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."
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