Who Is Howard Stern? Rolling Stone's 1990 Feature

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

Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com
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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.

As he's rambled, belched and bitched his way to the top, Stern has helped make talk radio hip. He's shown that FM jocks can do more than play records — he hardly ever spins a disc at all — and that they can display recognizably human, if not particularly pleasant, on-the-air personalities. Stern speaks a grubby, cynical vernacular, but he inspires devotion and delivers the numbers. He proved such a ratings bonanza for K-Rock, in New York City, that its parent company decided to syndicate the show on WYSP, in Philadelphia, and later on WJFK, in Washington, D.C. And even if you can't hear him in your city, you can spot his influence on one of the renegade copy-cat shows that have popped up around the country.

But Stern's ambition — a favorite topic of his — goes way beyond radio. The million-dollar question is whether he can translate his success to the big and little screens. He's had several less-than-successful experiments with television, but in a few months, this not-remotely-ready-for-prime-time player will get his best chance yet to show he has the right stuff. WWOR-TV, a New Jersey superstation with the potential to reach some 25 million viewers nationwide, will broadcast the first of four late-night-Stern comedy specials in July. Already there's talk of a film project built around him. So far, Stern has displayed enough star power to have sold out — in four hours — Long Island's 16,000-seat Nassau Coliseum last year to fans willing to pay $22.50 for the privilege of watching Stern and his radio gang live. All this at a time when most radio personalities can't draw a crowd to a mall opening.

Of course, not everyone wants to be awakened by a powerful, sometimes nasty blast of cynicism. Racist! Homophobic! Juvenile! Tasteless! Morally reprehensible! These are words that have been used to describe Stern's brand of humor — sometimes fairly. A number of his enemies would like to see him banished from the FM dial. Some have lobbied the show's advertisers to drop their sponsorship. Stern also seems to have trouble with governmental organizations. In 1988, after Stern joked on the air about procuring drugs for a backstage party, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent complained to the New York Daily News on agency stationery, which led the newspaper to report that Stern was the target of a DEA investigation. And much to his chagrin, Stern now has the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issuing him warnings and waiting for him to cross that rather ill-defined border of airwave acceptability — a line that he treads profitably on a daily basis.

"I'm no shock jock," says Stern. "I'm not some desperate, out-of-control loser trying to outrage people to get ratings. And I'm not just another pitiful, middle-aged asshole jock trying to be a 'bad boy' on the air. That's not what my show is all about. What the show's about is me trying to be funny, trying to tell the truth and trying to make a living."

"We're the exception to the rule on radio," says Robin Quivers, his on-air foil for the last nine years. "Most of what you get on FM is interchangeable parts — your morning man, your news man, your funny-voice guy. But what Howard does is a real show — and not this sleazy show about sex and drugs people talk about. We're the Ozzie and Harriet show for the Nineties."

In the strictest sense of the word, Howard Stern is doing a family show, albeit one in which Father doesn't always know best. Even Ozzie might have approved of the time Stern spent a few unlikely but hilarious hours discussing an argument he had with his mother about the lack of coat hangers in his home closets. But God only knows what Ozzie would have made of such Stern show segments as "Dominatrix Dial-a-Date" and "Guess Who's the Jew" or of Stern's constant references to his own sexual frustrations. "I'm hung like a pimple," he tells anyone who will listen.

Such openness — as indelicate as it sometimes gets — has created a genuine sense of intimacy between Stern and his fans. They're one big pissed-off family. Unsurprisingly, then, the crowd at the birthday bash cheers when his wife, father, mother and sister arrive, just as the band wraps up a version of "Rocky Mountain Way." A few hoots are heard when Stern's attractive wife, Alison, approaches her husband and hands him a birthday gift — a black garter belt. "Thanks, honey," Stern says, "but will that fit Kimberly?"

Today there are prerecorded birthday messages from Tim Conway, Cheech Marin and Jessica Hahn, who's become a familiar voice on the show since Stern successfully wooed her in the midst of the PTL scandal. Dennis Hopper drops by. Sam Kinison — another fixture and Stern devotee — calls in from Los Angeles, where he's been partying all night with Julian Lennon. Quick on his feet, Stern hooks up Lennon with May Pang for some awkward chat.

Phoebe Snow, Southside Johnny and Young M.C. serenade Stern. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch enters with a flourish, claiming to be there as President Bush's emissary. Nearby, Stern's mother chews on a bagel and beams with maternal pride. Stern asks the former mayor why he refused to come on the show while he was still in office. "Because you talk too dirty," Koch says, sensibly enough.

Moments later a woman in a gorilla suit approaches Stern. Unzipping the costume, she bares her breasts and lights birthday candles attached to her nipples. He gamely blows them out but grows much more animated when yet another special guest appears: an embarrassed-looking fellow who some twenty years earlier took a girl Stern liked to a prom at Camp Wel-Met. Stern — apparently still bitter after all these years — tries to find out the man's salary. But of course, money isn't the only basis for comparison. "Don't you think I'm better looking than he is?" Stern asks of his following. "Don't you?"

It's the day after the birthday party, and Stern is spending Saturday afternoon in a distinctly domestic fashion — watching over workers who are completing the renovation of his large, sunny house on the North Shore of Long Island. Having moved twelve times as he's wandered the wasteland of American radio, Stern hopes this house will be a more permanent home to Alison and their two daughters, Emily, 6, and Debra, 3. He sits in the kitchen wearing dark glasses and talks in a calmer version of his radio voice about his past. Outside, a repairman fixes the electronic security gate — a practical symbol of his current fame.

As any devoted listener could tell you, Howard Stern grew up in Roosevelt, on Long Island, the son of Ben and Rae Stern. On the air, he often says he's half-Jewish — "So I can make fun of Jesus all I want" — though in fact, both of his parents are Jewish. Ben ran a successful commercial recording studio in Manhattan; Howard still recalls visiting his dad at work, seeing Don Adams, Larry Storch and Allen Swift record the voices for the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon show. "I thought they had the coolest job in the world," he says.

By the time Stern was ten he had his first tape recorder. From the start he preferred talk radio to music — though he and some school friends did form a band called the Electric Comicbook, which got as far as playing a short set at Jerry Dikowitz's bar mitzvah.

But then came a change that had a profound influence on Stern. "Overnight, Roosevelt went black," he says. "In sixth grade, it was almost all white. In seventh grade, it was half-and-half, and by eighth grade, I was one of about ten white kids in my school. People moved from Roosevelt in the middle of the night."

Stern says his own parents didn't believe in running from a situation and were angered by their fleeing neighbors' behavior. "I remember when Martin Luther King was killed, the buzz was if you were white, you should stay the fuck out of school," he says. "My mother said, 'Absolutely not, you're going.' " Stern says he tried to fit in but had a rough time of it: "I was literally cracking up at Roosevelt. Getting beat up constantly for being white will do that to you."

Stern thinks this experience shaped his sensibility but rejects that it made him racist. "I love it when I get called a racist for doing black dialect," he says. "The fact is that some people do talk like that. I talked like that."

His escape from Long Island led him to Boston University, where he studied broadcasting and film. Caught in a rainstorm one day, he knocked on the door of his future wife's apartment and asked to borrow a blow-dryer. "Alison thought I was the biggest asshole in the world," Stern says. Undaunted, he asked her to be in his student movie, a documentary about Transcendental Meditation — which both he and Alison practice to this day.

In sophomore year, he and three friends started a student radio show called The King Schmaltz Bagel Hour, a takeoff on the then popular King Biscuit Flour Hour. "We said whatever the fuck we wanted. It sounded just like what I'm doing now."

Stern hoped to attract at least one off-campus fan when he sent a tape of the show to his father. "He sent me back this five-page letter telling me how stupid the tape was," Stern says. "He said, 'Why don't you try and sound like the other disc jockeys?' He'd also say, 'Why do you need college to be in radio? I see these guys come into the studio, and they're morons. They used to be dry-cleaning guys.' "

Ironically, Stern says his father — now a dedicated listener — was instrumental in developing the philosophy, such as it is, behind his entire radio career: "I've had the same concept since the beginning. I'd watch my dad commute, and when he was stuck in the car, he'd just sit and listen to CBS News. And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if he was laughing? If every once in a while he heard a disc jockey say something funny, something that made him glad he was there?' Whenever I ran into bosses who tried telling me my kind of show wouldn't work, I always thought about that one miserable bastard on the parkway in his car. And I just knew if I could make him happy, then I'd be all the rage."

Ready to go to hell?" asks Howard Stern. It's six o'clock, morning drive time as its known in the business, and Stern is getting ready to debut "The Cancer Man" — a song parody set to "The Candy Man," sung by Stern in a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation. The song is Stern's less-than-sensitive reaction to Davis's recent bout with throat cancer and includes such couplets as "One day I'm eating a knish/The next I'm calling Project Wish." As the tune plays, Stern lifts his glasses and rubs his eyes.

Today, like most days, he's been up since four. During the thirty-minute limo ride into Manhattan, he meditates. Arriving at K-Rock's midtown office around 5:30, he heads to his office to search the morning papers for material. Just before show time, he walks into the slightly cramped studio, takes his place behind the console, puts on his headphones and begins a somewhat premeditated four-hour free association.

Directly across from him are Jackie "the Jokeman" Martling and Fred Norris, who form a kind of comedy mass-production line. Like troublemaking schoolboys, they pass funny notes to each other and Stern. Norris has other responsibilities, like keeping Stern on track for commercial spots, overseeing much of the musical parodies and doing a number of running character voices — such as "Guess Who's the Jew" host Kurt Waldheim Jr. He also orchestrates the various sound effects that fill the tape racks, each marked with names like "Fart-man Intro," "Duck Sex," "Nazi Patrol Music," "You Dick!" "Vomit/Potatoes/Fast" and, of course, "Vomit/Potatoes/Slow."

Nearby in a glassed-off booth is Robin Quivers, the only woman and only black person in the inner sanctum. Stern's much-abused producer, Gary Dell'Abate, and John "Stuttering John" Melendez, the intern who crashes celebrity press events to ask inappropriate questions, also wander in to contribute to the proceedings.

"We've hit a new low," Norris tells Stern off the air after "Cancer Man" has played. "It's like we're telling people, 'Go ahead, we dare you to listen.' " Stern smiles and says they should replay the song a few more times. But there's plenty of other ground to cover. For example, Stern takes a few moments to suggest that perhaps the real cause of all Kitty Dukakis's problems is that her husband has a small penis. He mocks HBO's troubled new Comedy Channel and wonders aloud why television people don't properly appreciate him. "You want the new Ernie Kovacs," Stern yells, "he's sitting right here in this chair!" He offers a moment of political commentary: "Boy, aren't those East Germans sorry-looking people? Don't they have any fresh fruit there?"

Stern claims to be an equal-opportunity offender — though gays, blacks, women and the disabled tend to get targeted more often than straight white males. The show's characterizations tilt toward the obvious: a shuck-and-jive Marion Barry Jr. and a lisping, mincing Mr. Blackswell. Recently, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation censured Stern for "promoting gay and lesbian stereotypes and continually insulting people with AIDS."

Stern — who insists he's not homophobic — feels he's controversial because he tells the truth and that his brand of honesty is the secret to his success. "The truth is funny because we all lie all day long," he says. "We have to smile at the right time. We have to act like we care what other people say. We have to pretend we like our asshole boss. I lie too, but on the radio I say what I want"

Sometimes, of course, Stern's truths hurt. But Stern says he regrets nothing he's ever said on the air. Well, maybe one thing. It was after Alison miscarried during her first pregnancy. "I went on and joked about how I took pictures of the miscarriage from the toilet seat and sent them to her parents because they wanted pictures of their grandchildren," he says. "Alison flipped out. We had a real bad time with that." Except for that incident, Stern says his wife is amazingly tolerant. He has, after all, been heard to claim she's been killed in a car crash when he has an attractive female guest on his show. "Alison knows we have a really strong marriage," he says.

By nine o'clock, the studio floor is covered with newspapers, crumpled gags and coffee cups. Every twenty minutes or so, Stern breaks his concentration, abruptly segueing into a live commercial spot for Dial-a-Mattress or Roselli Movers.

"I'm gonna fucking die if I have to do another live commercial," Stern says off the air. A second later, he begins in his most earnest voice, "You know, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes you get cynical. But it's really such an honor to talk to you about Jersey Camera."

After the show winds down, Stern and his team discuss plans for an upcoming show. They consider the various talents offering services. There's Vinnie, the guy who wants to let a mousetrap snap on his penis. And there's a woman with four breasts.

"It's going to be one big freak show in here," Stern says.

"Next we'll have a gay priest with an anus on his neck," Norris adds.

Stern smiles, then says, "Do you know where we can get one?"

Being in radio is like being in the army," says Howard Stern. "You live ratings book to ratings book. You learn not to get too comfortable in any one place."

At the moment, however, Stern looks pretty comfortable. He's sitting in the toy-strewn basement of the Long Island house he's renting while renovation on his home continues. He puts his daughter's Mickey Mouse guitar-synthesizer on the ground, strokes the family cat, Shera, and talks about the long road to radio fame.

After graduating from BU in 1976, Stern tried briefly to get ahead in advertising before taking his first professional radio job for ninety-six dollars a week in Westchester County, New York. At the tiny WRNW — "A 3000-watt FM toilet bowl" is how he remembers it — he flourished as a DJ, production director and later, program director. To save money, he rented a room at a monastery in nearby Armonk.

"I was a shitty straight jock," Stern says. "I snuck in whatever creativity I could during the commercials. My big account was the Cheese Wheel, and I'd call them up on the air. That was outrageous back then. Anything you did was outrageous then."

Stern did learn some sobering lessons in the hard realities of radio as a career path. "It was so depressing," he says. "There were all these old disc jockeys walking around in blue blazers. They'd been put out to pasture. They weren't even old yet, they just looked that way."

Eventually Stern left the monastery and took a job as morning man for WCCC, in Hartford, Connecticut, an AM-FM rock station that covered southern New England. At this point, he was making $12,000 a year — Alison earned more as a social worker — and he still had to spin records, but he started generating ratings and press interest. "I was always screaming about something," he says. At WCCC, Stern also picked the first member of his current radio team when he met up with Fred Norris, then a college student working at the station.

In 1980, in search of more money, he moved to Detroit for a job as morning man for WWWW, a struggling FM rock station. His salary went up, but the scene was very different. By the early 1980s, radio in general had gotten wilder. "You had jocks doing tons of coke with the record-company guys," Stern says. In fact, Stern explains that the reason the lengthy "Free Bird" became such a popular nighttime song on FM had nothing to do with listener requests. "It was because the live version took forever," Stern says, "and if they segued into 'Stairway to Heaven,' you knew something was going on. They'd have a van with women, and there was enough time to get laid, coke up and get back before the record ended."

Despite rising ratings and salary increases that brought him up to $50,000 a year, Stern was not long for Detroit. After nine months, he awoke one morning to discover that the station had gone country. "I have no tolerance for country music," Stern says. "I mean, the Judds remind me of Nazi women. I feel they would kill me."

And so he took a pay cut to work at WWDC, in Washington, D.C., where he hooked up with Robin Quivers, a former air-force nurse and news reporter. The two hit it off instantly. Quivers says the first time she heard a tape of Stern she knew she wanted to meet him. "He was totally in love with radio," she says. For his part, Stern credits the sweet-voiced Quivers with having as much to do with the success of his show as he does. He and Quivers both agree that they instantly understood each other's sensibilities and that Stern's racial humor has never been a sore point.

Stern was such a hit in Washington that the station let him hire Fred Norris. Still, he found himself overworked and underappreciated. "They had me do appearances at high schools and shit," he says. "Radio personalities can be celebrities. But radio has a bad self-image. Some people think disc jockeys are on the same level with circus clowns. Disc jockeys don't have to be the guys who'll come to your bar mitzvah and hand out bumper stickers."

Despite strong ratings, Stern left Washington. Actually he was kicked off, after signing a contract with WNBC, a popular AM station in New York City. It had always been Stern's dream to work in New York. He finally made it into the biggest radio market in the country, but it wasn't under the best of circumstances. Because the station already had a morning man — Don Imus — Stern started out doing afternoon drive time. Soon he was growing frustrated with all the corporate politics and finding it nearly impossible to squeeze in much attitude between Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand.

Stern feuded with Imus and Soupy Sales (then also on the station) and even engaged in an on-air shoving match with the NBC station's general manager, John Hayes. "It was crazy" says Stern, "but it was great fucking radio." In 1984, he was suspended briefly for broadcasting a bit that involved God playing a video game called Virgin Mary Kong. Despite all this, Stern says he was surprised when the ax actually fell in 1985. Stern also thinks he now knows why he was fired: "The story goes that Thornton Bradshaw, the chairman of the board of RCA, was riding by in his limo one day, and he turned on the station and heard me talking about doing 'Bestiality Dial-a-Date,' " says Stern. "And I guess he didn't think it was too fucking funny."

This is the best place I've ever worked," says Stern. On the inside door of his small, windowless office at K-Rock is a gallery of nude photos sent in by listeners — most of them female. All around are tapes of his old shows. And amid the clutter on his desk is the autobiography of the Reverend Donald Wildmon — the founder of American Family Association, a media-watchdog group, and the man Stern credits with getting the FCC on his case.

Despite his troubles at WNBC, Stern was still a hot property. There were immediate job offers, including one from a California station that promised him TV work along with a radio job. But the winning offer came from Mel Karmazin, the president of Infinity Broadcasting, which owns seventeen stations nationwide. Stern decided he wanted to stay in New York and "kick NBC's ass." In November 1985, he began afternoon duty for the ailing K-Rock. Four months later, Karmazin turned him loose as the morning man, and Stern went to work with his dream team. Along with Quivers and Norris, he had also signed on Jackie Martling, a stand-up comic, and producer Gary Dell'Abate, who had paid his dues at NBC feeding traffic information to the helicopter reporter.

Within a year, Stern was ahead of his competition in the ratings. "Imus said if we ever beat him, he'd eat a dead dog's dick," says Stern. "And I was going to send him one, but I felt bad for the dog."

By the end of 1986 some three-quarter million listeners were on a first-name basis with Howard, Robin and the gang. K-Rock was suddenly a contender. They took the act on the road, bringing an even rawer version of the show first to area clubs, then to bigger venues, culminating in the Nassau Coliseum show in 1989, which featured Stern and company playing tennis — poorly. Ever the capitalist, Stern immortalized the show on videotape as The U.S. Open Sores and — sold it to tens of thousands of listeners for $29.95.

But the man who loves Radio is clearly a bit frustrated with the second-rate status of his chosen medium. Yes, he's well paid — some say over a million a year. But the life of a morning man is physically draining, and he shudders at the notion of getting stuck in what he calls "radio hell."

And if you listen to radio at all, it's easy to see why. The dial is already crowded with Stern imitators, the "shock jocks" who have appropriated his style. "I'm good at walking the line," Stern says, "but people who try to imitate me aren't, and they end up getting fined by the FCC. And the idiots pay them." The real problem, in Stern's opinion, is the vagueness of the FCC rules. "In the good old days, you just couldn't say the seven dirty words," he says. "But now they've updated that by saying you can't 'discuss sexual or excretory matters in a patently offensive way.' What the fuck does that mean? All I'm saying is, don't give me a speeding ticket unless you can tell me what the speed limit is."

And though he's now on the fast track to multimedia stardom, Stern is proud of the way he's changed radio. Still, he's cranky that he remains on the periphery of stardom. And underappreciated.

"People are talking about Radio again," he says. "The way I figure it, I've done a lot to elevate the medium. But you can't get anyone to admit that. I've opened things up so these people can have a personality on the air, and then they piss on me. I don't get it." He looks to the heavens before speaking: "Somebody please give me some fuckin' respect."

More: Howard Stern on Sex, Therapy and Charlie Sheen

From the Archive:

Howard Stern Does Hollywood: Rolling Stone's 1997 Cover Story

Howard Stern: Man or Mouth? Rolling Stone's 1994 Cover StoryPeter Travers' 1997 Review of Private Parts

Artie Lange Exposed: Rolling Stone's 2009 Feature

Artie Lange's Life in Photos: From Hometown Comic to Howard Stern's Sidekick

Artie Lange: The Story Behind the Story

From The Archives Issue 580: June 14, 1990