Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Media Shakedown: Score One for Howard Stern, and for the Good Guys

Love him or hate him, Howard Stern has been an innovator in broadcasting for over twenty years. While often typecast as a “shock jock” with a penchant for sexy talk, lesbian dial-a-date, and other sophomoric prank-dom, rarely do his detractors openly recognize the full picture.

Howard Stern manages to fill five plus hours of radio airtime every morning with funny and interesting and strange chat, interviews, skits, and banter. Often his very best and most entertaining moments are when he and his longtime supporting cast of Robin Quivers (who plays the “straight man” as straight black woman), producer Gary DeLabate, Fred “Eric” Norris, and relative newcomer Artie Lang are shooting the breeze, talking about what they did over the weekend, or arbitrating some kind of intra-staff argument.

Howard Stern is just about the best interviewer in broadcasting. Honed by many years on the air, he knows how to put his guests at ease, and elicits unscripted comments and thoughts on topics that you just won’t find anywhere else.

His program has gotten me through the morning commute for many years, and on two different American coasts. After 9/11, I chose to contribute to his charity supporting the families of fallen police and firemen because he had become, to me, a voice of New York and America in all its insanity and wonder and paradox and greatness.

Does Howard Stern go too far sometimes? Yes, and my far is pretty far. I’m not thrilled by the Death Pool, where bets are taken on when celebrities will die. That’s just me. If I wasn’t entertained overall, as I am 95% of the time, I wouldn’t tune in.

Howard Stern is at his best when he has somebody or something to rail against. For this past year, it was the Bush Administration, the FCC, and Clear Channel. Stern put up a mighty fight against censorship and became more political than he’s ever been before. He took until now obscure figures like Sen. Brownback of Kansas to task for their openly reactionary conservative agenda and their efforts to enact censorship via inordinate FCC fines. Stern educated the public about the potentiality of a chilling effect that could spill across all areas of free expression.

Now Stern is moving onto his next challenge: satellite radio. Fed up by years of hassles with his own management and the FCC over the content of his show, Stern has signed on with Sirius Satellite Radio, which he’ll join in about a year. His planned move to a paid subscription-based radio service has caused a massive tectonic shift throughout the radio world.

Stern has vowed to change radio broadcasting as we know it. This is his greatest challenge, something he has building his entire career toward. He’s never failed yet.

Update: The FCC has just ruled that it does not have authority to enforce decency standards on subscription-based satellite services (

Game on – score one for the good guys.

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