Are you into group sex?” Howard Stern asks a stranger on the telephone. “What was the most unusual place you ever made love? Have you ever sent away in the mail for an inflatable plastic woman?” At this, Howard’s saucy-voiced partner, Robin Quivers, dissolves into laughter.
But Howard is growing testy. “A dwarf was supposed to be here today, and she stood us up,” he whines. “We should take all dwarfs and make them our slaves!” Howard thumps a bass drum and smacks a cymbal for emphasis, and he and Robin applaud his suggestion. “I do not like dwarfs anymore. As a result of this one bad experience, I’m willing to lump them all together as shifty and unreliable.” More applause.
A couple of kids making tapes in their basement? Amateur night at the motel lounge? No, the “How-weird Stern Show,” as he calls it, is on the radio, and not just any radio. Stern, 30, is the afternoon-drive-time disc jockey on New York City’s WNBC, the 50,000-watt flagship station of the National Broadcasting Company—the top.
Since WNBC brought him in to replace a standard Top 40 rock show in September 1982, Stern, downplaying the music in favor of his maniacal chatter, has lost some women listeners and a lot of teenagers, but his popularity among 25-to-54-year-old males has more than made up for the losses. Gone are the spots for chocolate bars and acne lotions; now the ads tout home burglar alarms, tax-free bond funds and every conceivable variety of white wine—and ad rates are up accordingly.
Stern’s success has not gone unnoticed in the radio industry, which is flattering him with a zoo parade of imitators. From Boston to Seattle the airwaves are alive with “crazy” deejays. “It’s very complimentary, but it pisses you off,” says Stern. “If everyone did what I do, it would become mundane or obnoxious.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in communications at Boston University, Stern broke onto the air in 1976 as a conventional deejay at an FM station in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. “It dawned on me that I would never make it as a straight deejay,” Stern recalls, “so I started to mess around. It was unheard-of to mix talking on the phone with playing music. It was outrageous. It was blasphemy. Now every dumb [bleep] answers the phone on the air. I realized there was no room for experimenting where I was, so I got a job at WCCC in Hartford in 1978. I started a movement called ‘To Hell With Shell.’ I’d have people flash their headlights and boycott Shell to protest the gas lines.” (He had no particular reason to single out Shell, except that it rhymed with hell.)
It was in Hartford that Stern adopted Dial-A-Date, in which a studio guest, on the basis of Stern’s lurid questions, picked one of three phone-in listeners for a night on the town. “The station handled it well, but the audience freaked out,” says Stern. “There were a lot of complaints. I had to blow out one audience and build another. The station stuck with me. But all radio-station managements are the same—they’re whores and slobs. The day I don’t have ratings is the day I can kiss my ass goodbye.”
After a year in Hartford, Stern moved up to WWWW in Detroit, then on to Washington, D.C. in 1981. There, at WWDC, he hit his stride, saying anything that came into his head as he bantered with newscaster Robin Quivers. The addition of impressionist Fred (“Earth Dog”) Norris, a buddy from Stern’s Hartford days, added a number of characters to the show, including “God,” who, sounding a little like a basso profundo Richard Nixon, delivered the weather forecasts Himself: “Tonight I think I’ll make it rain, Howard.”
Stern and company more than tripled WWDC’s morning-drive audience, and Washingtonians still talk about the time when, in the days after Air Florida Flight 90’s fatal 1982 plunge into the Potomac, Stern tried to call the airline to ask what the one-way fare was from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge. “I was incensed because they let a plane go up with ice on its wings,” Stern explains. “People said I showed a lack of sympathy for the people who died. It was completely the opposite. Out of satire comes maybe some social action. I’ve done a lot worse than that in terms of tastelessness.”
“Once I called up a sweet old woman when I was in Washington, and she said she was lonely and would love to win a prize. I said, ‘I’ll tell you what your prize is: I’ll come over and make love to you.’ She kind of freaked out. I apologized. I don’t always think before I do something. If I think too much, I end up not doing it.”
Lured to New York by a WNBC salary in the $200,000 range (“I’m grossly underpaid”), Stern quickly made an impression on the Big Town by playing ersatz but authentic-sounding tapes of his wife, Alison, purportedly giving birth to their first child, Emily. Mayor Ed Koch, or at least his voice (Norris again), was so moved that he announced on the air that in the Stern family’s honor, all city transportation would be free for a day. “You mean that people can jump right over the turnstiles, and if they mention my name they won’t get into trouble?” Stern asked. “That’s right, Howard,” the “Mayor” assured him.
Alison, a psychiatric social worker who met Howard when they were undergraduates at Boston University and married him in 1978, cooperated in making the bogus birth tapes, but usually her role is simply to endure Stern’s on-air references to their personal life. “She’s a good sport about it,” Stern says. “She was pretty embarrassed when I talked about the fact that when we were on vacation, we made love on the sink in her parents’ bathroom. But I said it’s like this mad compulsion of mine—I get on the air, and I’ve got to talk about it.”
“It’s a part of him,” Alison agrees. “He’s a very funny guy, but he’s much more wild and crazy on the radio. He’s actually a shy person, but there’s something that happens when he gets behind a microphone. He is obsessed with radio, and he’s obsessed with the idea that our family life should be material for the show. A lot of times I’ll discuss things with him and say, ‘Now don’t put this on the radio,’ and he usually doesn’t. The talk about sex in the bathroom—people don’t know whether it’s true. I try not to think about it.”
The horizon of bad taste is forever receding, but Stern is in hot pursuit. His Dial-A-Date was an oasis of prurience in a desert of allegedly therapeutic radio sex-talk shows, but after a while it ceased to amaze. So Stern moved on to a gay Dial-A-Date, a lesbian Dial-A-Date, a hooker Dial-A-Date, a dwarf Dial-A-Date. If these segments upset the bluenoses of the community, Stern’s mockery of racial, religious and sexual stereotypes seemed to upset nearly everyone else.
Jewish listeners sat still for a series of skits called “Hill Street Jews” until the episode in which Yiddish-accented cops tore down a Nativity scene that some elderly Irish folks were erecting on public property. The negative reaction to an imitation Frank Sinatra singing Hymietown, Hymietown (to the tune of New York, New York) was so strong that the station management made Howard stop airing it. Gay groups objected to Gaystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Gay Apes.
Blacks have complained about Stern’s references to Hempstead, Long Island, a formerly white suburb with a burgeoning black population, as “Hempstead, Africa.” Although the Pointer Sisters, who were guests in his studio, laughed good-naturedly, some listeners failed to see the humor when Stern remarked that he wished slavery could be brought back so that he could be the black trio’s “Massah Howard” and have his way with them. Frequently when talking to black callers Stern falls into an exaggerated black street dialect. He doesn’t apologize. “I imitate everyone,” he explains. “That’s how some black people talk. If you think they don’t, I’ll prove you wrong.”
Stern, who looks like the adenoidal teenage kvetch he often sounds like, cuts possibly the world’s least imposing 6’4″ figure. His height just adds to his gawkiness, every inch of him fairly crying out, “I was unpopular in high school.” His comic persona is based on a neurotic naïveté and an utter imperviousness to social mores. He can’t understand why anyone should be mad at him. “I play up every stereotype because, let’s face it, the everyday guy thinks about them,” he says.
But what’s funny about that? Stern throws up his hands. “I don’t even know why my show is funny,” he says helplessly. “It’s just funny to me. But what happens is, I find that a lot of people are laughing with me. I’m just a humorist. I’m not anti anybody. Yes, there is probably 10 percent of the audience that is so dumb that they really get off on this and say, ‘Hey, Stern speaks our language; he hates the gays, he hates the blacks, he hates the Jews’—and I’m Jewish. But they’re just dopey people. They miss the point.”
Stern’s show is broadcast with a seven-second delay, but it is Stern alone who has his finger on the button that can bleep a remark before it goes on the air. Stern has little patience with his critics (“If someone’s offended, let them turn to another station,” he says) and considers only one area off-limits: “I don’t think it’s funny to make fun of personal tragedies, like when people are murdered. Even if I had free rein, I wouldn’t touch it.” Otherwise, he says, “I can go any way the wind blows as long as it works into a bit. The one thing I know is, I want to make enough money to retire from this stink hole of a business so I don’t have to be beholden to these morons [the station managers] anymore.”
Unlike Stern, who disavows any higher social purpose than amusing commuters stuck on the Long Island Expressway, his busty, cherub-faced sidekick, Robin Quivers, 32, feels the show serves a larger social good: “There’s a lot of cruelty out there in the world, and we try to find some humor in it. We try to make people think about what they say and do. We had a lot of black listeners in Washington,” adds Quivers, who is black. “People told me they liked the idea that white people were hearing exactly what they sound like to black people—because they never listen to themselves, and they might not like what they hear.”
The uncanny chemistry between Quivers and Stern—she laughs uproariously at practically everything he says, off-air and on—may be partly attributable to their symmetrically misplaced backgrounds. Quivers, a steel-worker’s daughter, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore. Stern, the son of a radio engineer, grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island, a white suburban community to which blacks began moving when Stern was in seventh grade. White families began moving out, but not his. “I remember for the longest time wanting to be black,” Stern says. “I hated being white. You want to be with the majority. You want to feel a part of something. Being white, you stuck out like a sore thumb. I wanted to have an Afro. I’m sure that did something weird to my mind.”
Finally, as community tensions mounted, the Sterns moved to Rockville Centre, a lily-white suburb that, as Stern remembers, offered courses in the black experience in its high school and allowed no Jews in its country club. His contempt for hypocrisy was sealed, explaining perhaps his impatience with station managers anxious to keep him from saying aloud what he believes everyone thinks. “They’re all hypocrites upstairs,” says Stern. “Half the management in this company are cheating on their wives. I see what’s going on. And they have the nerve to tell me to lay off the sexual stuff, when their whole lives are filled with lies and cheats.” Stern practically spits out the words. His is the moral outrage of disillusionment, the pain and anger of the adolescent discovering that the ordered and virtuous adult world is a fraud. Howard was had, and he’s not going to keep quiet about it.
Stern plainly makes WNBC nervous, but the bottom line is the bottom line. “I think Howard is doing a good job,” says WNBC Vice President and General Manager Randy Bongarten. “We’ve had audience growth since he’s been here.” Bongarten acknowledges that the station gets a lot of mail about Stern, and that more of it is negative than positive. Still, he says, he believes Stern’s show does constitute broadcasting “in the public interest,” the deliberately vague requirement that constitutes the one low hurdle stations must clear in order to keep their FCC licenses. “Oh sure,” says Bongarten, “one of the things he does is expose a lot of the undercurrents in our society”—like All in the Family, he says.
The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith agrees that Stern’s show is like All in the Family, and it didn’t like that either. “Stern and Archie Bunker are repeating old stereotypes,” says ADL spokeswoman Lynn lanello. “It appeals to the worst bigotry in people, and they try to get away with it by saying, ‘I’m making fun of it.’ ” Columnist Ernie Johnston, author of a scathing attack on Stern in New York’s Harlem Weekly, was particularly incensed when Howard remarked to a suburban caller, “Do blacks live in your neighborhood? I didn’t think blacks were allowed.” Johnston says, “Some blacks tell me they see this show as satire; I see it as just plain racism.” Perhaps, he says, Stern’s intent is to make fun of racism, but that doesn’t excuse the slurs he repeats. “You have to put it in the context of what the person on the receiving end feels,” says Johnston. “It causes a lot of hurt feelings. And it’s dangerous. I think of young white kids—this just reaffirms what they’ve been told about blacks.”
Stern doesn’t see it that way, of course, and WNBC doesn’t want to. Earlier this year the station launched a self-protective advertising campaign (“If we weren’t so bad, we wouldn’t be so good”) that attempted to seize the high ground by apologizing to, among others, Queen Elizabeth, Mayor Koch, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the National Organization for Women, the Sons of Italy and the New York Jets, while at the same time making clear that all is in jest and there is nothing really to apologize for. His critics don’t agree, but Howard’s Olympian ratings have them outnumbered. For the moment at least, nothing in radio succeeds like excess.