Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Why Howard Stern became the King of All Media and not me

Readers of this blog know I’m a fan of Howard Stern. Not because he’s so hilariously funny, although he often makes me laugh – but because the guy is so SMART. Recently I caught the interview he did with David Letterman on Dave’s new Netflix show GABBY HAYES INTERVIEWS PEOPLE.

As with his radio show, Howard spoke very candidly and openly about his life.

He and I began our radio careers at roughly the same time. In fact, at one time I think we might have overlapped working in Detroit – me at WDRQ and he at WWWW. We both listened to the radio in our teens and had a desire to be on the air. We both wanted to be funny, and we both realized that we needed something distinctive to stand out. And we both had role models of radio performers we admired and wanted to emulate in some form.

I chose disc jockeys who were masters at humor. Dan Ingram, Robert W. Morgan, Lohman & Barkley, Dick Whittington, Gary Owens, Don McKinnon, Bob Hudson, Dale Dorman. Howard gravitated towardds bombastic talk show host, Bob Grant. (Ironically, I knew Bob Grant. Before his success in New York he did a stint at KABC, Los Angeles when my dad was a salesman there. That’s another thing – Howard and I both had fathers who worked in radio but not on the air. His was an engineer.)

Bob Grant was very refreshing. He was blunt, opinionated, and always honest. It was that honesty more than anything else that Howard responded to. But with originality comes a big risk.

Here again, Howard and I took different paths. I tried to be funny within the system. I felt if I could sound up and fun on a Top 40 station and slip in outrageous comments that I could attract both the listener paying attention and the casual listener. It worked to a certain agree. I got great ratings wherever I went, but because I was distinctive and didn’t have the classic DJ voice I was always hired on the “other” station. So my station was always getting beat in the ratings so there was always upheaval, which is radio-code for mass firings.

Howard steered more towards album-oriented stations where the format was somewhat relaxed. But by being totally different he was really leading with his chin, constantly inviting termination in an industry where security was as rare as diamond rings in Crackerjack boxes. Trust me, as someone who was also in the trenches, what he did took COURAGE. But he had the enormous talent and conviction to stick it out. And it obviously paid off. I got out of radio the minute I could (which proved to be a very wise decision on my part).

In Stern’s interview with Karl Marx he also talks about he conscious decision to evolve over time as he himself has matured. Some fans were not happy and moved on, but it was worth it to Howard to remain honest to who he is. The result is a show as fresh and timely as it was twenty and thirty years ago. Contrast that with Rush Limbaugh. He’s still doing the same tired act and his audience and influence is now minuscule to what it once was.

Will there be another Howard Stern? I don’t think so. What kid today in his right mind would want to go into radio? That’s like wanting to start an Osmonds tribute band. But if you want to use a radio personality as a role model for whatever industry you hope to conquer and you choose Howard, don’t focus on his inflections or the content of his program or the sunglasses, focus on his SMARTS. In that regard he is the King of all Media.


Glenn said...

You have to give Stern credit...he spent most of his career trashing every celebrity, but now that he's tamer, "mature" Howard, those same celebrities now come on his show for two hour interviews.

Anonymous said...

The Greaseman, who replaced Howard Stern in DC, was the more talented jock.
But his act and timing was not for our current age.
Listen to his tapes and you see he was funnier and more clever

Janet Ybarra said...

Interesting post, Ken. I don't disagree with you that Howard Stern is smart but I never enjoyed him because he seemed to go out of his way to be mean to people much of the time. Couldn't find the funny in that. Just my opinion.

You mentioned Limbaugh.... Coincidentally, Huffpost just had an article about his shrinking influence...


Mike Barer said...

I would never have thought that you would be a fan of Howard's.

Janet Ybarra said...

Like I said, I'm not a Howard Stern fan but I remember bumping into this clip from many years ago being a MASH fan. It's an interview between Stern and Larry Linville.....


McAlvie said...

I was never a huge fan of Stern, but that's because I was more interested in music than personality when I was younger. As I got older, well the whole shock jock thing was fun for a while, but at some point you do have to mature and you don't have the same intensity and jobs and family start taking up more of your brain cells, leaving less room for outrage.

All that said, I admire Stern for his ability to stay relevant. He adapted, and I think his demographics are probably more sustainable for it. When your target is grumpy old men, on the other hand, atrophy is inevitable.

ScarletNumber said...

I'm disappointed you didn't make a Smith Brothers reference.

Also, I disagree that his show is fresh and timely. I find it dull so I indeed moved on. And I am someone who bought both of his books, saw his movie on opening night, etc. Howard is a has been.

Don K. said...

So what do you think of Letterman?

Never been a fan of Stern's. I never thought it took talent to say the most outrageous or tasteless thing one could think of to get attention. It's been my opinion he appeals to the lowest common denominator. I consistently change the channel or turn off the TV or radio when he's on. Just never did it for me. Of course, YMMV.

Unknown said...

The deep part of Howard Stern's smarts is his ability to inhabit his own moment. To observe as he listens. His greatest strength comes out of that--he is one of the best interviewers going. As a for instance, just a few years ago, he got stuff out of James Taylor, I never would have imagined.

VincentS said...

I agree with you about Howard, Ken, but how do you REALLY feel about Letterman's beard?

Janet Ybarra said...

Actually, if I could do it over again, I'd go for a career in radio.... except I'd go for Internet radio or Sirius XM radio these days.

The original MTV VJs seem to have a sweet gig as DJs on Sirius XM 80s on 8.

Lemuel said...

Laaaary Lujack!
Larry Lujack!
Larry Lujack!
Suuuper Jock!

MikeN said...

I don't get the joke about Karl Marx. The beard?

Andy Rose said...

You see it over and over again in entertainment: Fighting the System only works when you have a system to fight against. Credit to Howard for realizing that his initial idea of "do everything on satellite radio that I couldn't do on terrestrial radio" wasn't going to be entertaining for very long.

I'm not sure if anyone outside of radio understood it, but I appreciated his mention of the "quarter-hour sweep." Learning to do the ratings math is a huge and underappreciated part of radio success. Even Limbaugh still does it to this day. When he teases that he's going to say something that will offend some people, then pretends to pull back, then has a dialogue with himself about whether to say it (throwing in multiple asides along the way), then says he got off track but he'll get back to it after the commercial break, that's not an accident. Like clockwork, he'll finally get to his point around :18 past the hour, to make sure he gets credit for both quarter-hours.

Col. Henry Blake said...

Howard Stern is a dinosaur. He's not funny anymore due to age, liking celebrity parties and the era of social media backlash/boycotts if he says or does anything offensive.

His show is only part-time, 3 days a week for 40 weeks since 2011. Fans are never sure if he is in the studio or its another repeat. (And Stern loves to knock Johnny Carson)

Since his show is on satellite radio, Stern does not have to concern himself with ratings. He has stated on the air that he will do his show to please himself, not the listeners, and it shows.

Stern actively edits old shows to take out "offensive" words. It's a sad situation and I don't listen much anymore.

But Stern WAS the King many years ago. Now he is fat and happy with the SXM cash, a part-time schedule and no concerns with Arbitron ratings.

Don K. said...

Lemuel- AMEN!

Farm report!

VP81955 said...

I heard Howard at WWDC in Washington in the early '80s, before he left for WNBC. Knew he would be going far.

YEKIMI said...

It's been my opinion he appeals to the lowest common denominator.

My feelings exactly. Doesn't take much smarts to do jokes and a show that's all about "Tits & Ass" which is what I found his show to mostly be about earlier in his career. I know some fans of his, that I graduated with, that are proud of the fact that they "haven't read a book since the day I walked outta that high school." Granted, other "shock jocks" that came before Howard did some of the same shtick but in a more round-a-bout and double entendre style.

Diane D. said...

I had heard about Howard Stern but hadn’t listened to his show so when his radio show started being on TV, I watched it to see what it was like. I was horrified. I watched it several times and the entertainment was Howard interviewing some young girl and then asking her to stand up and take her clothes off (which she did) while he and his staff watched, laughed, made jokes and comments about her naked body (“turn around sweetheart. Look at that ass!”). Howard would then say he was getting aroused: “I’m not joking,” he said. “I have a full erection.”

He may be smart and talented, but I felt so sorry for those poor girls who had no better sense than to let him treat them that way, and I guess I will never understand a mind that considers that funny or appropriate or even entertaining. I felt like that MSNBC journalist after Trump won the election. “This is the world we live in. You’re not sleeping. You’re not going to wake up. This is it. This is us.” That’s how I felt, but there are people I love who think Howard Stern is great. I don’t judge them. I just wish I could understand it.

Janet Ybarra said...

Ken, did you ever listen to the syndicated "Don and Mike" radio show?

Don left after his wife died tragically in a car accident. Mike O'Meara tried to carry on until his flagship station WJFK went all sports. He and his gang have since been doing it as a daily podcast (and selling it to a few radio stations as well).

It's often a funny show. I had the pleasure of attending their first live show here in Northern Virginia at the State Theatre several years back.

Henry J. Nasiff said...

[Stern's] show is only part-time, 3 days a week for 40 weeks since 2011. Fans are never sure if he is in the studio or its another repeat. (And Stern loves to knock Johnny Carson)

As horsed-up sidekick Artie Lange would say, "WAAAHHH!!!" Lazy-assed, part-time Stern produces more than 500 hours of new content a year.

Johnny Carson in the 1970s produced a little over 250 hours a year. From 1980 onwards, about 135. And that's counting all the "Tonight Show" time used for music acts, standup comics, film clips, etc.

I'll go along with Chris Rock, who told Esquire, "The fact [is] that you're going to see me do an hour every four years. Reduce Howard Stern to an hour every four years, you'd have the most brilliant comedian who ever lived. It's not even close."

Brian said...

He has had some great interviews on his show. Also, I did enjoy his movie. I don't mind Dave's show, but I think I would enjoy it more without the beard.

Jim said...

Washington Nationals broadcaster misses first game, a
streak of 2,016

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Letterman probably had to shave at least twice a day almost every day for 40 years. I'm not surprised he can't be bothered now.


Jay Jones said...

It's amazing that a guy who spent decades trading on misogyny, racism, and homophobia--just go back and listen to old shows if you doubt it--can turn entirely woke late in his career, get a free pass, and become and elder statesman of the entertainment left. (Sorta like Dave himself, come to think of it, who got (and continues to get) a free pass for serially bedding his female staff because they "consented." Hmm, that's not exactly how we are supposed to think about workplace relationships and the power dynamic between young staffers and one of the most important people in show business, who just happens to the be the absolute boss. I wonder whether the non-Dave-banging female staff enjoyed that dynamic. And this was in the 2000s, fewer than ten years ago, and not any Mad Men era stuff.)

Occasionally I'll listen to Howard for a bit, and it's rare that he's not taking some left-wing social position and bashing anybody who might not be all-in with him politically. For heaven's sake, his entire career was built on being politically incorrect, and today you couldn't get him to whisper a thing that would cause a ripple among the left's thought police.

DwWashburn said...

I never subscribed to satellite radio so I lost track of Stern when he abandoned the masses. I have caught several of his shows and interviews on YouTube and I find them to be incredibly dull. At least from the shows I've heard he is turning into Larry King. And Robin is super annoying. Why he keeps her on is beyond me.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Jean Shepherd did a nightly radio show, live, for decades. He produced "Jean Shepherd's America" and "Shepherd's Pie" for television, performed standup at colleges and the Limelight nightclub, wrote several books and a movie which has become a holiday perennial. He also collaborated on an album with jazz master Charles Mingus. So how is Stern the "King of All Media," please?

Anonymous said...

Hello Ken,

Huge Howard fan back in the day. Listened for hours, every day, for years & years- 92.3 KRock in NY- I still miss it.
I haven't listened since he went to satellite in 2005, just hear and there with YouTube stuff, but not like before.
That being said, I MISS the old show. No more Billy West, Jackie Joke Man, Artie Lange, Pat Cooper & Gilbert Gottfried cameos, Stuttering John, Steve Grillo, Casey Armstrong, All the Wack Pack; now's it's an A-list celeb interview show.


Col. Henry Blake said...

@Henry J Nasiff (Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf to his friends)

Let's see now. Stern starts his show at 7:15 after 10-15 minutes of filler; music, phony phone calls and bits. His SXM subscription radio show is loaded with more commercials than the terrestrial radio era and Ronnie/JD in the studio was lame 3 years ago, so I would not talk about 500 hours of content. It's far less than that and what is on the air is sleep inducing.

....and bababooeytoyall!

MikeKPa. said...

I stopped listening to Stern when he went to Sirius. Everything he used to rail about, especially about Carson, he soon became - money, short workweeks, celebrity parties, luxurious vacation home. The biggest kicker was people paying to hear him on satellite radio - and still getting stuck with commercials. How much money is enough? With him, apparently never.

Disappointed in Letterman as well. Saw the George Clooney and Tina Fey interviews, which didn't tell me much more than I already knew. Letterman seems to have joined a long list of celebs (Woody Allen, Adam Sandler) who went to the Netflix trough and took the huge payouts of money without much concern about the product they were putting out.

OrangeTom said...

Stopped listening to Stern when he called Air Florida the day after the tragic D.C. Potomac River crash and asked when their next flight to the 14th Street bridge was.

In my mind, just as horrific as Roseanne's tweet last week.

Derek J Farmer said...

loved Jay Thomas, who unfortunately passed away in Aug,18'.

Pat Reeder said...

I come out of radio, too (started as a small town DJ while in college; worked up to major market; transitioned into providing syndicated content for companies such as TM, Toby Arnold, MPT, Morning Punch, etc.; launched my own syndicated daily topical humor service that my wife and I wrote for over 20 years; then wrote the #1 short-form syndicated show for five years; now still writing for radio, but more for the Internet and TV now.) But I never cared for Stern. He occasionally made me laugh, but on the infrequent occasions when I caught his show, I was usually appalled at how gross, juvenile and sexist it was. It made me feel as if I needed to take a shower.

The feeling he gave me reminded me of a guy I used to work with in radio syndication who had to entertain visiting clients who always insisted on being taken to one of the famous Dallas strip clubs. He was a decent, happily married guy and hated that duty. He told me that when he was sitting at a table ordering from a topless waitress, he felt so uncomfortable, he wanted to apologize to her for being male.

BTW, as someone who has to combine writing topical humor with getting the story it's based on factually and objectively correct, I question the assertion that Limbaugh is on the decline. I read the HuffPo story linked in the comments, and it reminded me of why I don't consider them a reliable source. It was mostly a lot of partisan sneering and wishful thinking with a few stats thrown in at random to make it seem legit. The influence of terrestrial radio in general is declining (I've transitioned away from it myself), but it was only toward the end that the writer grudgingly admitted that Limbaugh still has an average weekly audience of 14 million. That's the largest talk show audience in broadcast radio, he's remained #1 since ratings started being kept in 1987, and that doesn't even take into account his Internet reach. I'd love to be that irrelevant.

Fillmore said...

Woefully uninformed post, but typical of anybody who wasn't actually a hard-core fan of Howard's but also intelligent enough to realize the true arc of his career. He has more in common with Johnny Carson than he'd like to realize, but also a lot of things that make him look far worse:

-Both had problems being faithful
-Both were socially inept but most comfortable at work
-both were litigious
-both fought for the rights to their old shows
-both recluses
-both had more vacation time than actual work
-both started production companies
-neither one had any sort of relationship with their kids
-both were vicious to ex-employees and/or friends of the show
-both used to mock employees as bits on their shows
-both married Pittsburgh bimbos


Stern: Closeted homosexual
Johnny: Scored with Angie Dickinson, Ann-Margaret, Loni Anderson, Raquel Welch, etc. A true cocksman.

Stern: Begs designers for free clothing
Johnny: had his own successful line of clothing

Stern: Donates nothing to anybody; allowed his gay cousin to die broke (he started a gofundme account--this is all true)

Johnny: Donated tens/hundreds of millions of dollars anonymously to various charities; generous when not asked for money.

Stern: needs writers
Johnny: wrote his own show for months during a 1980s writers strike at NBC.

Stern: a recluse
Johnny: Traveled to France regularly, when he retired he learned Swahili and traveled around Africa

Stern: a coward with a conceal-and-carry permit and ex-SEAL team bodyguards 24/7
Johnny: Ex-military; dealt with criminals without the help of cops

Stern: actively seeks out celebs to hang around with to make himself feel important
Johnny: preferred his own company—hated celebrity gatherings

Stern: has a midget driver; could not find his old home on 60 Minutes
Johnny: drove himself to work daily, made regular visits to his hometown

Stern: plays the same repeats and clamps down on original programming because he's afraid of losing the spotlight; never has a guest host his show out of fear
Johnny: regularly had A-list stars guest host his shows including the best comedians in the business; wanted his guests entertained at all times

Stern: Cannot retire gracefully
Johnny: Could and did. Never appeared on TV again except for a brief appearance on Letterman in ’94

Stern: Appeared as Fartman at MTV Awards
Johnny: Regularly hosted the Oscars

Stern: is called a comedian but can't actually tell/write a joke
Johnny: Had a regular stand-up gig in Vegas where he would earn millions in additional revenue per year and was treated like a king

Stern: Has K-Rock swag and free guitars festooned around his house
Johnny: had a tasteful and classy mansion in Malibu with his own mini tennis stadium built on the grounds

Stern: failed attempts at mainstream success are endless--AGT, his Fox show, Private Parts, Son Of The Beach, etc. Had a modicum of success with the Channel 9 show and the E! Show but nothing like the audiences that other late night shows had.
Johnny: Produced Letterman, "Amen", "The Big Chill" and a bunch of other shows that never took off.

Stern ripped off countless DJs--particularly Steve Dahl--and covered it up by accusing them of the same thing. If the internet were around in the 1980s, he'd be just another hack morning zookeeper.

Cecil Newson said...

I'm sure you've heard this before, but Howard got his start listening to tapes of Steve Dahl and stealing his bits, sometimes years later. When Dahl phoned Iran there were still hostages there, Stern called years later.

Stern never caught on in Chicago because they had already heard it.

I'm sure Howard Stern evolved due to his creativity and intellect, but his start is largely owed to Steve Dahl.

Ralph C. said...

Those who would’ve gone into radio once upon a time are now podcasting. There could be another Howard Stern, as well as another Ken Levine. Dreams, desires and perseverance never go out of style— they travel on different roads to reach their destination.

I am Doctor Remulak said...

On his Netflix show, David Letterman told Stern to his face (a harrowing experience for anyone) that Stern changed American comedy. Letterman was right; the reddit-style posts above are almost love letters in their specificity.

Don K. said...

Wow. I stated far up above that I'm not a Stern fan. However, as I write this at 5:45 a.m. Wednesday June 6, it heartens me to see that so many others generally have the same opinion, considering the audience for this blog has many industry related people. I thought would be in the minority.

Roger Owen Green said...

I found Stern to be particularly mean-spirited, and vulgar. But I've heard some interviews in the last decade or so where he has asked excellent questions. So I can take him in doses if I can fast forward.

Tom said...

Let me add to those who see more than an echo of Steve Dahl in Howard Stern. By the time Howard was realizing he had to talk honestly and about himself on the air, Steve had been giving fetus updates about his wife's pregnancy and much, much more for several years already. According to Paul Colford's bio of Howard, he listened to tapes of Dahl's show while developing his style. I suspect one reason Howard never made a dent on Chicago radio is because Dahl (and his local imitators like Jonathon Brandmeier and Kevin Matthews) were already here.

Dr Loser said...

A quick call out for Alex Bennett, late of Live105 in San Francisco. I believe he claims that Howard stole his schtick, which might be a little grumpy and exaggerated, but in the 1990s he and his team were an absolutely terrific morning show, with all the supposed goodies of Howard Stern and a surprising lack of the sexist/childish/self-aggrandising parts. (Just my opinion, of course.)

Obviously, waking up to the sound of a guest lesbian spokesperson pleasuring herself in an unusual way is not to everybody's taste, but trust me. With Bennett in charge, it worked.

F. Timmy Abraham said...

Anyone who could have listened to Howard Stern, but didn't, only deprived themselves.

Go try to find another combination of Bob Hope and "Jackass," of Rona Barrett and MAD Magazine, of Jean Shepard and "One Life to Live", of Don Rickles and Martha Mitchell and Fred Allen and Bill Burr and "Looney Tunes" and Garry Shandling and P.T. Barnum and Sarah Silverman and "Mystery Science Theater 3000" and Arthur Godfrey and Jim Norton and Alan King and the Jerky Boys and Phil Donahue and Rodney Dangerfield.

Coram Loci said...

Stern has made a fortune by tapping into the the perpetual adolescence of millions of men. I admit it: I found short skirts, boobs, and prank calls inspiring and funny. But then you grow up.

Also interesting: he takes advantage of celebrity hype-and-coddle culture by inviting celebrities to talk about personnel and professional failures or embarrassments. Having a celebrity explain a failure is more genuine (and thus more intriguing) than watching eight minute interviews of sunshine, lollipops, and promotional clips. Every time time ET pushes a celebrity higher up the totem pole it makes it more intriguing to listen to Howard bring them down a notch.

Has Howard evolved? I'll take your word for it. If he has, then it shouldn't be too surprising. Many celebrities want to prove they are as smart or smarter than the lines they read; many athletes want to prove they can do more than handle a ball; many academics and politicians resent how their smarts haven't led to a a bank account as loaded as the single-minded entrepreneur's whose business they wish to regulate..If you made your living and were famous for inquiring or openly speculating upon the grooming habits of female celebrities then you, too, would eventually evolve...or at least hope to.

JoeyH said...

I lost all respect for Stern when he prayed on the air for the FCC chairman's cancer to spread. There's no justification for that.

Mike DelCampo said...

Howard Stern is one of the ten most important comedians in the history of American culture (even if his culture was frequently fungal).

Johnny Walker said...

Can’t say I’ve ever understood the attraction to Stern. I’m sure he’s a smart sensitive guy in real life, but I can’t stand him on the radio. His “style” is just to ask the most rude and obnoxious questions he can while being surrounded by his buddies to laugh at everything he says. Guests are expected to suck it up, otherwise be seen as stuck up. Classic bullying. Stern was so insecure he had to bully his cohorts, too. It just makes for horrible listening.

It’s great to hear he’s matured, and even edits the worst aspects of his older shows (if that’s true), but he’s always seemed like the worst mix of Jerry Springer (for the content of his show) and an incredibly insecure schoolyard bully. I just have never understood the attraction.

Anonymous said...

“Howard Stern is one of the 10 best comedians in the history of American culture.”

Good God, by what standard?

Anonymous said...

Howard Stern was never funny, he was the definition of Shock. His favorite retort to someone who didn't like him was to wish the got AIDS and died from it. which is a perfect example of someone with no comedy chops.