Eternally audacious shock jock Howard Stern did Friday what federal regulators, conservative critics and religious groups never could accomplish: He yanked Howard Stern off the radio.
The self-proclaimed King of All Media signed off terrestrial radio for the last time with a typically over-the-top midtown Manhattan party for thousands of rabid fans. The morning was capped by a “victory lap” through Times Square where Stern stood atop a double-decker bus — radio’s own rock star reveling in the moment.
“This is pretty outrageous,” said Stern, draped in a long black coat, as he waved to screaming fans and ducked hanging traffic lights. “I want to take it all in and enjoy it. This is a great day, and these are my people.”
Those people will discover next month that free speech for Stern isn’t free: the cost to hear Howard on Sirius Satellite Radio is $12.95 a month. For those in Stern’s current audience of 12 million who decide not to move, the First Amendment poster boy signed off in style after a quarter-century of traditional broadcasting.
Regular Stern show guests like KKK member Daniel Carver, the squeaky-voiced High Pitch Eric, and the self-explanatory Jeff the Drunk addressed the crowd that packed 56th Street despite a sometimes driving rain. A few f-bombs were dropped by guests anticipating satellite’s freedom, and an occasional stripper surfaced.
Stern’s bus ride was accompanied by a police escort, and beamed live across the Internet. At one point, his likeness appeared on a giant screen above Times Square.
Many of the fans waved signs hailing Stern or denouncing the Federal Communications Commission. They cheered Stern’s parents, and booed his ex-boss. One of the more imaginative fans rigged up a device so that the pull of a lever had a Stern figure open a trench coat and expose himself.
“This is a moment in history,” said Doug Hehner, 23, of Howell, N.J., who arrived two hours before Stern’s final shift. “You have to be a part of it. You just have to be here.”
The grand finale started with a Stern-centric remake of the classic “What A Wonderful World,” followed by John Lennon’s “Imagine” — the latter’s line “I hope some day you’ll join us” taking on new meaning with Stern’s move to satellite.
“Good morning, and welcome to the last show on terrestrial radio,” Stern said as the sound of taps played in the background.
Stern leaves behind a plethora of imitators, none of them likely to enjoy his unprecedented ratings run to hit No. 1 in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles.
His Jan. 9 move from Infinity Broadcasting to Sirius comes with both risk and a huge financial reward: Stern signed a five-year, $500 million contract. He’s creating two new channels for Sirius, with the salaries, overhead and other programming costs coming out of his windfall.
Across his career, Stern evolved into the center of attention in First Amendment issues and censorship. Infinity — soon to be renamed CBS Radio — paid $1.7 million in 1995 to settle FCC complaints against Stern. In April 2004, Clear Channel dumped Stern from six stations in April 2004 over his show’s content.
Stern addressed the crowd for 20 minutes to close out his final show, with the fans cheering his every proclamation. The 51-year-old entertainer heaped praise on his audience, which turned his radio show, movie and two books into huge successes.
“Long live the Howard Stern Show audience,” he said before leaving the stage. “The last of a dying breed.”
Stern’s fans howled for an encore, but they won’t get one until his satellite show debuts.