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."
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