I have a Ph.D. from Yale University. I am a college professor. I am a feminist and a social activist. And yet, most mornings, from the hours of 7:30 to 10 am, I listen to the Howard Stern radio show (which is also aired on the cable channel E!). Moreover, I often like it.
I tell you this now because when Stern announced last December that his contract re-negotiations were hitting a snag, and that he might end his radio career, I felt an actual pang. After a year of complaining to my boyfriend that Howard Stern was stupid and sexist and racist and disgusting, and begging him to change the station to National Public Radio, I had to admit that, as Howard himself explained in his movie Private Parts, that he had grown on me "like a fungus."
The first time I heard Howard Stern, I was riding in a taxi in Manhattan. It was the early-1990s. The cab driver was Egyptian, and I was talking to him, trying to remember the Arabic I learned in college. He pointed to the radio. "I love this guy." I shook my head in dismay. How could an Arab immigrant like Howard Stern?
Moving in with my boyfriend changed everything. It started with him making fun of my beloved NPR. He called it "National dePressing Radio." I had loved Morning Edition with Bob Edwards since 1984 when I started working for the Berkeley radio station, KALX. I wanted to be a reporter for NPR. NPR was my life.
Gradually, however, I began to hear NPR through my boyfriend's British ears. Some mornings, the depressing meter on NPR was off the charts. Famine. Ecological destruction. Death in the Middle East. Miserable rural people. Miserable urban people.
Howard Stern is a lot of things. But he is not depressing. His stated goal, and I actually believe him, is to make people laugh. But given his national reputation as a lewd, no-talent bigot, and the obviously objectionable material on his show, I have struggled over this last year to come to terms with the reasons I now look forward to his AM shtick.
1) Stern is about how much we all hate to go to work in the morning. Arguably, all AM radio shows are about this, but when Howard Stern is on my radio, I can pretend that I'm not really at work because even though Howard Stern is at work he sounds like he is sitting around talking crap with his friends.
2) Stern effects the mantle of anti-establishment. Even though he just signed what is rumored to be a $96 million contract for five years, Stern makes us feel like he is on the side of the little people. He stands up to his employers (calling his former NBC boss "pig vomit" over the air), his sponsors and even his callers.
3) Stern creates a sense of intimacy. By talking about his own personal life, and the personal lives of his cast/staff, Stern gives the listeners a sense of belonging to a big, dysfunctional radio family. In a world in which the public and the private are already hopelessly blurred, Stern takes the breakdown to the next level. There are no private parts.
4) Stern loves people who do not fit in. He loves strippers, dwarfs, stutterers, comedians who aren't funny, female body builders, transvestites and lesbians. He makes fun of people on the margins, but he also gives them a voice. His audience is so huge, I suspect, because he attracts the people who are racist and sexist and homophobic, as well as the people who aren't and who think that Stern's bigotry is mostly an act.
5) Stern is a romantic. Somehow, underneath all the dirty talk, the outrageous sex stunts and the ego as big as his nose, Stern still comes across as the goofy, shy, gangly guy who wants desperately to fall in love and live happily ever after. Since his divorce from his wife of 21 years in 1999, Stern seems lonely, depressed, horny and neurotic. These traits are appealing. They make Stern seem real.
We must take Stern seriously, I would argue, even if we hate him. He has something to say, and people listen to him. We might not always like what we hear, but at bottom, Stern offers a critique of restrictive social and sexual norms, of the modern workplace, of social marginalization and of the commodification of love.
If you don't believe me, try a little Howard Stern for yourself. Make yourself listen beyond the point at which you want to turn it off. I'm warning you: you might like it.
Howard Stern's show can be heard and seen in the Inland Northwest on E! weeknights at 11 pm and 11:30 pm.