Stern grew up in Southwest Long Island, in New York, where the Manhattan skyline is never far from the horizon. He spent his first years in Roosevelt, a village that was one day all white, the next day all black. As one of the only white kids in school, he says, he was a symbol of oppression — a victim. Though his parents soon moved to a whiter town, Roosevelt remains a place on his map. Roosevelt taught Stern to be an outsider, a role he still plays every day. "I have no idea what my place in show business is," he tells me. "I'm sort of this outcast."
Stern's father was a sound engineer at a radio station in Manhattan. Howard often went with his old man to work, where he watched stars like Don Adams record voice-overs. On weekends, Howard used a tape player to record his own show, a kid's version of the show he still does today. He would sit upstairs with friends, saying the most disgusting thing that came to mind. He would go to the phones, harassing local merchants. Calling a pharmacy, he might ask, "Do you stock LSD?" Whenever one of these tapes made it down to Howard's father, he would call his son a moron, saying that Howard had no idea what he was doing. When Stern sent a tape of his college radio show home, his father sent back a note: "You stupid idiot, this is terrible. They don't talk like that on real radio stations."
"My father was harsh," Stern says. "But I always felt loved by him. And all the criticism kept me in check. Someone who grew up in my house can't get too full of himself."
After high school, Stern went to Boston University, the school of communications. Same old story: parties, pot, coeds. He studied, was rejected by girls, worked on college radio. The first record he cued as a DJ was by Santana. And he met Alison Berns, who would become his wife. Before he met Alison, who later became a psychiatric social worker, Stern was the sort of lonely college kid who can't get a date. All these years later, he's still amazed that this sweet, attractive woman went out with him. "I was so punch-drunk from getting knocked around by women that I couldn't imagine someone this dynamite would be into me," he later wrote. "Within a week after our relationship began, I knew I was going to marry her."
Maybe that's why, even as he became a big shot, as models dropped their pants and let him play Butt Bongo, Stern stayed faithful. Long ago, when there was something he really wanted, she was the only one who would give it to him. When Stern's first book came out, it was dedicated to her: "To my wife, Alison, who stuck with me through thick and thin, who never gave a shit about material things or put any pressure on me, who let me finger her on the first date and who loved me before I had a radio show." Stern graduated magna cum laude.
After college, Stern moved in with Alison, took a 9-to-5 job (doing marketing in an ad agency) and griped. With her support, he quit and got himself back on radio, a tiny station in Westchester, N.Y. During the next few years, he followed the jobs, which he read about in Radio and Records, a trade publication. He went city to city. The stations were usually run-down joints in just the worst part of town, paper peeling off the walls, know-nothing program directors with bullshit rules. "You know, 'Don't do anything different,'" says Stern. "'Keep your fucking mouth shut. Don't talk to women on the air — you sound wimpy.' And just when you defeat one guy, you go somewhere else, and they tell you the same shit all over again."
It was a strange way to live. Stern wore open-collared shirts, corduroy pants, a mustache. His short hair was feathered back. He would wake in the dead of night, dress in the dark, sit all morning in some booth, coming up with bits. In Hartford, Conn., he asked local leaders to talk about their best dates; in Detroit, he petitioned the governor to change the state song to Ted Nugent's "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang"; in Washington, D.C., he made light of Alison's miscarriage. "We got him in formaldehyde," he said on air. "Just because he's in a bottle doesn't mean he can't have a life of his own." And everywhere, he made enemies.
Stern was also getting noticed. From the beginning, his fans were loyal, passionate, opinionated. They formed a kind of secret society, a network of cabbies, cops, students, lawyers, mothers, investment bankers — people up too early who loved the bluster but also saw through it, past the enemas and douche bags, to the hidden truth: Stern is funny. In a society ever more focused on celebrity, where the famous so often get off scot-free, he treats all people like the assholes he knows they are. He suffers from a kind of voluntary Tourette's syndrome: He finds the most inappropriate thing to say and says it.
"When people come on my show, they must know I'm going to ask some direct things," he says. "But they're still shocked and like, 'Whoa! How can you ask me that?' But most celebrity interviews are dull because they don't ask. That's why talk shows are in trouble. They're dull unless there is some reality to it. You talk about politicians being dishonest? People in show business are so fake and phony and fabulous and wonderful, they're boring. They are all fucking phony. They won't say a bad word about anybody. Who knows what they are thinking? They all seem like clones and robots."
In 1982, Stern made it back to New York. He was given an afternoon slot at WNBC. Two years later, according to Stern, some NBC bigwig tooling around in his limo flipped to Stern and was offended enough to dump the show. Stern was soon hired by WXRK (known as K-Rock), an in-town rival operating from the same studio where his father once worked. Once there, he quickly became the Stern we know today. He finished assembling his current cast: Robin Quivers (sidekick), Gary Dell'Abate (producer), Fred Norris (sound engineer), Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling (writer). He let his hair grow. His big, technocrat eyeglass frames gave way to round rock-star shades. His show became a haunt for America's strangest celebrities: Sam Kinison, Jessica Hahn, La Toya Jackson. Stern signed with Infinity Broadcasting, a radio network that syndicated the show around the country. He hit No. 1 in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia. He is now listened to by more than 18 million people nationally each day. Excerpts from his radio show are aired each night on the cable channel E! And he has written two best-selling books: Private Parts and Miss America.
Looking back, some powerful people saw not just an interesting journey but a major motion picture. Stern was ready to join a select group: those who have seen their stories filmed in their own lifetimes — Jim Thorpe, Jim Carroll, Audie Murphy, Larry Flynt. It sometimes seems that Stern has spent his whole life getting here, that the setbacks were no more than fate making his life movieworthy. And with the movie, the embarrassments of his early years would be magically transformed from pain to material. He wasn't suffering — he was preparing. It was every awkward kid's dream: Abuse me now, but I'll be back with a film crew.
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