Howard Stern's Long Struggle and Neurotic Triumph

'If you want to go to the next level, you gotta open up a whole bunch more. That's the secret for anybody who's considering a career in radio'

March 31, 2011 2:50 PM ET
Howard Stern
Howard Stern on the cover of Rolling Stone
Photograph by Mark Seliger

"Do you have a big, thick penis?" Howard Stern asks a guest in his New York radio studio one recent Thursday morning.

The guest, unfortunately, is me.

The Howard Stern wing of the SiriusXM headquarters in New York is not just a corridor of offices and studios: It's a combat zone. As soon as you cross the threshold, you are fair game. Employees with audio recorders and video cameras roam the halls, tasked with providing 24/7 content. Meanwhile, writers and producers dash in and out of doors like a Warner Bros, cartoon, gathering clips, news, jokes and callers for the radio show.

Inside the studio, Stern sits, weary and all-powerful, on his self-made throne, surrounded by a massive three-sided desk, a mixing console littered with sheaves of paper and at least five computer monitors that all but block him from view. His support team is almost completely isolated from him: Sidekick Robin Quivers is encased in glass on the other side of the studio, while his longtime sound-effects man, Fred Norris, is hidden behind a partition on his left. His guests, meanwhile, sit unprotected on a red couch, vulnerable and flanked by Stern staff. Every element of the room has been designed to remind you that this is Stern's kingdom, and if you're not an adviser to the king, then you're his court jester.

I had come to the studio to observe the show, after which Stern would be conducting the Rolling Stone interview. But instead, I ended up as the jester, blitzed with question after question for over an hour until, finally, he had me divulging something to millions of listeners that I'd never even told my own girlfriend – and would take several dozen roses and apologies to recover from.

And that is one reason why, after 35 years of broadcasting, Howard Stern is no longer just at the top of his field, he is in a league unto himself. When he left FM radio for Sirius satellite radio in 2006, detractors said that he was dooming himself to popular irrelevance. But instead, five years later, Stern, at age 57, looms as large in the popular consciousness as he ever has. And this is not just because he has almost single-handedly helped Sirius grow its subscribers to something approaching his listenership on terrestrial radio, but because he has thrived so long, so consistently and so successfully as one of media's most powerful outsiders that he has become an elder statesman. The term "shock jock," which used to be synonymous with his name, now seems like a quaintly anachronistic misnomer for someone more famous and smarter than nearly every guest he interviews, for someone who can go on the Late Show With David Letterman and tell the host how to run his own show, and for someone who can sit in a room and improvise four hours of comedy four days a week. Stern and his entourage, which includes the Howard 100 News team dedicated solely to covering its namesake, can be heard all day, every day, not just on two SiriusXM channels, but on his own subscription-cable channel, Howard TV.

Is this narcissistic personality disorder elevated to an art form? "I've asked many times, and I never got a diagnosis," he says, sitting in his office after the show. Then he adds, laughing, "But I'll be the best goddamn narcissist on the planet."

And so it was that, late last year, the self-anointed king of all media renewed his contract with SiriusXM for another five years and an estimated annual salary of $80 million, tempted to carry on by an app enabling listeners to hear him on mobile phones and by the mission of molding his channels into talk formats that will outlive him. But behind those challenges was a fear: the fear of stopping when he's just getting started.

When people ask how you get such good interviews, you always say it's your odd curiosity. But I realized while you were interviewing me that it's also because you have a limited attention span.
You're 100 percent correct. The biggest criticism of my interviews is that I cut people off. I think my biggest asset is that I cut people off. It sounds like a contradiction, but the fact is you can't allow people to drone on. You are the orchestra leader. You are the one who is saying, "My audience wants something new. I gotta keep it fresh." I don't want my guests to bomb. My analysis is that a good interviewer not only asks the right questions but has sort of an inherent sense of what's interesting to this mass audience. And I don't know if you can teach that anywhere.

So how did you get it?
My theory on that is that I used to sit in my parents' living room, and they would call me in to do impressions. I used to do impressions of all the mothers in the neighborhood. I'd get them rolling with laughter. But sometimes – and this is a terrible thing to do to a kid – my father would literally say, "Stop! You're going on too long. Shorten it up! Make it interesting!" In order to get my own parents' attention, I had to tighten up the story. So I'm awfully paranoid about droning on too long.

Outside of worrying about boring the audience, are you interested in hearing other people talk about themselves?
I don't think I am. In my real life, I have a hard time having a conversation with anybody. I have little patience for sitting there and listening to people, and I barely know how to socialize. It's weird. But I know when I'm doing good radio. When they hit the right mark, I know it. I can feel it. But I'm not a guy who walks around interested. I don't necessarily want to be at a party listening to you.

And I felt during the interview like I was dancing on a hot plate to keep the ringmaster entertained.
When you got into your girlfriend being dry sometimes [during sex], that's when I knew I hit a home run. You hit it, but I brought you there. I knew the audience was going out of their minds. I could sense them all with us. And I did my job.

How much calculating goes on in your head as you do the show?
When that show is on, I feel like I'm calculating everything. It's maddening. After the show, I come back to my office, I do Transcendental Meditation and I pass out. My head is on fire. I am completely drained. I used to wash dishes for a living. That was so much more enjoyable, doing physical labor, using your body. I just had my buddies, and life was simple. This, you fucking obsess over. I'm telling you, I was driving myself batty during the show today.

You kept looking over at me to see if you were being funny.
That was definitely going on, and I caught myself doing it as well. I realized I was watching to see your reaction to things. One person not laughing can make me insane, and there were a couple of times during the news where I thought I was really rolling, and I looked over and you were kind of just watching. You weren't laughing or anything. I went, "Oh, fuck, I'm not that funny today." It really fucked my head up.

There were parts that were really funny.
But I wasn't breaking you up. It was the worst feeling. I said, "Oh, stop looking over," but I couldn't stop myself. It's a horribly neurotic thing. In fact, I just signed this new contract with Sirius, but I really was considering leaving. I am sure, on some level, I enjoy doing the radio show every day. But the neurotic attention I devote to it and the inability to get rid of that insecurity is very fatiguing for me.

The curse is that I take it so seriously. I just can't walk out of here and say, "I did a good show today and I'm very satisfied." No, I gotta know, do you think I did a good show and are you satisfied? And that's the neurosis and that's the source of all problems for me.

That's why you can't connect to people, because if they're not talking about you or giving you feedback, you're not interested.
Because my own opinion doesn't matter. And why is that? Of course my opinion should matter, but it doesn't. Your opinion matters!

And because of that, you can pick up on what someone is feeling from cues that other people aren't even aware of.
The ability to interview people and read your subject comes from my mother being very demanding of me with one thing: that I should be able to read her mood and know what she wanted. I could look in my mother's eyes and know everything. When she was sad, when she was angry, what she was thinking. I was trained to make my mother happy. And I swear to you, when I sit there on the radio, I don't miss a trick because I'll study it. I count how many times you blink. You blink a lot, by the way. I watch everything.

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