Declaring a "radio jihad" against President Bush, syndicated morning man Howard Stern and his burgeoning crusade to drive Republicans from the White House are shaping up as a colossal media headache for the GOP, and one they never saw coming.
The "man who launched the raunch," as the Los Angeles Times once put it, has emerged almost overnight as the most influential Bush critic in all of American broadcasting, as he rails against the president hour after hour, day after day to a weekly audience of 8 million listeners. Never before has a Republican president come under such withering attack from a radio talk-show host with the influence and national reach Stern has.
"The potential impact is huge," says Charles Goyette, talk-show host at KFYI in Phoenix. "And it's not just with the 8 million people who tune it; it's that he breaks the spell. Everybody's been enchanted by Bush, that he's a great wartime leader and to criticize him is unpatriotic. Now Stern pounds him every day and it shatters that illusion that the man is invincible."
"He's got one of the biggest audiences in all of radio, and perhaps the most loyal," says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the nonpartisan monthly that covers radio's news/talk industry. "And that's why he's so dangerous for the White House."
Stern had strongly backed Bush's war on Iraq, but in the past month, he has derided the president as a "Jesus freak," a "maniac" and "an arrogant bastard," while ranting against "the Christian right minority that has taken over the White House." Specifically, Stern has assailed Bush's use of 9/11 images in his campaign ads, questioned his National Guard service, condemned his decision to curb stem cell research and labeled him an enemy of civil liberties, abortion rights and gay rights.
Coming in tandem with the recent announcement that the much-talked-about liberal radio network Air America will debut at the end of the month, there's an indication that Republicans may finally get a taste of the commercial talk-radio wars, which for years have tilted almost uniformly to the right and teed off on progressive causes and politicians.
"Overnight, Stern's probably increased by an important percentage the amount of talk-radio airtime that is not right-wing," notes Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications. "His show does make a difference in terms of media ecology and what's out there. It's letting people know how they feel is an acceptable way to feel. What the media do is put out a version of what's normal. And if all that's out there is Rush Limbaugh and Dittoheads, then centrists and progressives see themselves as the minority. But if you can hear voices on the airwaves that sound like the voice in your own head, you begin to realize it's a polarized, 50/50 nation."
Stern's sustained FM taunts come at a tough time for the White House, which has watched Bush's approval ratings fall to new lows. Even more disturbing for Republicans was the revelation in the latest USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll that Bush's traditionally strong support among male voters is down significantly, and that Bush actually trails Kerry among those voters.
"That's the demographic Howard Stern targets," says Goyette. "If Bush's grip on men continues to soften, he could be in big trouble. Karl Rove and the White House would have to be brain-dead to not know they have a problem here."
There are early signs that Bush supporters are indeed nervous about Stern's crusade. Limbaugh recently wrote a newspaper Op-Ed column dismissing Stern's claims against Bush as coming from "the left-wing fringe."
Stern's torrent of Bush barbs came in the wake of Clear Channel Communications' move in late February to pull Stern off six of its stations, condemning his program as "vulgar, offensive and insulting." Following the controversial Super Bowl halftime show featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, Clear Channel, like most major broadcasters, was under scrutiny over allegations it broadcast indecency. Clear Channel's radio chief was scheduled to testify before Congress, where he was sure to face hostile questioning. On the eve of that congressional appearance, Clear Channel, which had never raised serious concerns about Stern's show before, suspended the program from its radio outlets.
Clear Channel's move appeared to be more a symbol than a substantive effort to shut Stern down. The communications giant carried the shock jock only in six markets. Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting -- a Clear Channel competitor -- is Stern's syndicator and main radio vehicle.
But Stern quickly complained on-air that the real reason Clear Channel yanked his show was that just days earlier he'd begun questioning the president and praising comedian/commentator Al Franken's anti-Bush book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. Stern insisted it was political speech, not indecency, that got him in trouble with the San Antonio broadcasting giant, whose CEO, Lowry Mays, is close to the president and the Bush family.
Approximately 8 million listeners tune in to Howard Stern each week. At any given moment during his four-hour program roughly 1.4 million people are tuned in. By way of comparison, that's more than the number of morning viewers at any given time watching Fox News, CNN and MSBNC -- combined.
"There's no question," says Harrison, "Stern is the sleeping giant of liberal radio."