stern's debauchery, has stayed by his side for 30 years, along with much of his loyal staff.

Co-host Robin Quivers
Anyway, I am not insisting that everyone listen to Howard Stern--and for $12.95/month, SiriusXM may
not be worth your while, although there are also tons of great music channels with no commercials; I bought a "lifetime" subscription for $500 in 2005, all the more reason I'm delighted that Howard re-upped--as he certainly may not be everyone's cup of tea.

But if you have access--and SiriusXM is offering a free 30-day trial--I suggest that if you stick with listening to Howard and his crew for a four-day Monday-Thursday period, you're quite likely to go from "this crap is exactly what I expected" to "hmm, that's kinda funny" to "you know, he's not that bad all the time" to "sign me up, I can't stop listening."

After starts and stops with Howard dating back to the late-80s--because he only intermittently broadcast into the Chicago market, because I preferred Steve & Garry and believed Steve Dahl's claims to have pre-developed a similar act and because I just didn't love what I was hearing--I reached the last phase above about 10 years ago. (Stern's biographical 1997 movie, Private Parts, also helped sell me.)

Now in his mid-50s, he's even better on satellite radio than he was over-the-air, and though he can say swear words, his act is actually considerably less ribald. Love him or hate him, there's no one like Howard Stern--even just his longevity in a fickle business is damn impressive--and I'm Siriusly delighted he'll be around for another 5 years.

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