Pop Culture

In Howard they trust

It turns out that Clear Channel Communications’ recent decision to yank Howard Stern’s syndicated radio show off its stations may be the best thing that ever happened to Stern -- and the worst for the Bush administration.

Ever since Clear Channel cut Stern loose from the six stations where he was being heard — in Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; San Diego; Pittsburgh; Louisville, Ky., and Rochester, N.Y. — the shock jock has used the opportunity to step up the campaign decrying his persecution at the hands of the federal government. He has amassed his army of supporters in an us-against-the-world pose replete with pledge-your-dedication-to-Howard marketing and promos.

The message: This time it’s personal. If we don’t back Stern now, he’s liable to go away forever. Not that there seems much chance of that happening anytime soon — Stern’s show makes way too much money for Viacom-owned Infinity Broadcasting — but you can’t blame the guy for a little knee-jerk rabble-rousing.

Then we have the issue of why this can of worms stands to be a massive miscalculation for the re-election campaign of President Bush, which appears to have underestimated the danger posed by a cornered and re-energized Stern.

Stern has an estimated 8-1/2 million weekly listeners to his morning program. These multitudes very much worship at the altar of Howard — buying what he tells them to buy, calling whom he tells them to call, supporting what he tells them to support and (yes) voting how he tells them to vote.

In the past, this has meant bad news for the Democrats. Stern’s vocal endorsement is said to have been instrumental in the election of a couple of Republicans a decade ago: Christine Todd Whitman in an upset win for governor of New Jersey in ’93 and George Pataki for New York’s governorship the following year.

Stern had essentially backed Bush on most issues (including the war in Iraq) and talked him up as a capable leader. Those days, however, are officially gone. He lately attacks the president as a “maniac” and an “arrogant bastard” while whipping up opposition to what he contends is a dangerous Christian-right shift in Washington.

In short, Stern as of this month has become the anti-Rush Limbaugh. If the Republicans ever wondered what it might be like to have a left-leaning version of Limbaugh hacking them to bits, they’re now finding out daily.

Of course, decency has quickly become the bipartisan election-year issue du jour. It isn’t just folks like indecency legislation author Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) but folks like Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as well.

That Stern is going after the president is perhaps less indicative of Bush’s direct responsibility for his plight than it is grandstanding as usual. But the din of self-righteousness is deafening on both sides.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Bush shouldn’t take heed.

Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of Talkers magazine — a monthly that covers the radio news/talk industry — believes that “in the case of a close election, a guy like Howard Stern could tip the scales. . . . A generation of Americans has grown up listening to him and are now in their 30s and 40s,” Harrison says. “The one thing they all have in common is, they love Howard Stern. And they trust him. When he tells them to be critical of Bush, they listen and respond.”

But could the presidential race really turn on the unfiltered rants of the man behind such radio staples as Who’s the Jew? and Lesbian Dial-a-Date? In an age when truth is far stranger than fiction, all bets are surely off.