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Stern's Political Crusade

Ratings soar as radio host attacks Bush

May 7, 2004 12:00 AM ET
Howard Stern's radio audience almost doubled in New York, Chicago, Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, during the first three months of 2004 -- and not because he's added more sex to his shtick. After more than two decades of titillating the masses with crude jokes and porn-star guests, Stern is attracting listeners with his new obsession: attacking George W. Bush.

"Howard's in a war," says Chaunce Hayden, a regular guest on Stern's morning show. "He's spending all his energy and efforts and wit and know-how to have Bush eliminated from office."

Stern's radio show reaches about 18 million people; his Web site -- a clearinghouse for Bush criticism -- draws up to 4 million visitors daily. As the presidential race heats up, Stern aims to turn his millions of young male fans into a new anti-Bush constituency.

"If you look at the sheer numbers, that in and of itself is political clout," says Michael Feldman, Al Gore's chief of staff in 2000. "He could mobilize millions."

"His audience listens to him," says Al Franken. "He's an honest broker."

Stern supported Bush a year ago; he said he'd give the president "a ten out of ten" for his aggressive position on Iraq. But his politics began to shift after Janet Jackson's Super Bowl flash led to a government crackdown on indecency. He started to feel "under siege," says Don Buchwald, Stern's manager. On air, he referred to Bush as a "maniac," an "arrogant bastard" and a "Jesus freak." Then, on February 12th, after conservatives in Congress grilled Viacom president Mel Karmazin about the Super Bowl halftime show, Stern publicly rejected the Republican administration. Two weeks later, Clear Channel Communications suspended Stern from six stations. (His show still airs on thirty-five stations nationwide.)

Since being cut from Clear Channel -- and since the Federal Communications Commission fined the company $495,000 for a Stern broadcast that made references to anal sex -- Stern has attacked Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for everything from their handling of pre-9/11 intelligence to their avoidance of Vietnam. Michael Powell, the FCC chairman, remains Stern's favorite target. "If [he] was the first president, he would have appointed himself king and turned this country into an aristocracy," Stern said on April 22nd. "An unelected body is not supposed to determine what's offensive and unoffensive."

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