An instant controversy was created when rumors started that American Idol's departing Simon Cowell might be replaced by Sirius XM radio host Howard Stern. Everyone from the ladies on The View to Cowell himself has questioned whether Stern has what it takes to be a judge on American Idol but they've all got the question wrong.
The real issue is whether American Idol deserves Howard Stern.
Despite being considered reality TV, American Idol is really as saccharine and safe as the answer to a question about world peace in a beauty pageant. Contestants with a hint of controversy vanish mysteriously and without comment, like political dissidents in a banana republic. At its worst, American Idol is karaoke music with a karaoke soul. The show's saving grace has always been Simon Cowell's willingness to call them as he sees them, but even that has had its limits.
People question Howard Stern's musical bona fides, but even before getting the gig, Stern has pointed out something that the supposed musical experts on the panel have never called attention to: the crushing lameness of American idol's backup band. Of course, he's completely right -- we all know that the band's restrained playing and Disney theme park arrangements drag the singers down week after week. But as usual for Stern, he's telling the truth that nobody else wants to tell, especially to American Idol's producers.
Stern is a former radio program director who is both knowledgeable and passionate about music. If the show were to take his advice about the backup band, the quality of music on American Idol would immediately improve. But that's not the biggest most important effect that Stern could have on the show or the cultural landscape.
If Stern had been on American Idol while Adam Lambert or Clay Aiken were contestants, would they have been forced to carry out the charade of hiding their sexuality or would Howard have said aloud what millions were thinking? There's no closet in Howard Stern's world for one simple reason -- Stern doesn't think there's anything wrong with being gay. Because he doesn't view it as something shameful, Howard doesn't hesitate to talk about the subject with the gay guests on his radio show, whether that guest is a porn star, Rosie O'Donnell or Fred Schneider from the B-52s.
In the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" world of American Idol, Howard's honesty would be like a shock of cold water... at first, anyway. At the first sign of Stern's straight talk about being gay, there'd be a media uproar about the "shock jock going too far" and there would be calls for Howard to go. Long term, though? What might end up happening -- assuming that Fox had the sack to stick with Stern -- is that America might become more comfortable with its idols being who they really are.
The Howard haters are largely people who only have a surface familiarity with Stern and his work. There's another side to Stern, that isn't part of the public persona that the media reports but is well known to his listeners. This is the Howard Stern that supports his wife's efforts for animal rescue, goes hiking with his daughters and has practiced transcendental meditation for decades. This is why former Stern foes like Rosie now call Howard a mensch after getting to know him.
One of the things that Stern has managed to create on the radio is a real family. Longtime sidekicks like Robin Quivers, Fred Norris and producer Gary Dell'Abate have withstood Howard's on air pressure cooker and seem to come out better for the experience.
If judges like Randy or Ellen didn't bolt for the exits on Howard's arrival, I think they'd eventually find that the late term adoption of Howard Stern made the American Idol family stronger. Honest.