The eve of the first Howard Stern broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio, three questions hung in the air. Without a common enemy to rage against, such as the FCC, will the show lose its spirit? Without the “decency” limits of terrestrial radio, will the show become overly gratuitous and unlistenable? And perhaps the most burning question: Did Howard and girlfriend Beth Ostrosky get married recently while on vacation in Mexico?
All three questions were answered before the 6 a.m. show hit its second hour. A fourth question, as to whether any of Stern’s listeners would pay $12.95 a month to hear him, was answered by Christmas, when 180,000 new subscribers activated their accounts. It was confirmed on Sunday, January 8, the day before Stern’s Sirius debut, when subscription telephone activation was delayed nine hours due to caller volume. New York City-area Best Buy and Circuit City stores sold out of Sirius receivers that same weekend.
The Stern-inspired spike boosted Sirius listeners to more than 3 million. Whether satellite radio can stay afloat remains to be seen. As to the quality of Stern’s show, it remains as great (or as horrible — depending on individual tastes) as ever.
Yes, Stern is still irritable and potty-mouthed. The dynamic between his crew remains amicably contentious. Yes, there is cussing — enough to drown Stern in FCC fines had it been a terrestrial radio broadcast — though no more than an average conversation between teenagers on a city bus. No, Stern did not get married — though he pranked both his staff and audience by initially telling them he did. For the most part, it’s business as usual. And yes, it’s worth the money.
Stern’s Sirius stations, Howard 100 and 101, have been on the air for months, featuring various shows of a “Howard sensibility.” But the weekend before Stern’s debut, the stations remained in relative radio silence – only a heart beat and occasional sound bites spanning Stern’s career. “Join the Revolution! 1-9-06,” scrolled across the Sirius receiver LED screen. By 6 a.m., “SHUT UP!” silenced the quickened heartbeat, and the 800 Stern phone number replaced the scroll, spelling an expletive with its corresponding letters.
The theme to “2001: A Space Odyssey” began, with flatulence as the lead instrument. Musical bodily functions are a staple of the Stern show, so it was business as usual. The familiar baritone of George Takei (Sulu on “Star Trek”) announced the cast. After the introduction, Stern announced that Takei, the good-natured victim of many Stern-show pranks, is now the official show announcer.
Despite the much-ballyhooed high-tech studio, technical difficulties were somewhat a problem during the first few minutes of the show. Long-time Stern fans, however, are familiar with his constant kvetching over equipment. Stern’s tinny earphones and comedian Artie Lange’s microphone were quickly addressed while sound effects man Fred Norris played Tom Petty’s “The Last D.J.” Music provided the only breaks during the day, as the debut show was commercial free. (Following shows will feature six-minute commercial breaks per hour).
Stern addressed swearing right off, announcing that he would avoid expletives, as it gets old fast. “We are going to new places, and that does not mean the F-word,” he said. “What it means is something really important. We can do anything we want.” Within minutes of this announcement, Stern let a few expletives slip, and quipped that these particular words were no longer considered swearing.
The most blatant expletive abuse came from tapes the Stern show couldn’t air while on terrestrial radio. Specifically, “Insider” host Pat O’Brien’s notorious sexually explicit telephone message was played in its entirety.
Captain Janks, the most successful Stern crank caller, phoned in with recent recordings of expletive-laced calls to CNN. The tapes only emphasized Stern’s contention that this stuff gets old. Frankly, Janks calls are much more creative when he operates within the constraints necessitated by terrestrial radio.
Stern, however, never approached the obscenity critics foresaw, and the show’s energy never flagged. The most anticipated moment was possibly the best of the day. Stern casually announced to a caller that the rumors are true, he was recently married. His crew exploded (figuratively). Co-host Robin Quivers demanded the million dollars she wagered when Stern said many times before that he would never remarry. Lange wanted to know about a prenup, bemoaning that now he would have to get married too. Producer Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate questioned why Stern would advise against marriage and then do it himself.
Finally, Stern ended the joke, announcing that he wasn’t really married. But the topic didn’t end there. At the 8:30 a.m. news conference, reporters (including members of the Howard 100 news team) repeatedly asked Stern whether he was married. For his part, Stern remained confident and articulate, and stuck to the talking points — that he does not feel 43 cents a day is too much to pay for satellite radio, given its many features, that Sirius subscriptions are soaring, and that satellite radio is the future. Of course, Stern also threw around the obligatory banter, making graphic sexual revelations and complementing female journalists on their cleavage.
Helen A.S. Popkin, a New York writer, hit every electronics store in the tri-state area this weekend looking for a Sirius receiver. Happily, some kindly dope-smoking young clerks in remote Brooklyn dug one out of their store basement.