Who Is Howard Stern? Rolling Stone's 1990 Feature

And why is he saying all those terrible things on the radio?

March 16, 2011 6:00 AM ET
Who Is Howard Stern? Rolling Stone's 1990 Feature
Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

If Fellini directed a bar mitzvah, it might look something like this. It's six in the morning, and a surreal cast of the semi and somewhat famous is arriving at a downtown Manhattan nightclub for Howard Stern's on-the-air thirty-sixth-birthday bash. Here to pay tribute to the controversial talk-radio personality are Mason Reese, the former spokesmunchkin for Underwood deviled ham; May Pang, the onetime bed mate of John Lennon; Lisa Sliwa of the Guardian Angels patrol group; and New York Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall, who at the moment is blitzing his way to the men's room.

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On the any stage near the entrance, beneath a banner that reads X-ROCK 92.3 — "Howard Stern All Morning/Classic Rock & Roll All Day" — is the band, a sleepy-looking ensemble, featuring Joe Walsh, Leslie West and Southside Johnny. Surrounded by a gaggle of male gawkers, Penthouse pet Kimberly Taylor is busily networking with Young M.C. "Gawd, I love Howaawd," she tells the rapper in her thick Long Island accent. "Isn't he just the best?"

This article appeared in the June 14, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

Then, of course, there's the object of all this affection: the six-foot-five birthday boy. Stern — who has described himself as looking like a cross between Big Bird and Joey Ramone — is a vision in black leather, metalhead tresses and shades, sitting up on the dais surrounded by his radio team.

Because of a technical glitch, most of the crowd at the club can't hear what Stern and company are saying. But they're coming in loud and clear to the million and a half listeners who tune in each week in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia from six to ten in the morning.

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The show they're tuning in to has made Howard Stern perhaps the most famous — and infamous — man on the radio today. He is the top ratings attraction on the FM dial in New York City and Philadelphia, and he's gaining ground in Washington. But even those who've never heard him in his natural environment nor seen one of his many appearances on Late Night With David Letterman already know something about his reputation as a world-class vulgarian. He is loved, hated and widely imitated. He's the Bad Boy of Radio, the King of the Shock Jocks.

He is also, just possibly, the last radio star. Some Stern listeners will tell you he's the funniest man they've ever heard, a loose cannon who hits his mark more often than not. The show itself is a four-hour black-comedy schmooze-fest, punctuated by song parodies, prerecorded comedy bits, sleazy studio antics and live commercials that stray freely from the copy.

Part of the show's appeal is its odd, crackling randomness. Anything can happen. Guests drop by unannounced. Stern's mother calls to tell him he never calls. Jessica Hahn, the PTL Club sex symbol, calls from the Playboy Mansion to talk about her new breasts. Jamie Lee Curtis calls, and Stern confesses his masturbatory admiration for her; then Young M.C. calls to recommend a choice early Curtis movie.

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Some regular drop-ins are actual stars, like Sam Kinison and Richard Lewis. Others are freakish sorts, like Rachel the Spanker, Darren the Foot Licker and Vinnie, who offers to snap a mousetrap on his penis. And Stern always has a seat for showbiz fossils like Grandpa Al Lewis of Munsters fame or borscht-belt crooner Steve Rossi. Compared with the preprocessed Morning Zoo competition, the Stern show is a wake-up call from hell. It's also happening radio.

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