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?"
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