The banner showed up last Saturday, spread across a brick building, shouting to every driver and passenger entering Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge. The stark white background displayed a woodcut fist and black-stencil lettering — the official font of revolution. “Let freedom ring,” the banner read.
“And let it be rung by a stripper.”
The faux-guerilla marketing is just one of many billboards popping up across the United States, announcing radio superstar Howard Stern’s move from the terrestrial airwaves to Sirius Satellite Radio.
Given his 12 million listeners and the media onslaught, Stern’s departure is no secret. But the Queensboro banner is particularly bittersweet. Hanging less than two miles from both his soon-to-be vacated WXRK K-Rock booth and his new digs at Sirius, it drives home that Stern is leaving FM — and ringing its death knell as he goes.
Coverage of Stern’s move has flooded both the newsstands and television. He was even the subject of a favorable Ed Bradley profile on “60 minutes.” The FCC’s tightening grip on the airwaves is well documented, including its liberal doling out of indecency fines which led to a serious crackdown on Stern show language and topics. And we know about his decision to choose Sirius over its competitor, XM, and the $500 million contract that helped get him there.
Media is always eager for a good Stern story, but this time the tone is different. Instead of the eye-rolling attention to the often purlieu bent of his show’s humor, he’s finally receiving widespread acknowledgement for his groundbreaking accomplishments and status as not only one of the best radio personalities ever, but the last of a dying breed.
Corporations such as Clear Channel have consolidated terrestrial radio into a single entity operating with an identical play list. An increasing number of stations don’t even have DJs anymore. Stern’s FM abandonment for the FCC-free satellite waves is more than a defining point in his career; it’s a defining point in broadcast history.
With all the Stern coverage, past and present, about his fines and firings, how disgusting people find him, you don’t hear a lot about why his show works.
I found out about 9/11 from Howard Stern. I was getting ready for work, listening to the Stern gang discuss Pamela Anderson’s breasts, when the tone changed. From their Manhattan studio, they cold see that the World Trade Center was on fire. I thought it was a bit, some kind of joke. But the punch line never came. I turned on the TV and saw it too, the Twin Towers burning seven miles south of my apartment.
You hardly ever read this kind of stuff about Stern, but it’s a big part of the reason Stern imitators fail when they ape the naughty talk and toilet humor. That morning, hearing news that makes you want to be with people, I felt that I was. I, along with millions of other listeners in New York City and the rest of the country, got our information via the humanity Stern projects that lesser DJs cannot.
Stern and crew stayed on the air, discussing the unfolding tragedy, relaying information as they got it. Unlike other broadcasters who fled the city, Stern and crew were on the air that day and the next, taking calls, talking to listeners, a consistent presence in an uncertain time.
Not that I listen to the show because Stern is sensitive. I listen because it makes me laugh so hard tears stream down my face and orange juice blows out my nose. That’s his humanity too. One egghead theory posits that Stern’s naughty talk, over-the-top misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc., provides a release for the politically-incorrect thoughts we all have. My theory: Second grade humor is still the funniest.
Admittedly, I don’t care for some of the more overtly sexual portions of the show. When there’s a bit involving women having their bodies appraised, I go brush my teeth. When I’m back, the group is on to something else, discussing the inequities of producer Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate’s marriage, comedian Artie Lange’s drinking and eating habits, or whether receiving sexual favors from a man as opposed to one’s mother in a life-or-death situation makes you gay.
I play it like the Al Anon slogan — take what I need and leave the rest. Still, it can feel isolating, being female, feminist and a Stern fan. An acquaintance told me in all sincerity that Hell had a place reserved for Howard Stern. This is the same woman who rode in a car with me guffawing to the verge of hyperventilation listening to Stern interview Snoop Dog.
What a godsend when Ira Glass, host of NPR’s “This American Life,” wrote a Howard Stern homage that appeared in the “New York Times” Sunday magazine. No liberal-minded naysayer could argue with the vaunted Glass. I wanted to run down the street, shoving the essay in the face of everyone who ever questioned my love for great radio.
On December 16, with much pomp and circumstance, Stern departs from FM radio, leaving behind any fan not willing or able to pony up for a satellite radio and the $12.95-pre-month subscription. His listeners will drop from 12 million to around 2.2 million, though it’s expected that Sirius subscriptions will jump once Stern is in the house.
Though he won’t appear on Sirius until January 9, Stern is already producing shows on his two Sirius stations, Howard 100 and Howard 101. As Stern told Bradley on “60 Minutes,” these new shows will feature a Howard “sensibility,” not to mention his regular cast of revolving misfits and miscreants. One such evening show, “Tissue Time,” features a female phone sex professional, utilizing her skills to help male listeners “fall asleep.” The other night featured a guest host, frequent Stern show guest, geriatric porn star Blue Iris.
The topic of a sweet old lady performing phone sex for listeners also brings a bandied question to the fore. Many speculate that without an entity such as the FCC to either reign him in or give him a foe to battle, Stern will lose his bite. Stern has pooh-poohed this theory, but there’s also the question whether satellite radio will survive as a whole, seeing as regular radio is free. And his terrestrial days draw to an end, Stern is heard regularly complaining about his fans’ failure to subscribe.
“Saturday Night Live” Weekend Update anchor Tina Fey was a bit more optimistic. Announcing Stern’s move to Sirius in October, Fey read from the teleprompter, “Will listeners pay $13 a month to hear a stripper being hit on the butt with a fish?” Then, looking off camera towards an implied answer, “What’s that? Oh, they will? Okay.”
Helen A.S. Popkin lives in New York and is a regular Stern listener. However, she has never played “It's Just Wrong” or spun “The Wheel of Sex.” She's a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.