For a man who almost single-handedly revolutionized the broadcasting industry and profoundly influenced modern American pop culture, radio personality Howard Stern continues to be spectacularly disrespected by his own colleagues and the media itself that he so radically transformed.
While personalities like Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen popularized radio as a medium for entertainment, Howard Stern transformed it into a weapon of mass destruction. He annihilated cultural taboos, relentlessly exposed the hypocrisies and double standards in society and the entertainment field. He confronted the charlatans in religion, politics, and the media -- who often proved to be the worst offenders of the very things they railed against. He treated the physically and mentally disabled, the social misfits and other cast-offs from society like celebrities; while mercilessly ridiculing the rich and famous for their delusional sense of self-importance. His radio show was itself the first true, unflinchingly honest reality series long before the concept was even a glint in the eyes of television producers.
Through all the years and all the controversies -- the obsessive efforts of the FCC to crush him with millions of dollars in fines for indecency; the relentless pursuit of fanatical fringe groups seeking to knock his show off the air because they thought him rude, crude and obnoxious -- he not only persevered, he triumphed. He dominated the entertainment industry as one of the most popular radio personalities in North America -- and in the history of broadcasting -- for more than 20 years. He wrote two New York Times best sellers and starred in a number-one movie about his life. At the peak of his popularity, his radio show was syndicated in more than 60 markets in North America, with a listening audience estimated at 20 million.
When Stern moved his show from terrestrial to satellite radio in 2006, he caused a seismic shift in the dynamics of the two media. He instantly lifted the struggling satellite technology to prominence, while driving another nail in the coffin of terrestrial radio by creating a vacuum of talent that pushed it to bleed listeners faster than ever before. The company he landed on, Sirius Radio, struggling to lure memberships up to that point, saw its subscriber base skyrocket. More than 180,000 new receivers were activated on the day before he launched his show on January 8, and millions of more fans signed up in the coming months. The $500 million paycheck that Sirius gave Stern made him one of the richest persons in show business, rivaling Martha Stewart and Oprah. Time magazine voted him among its 100 "Leaders in the Limelight" and Forbes ranked him in the #7 spot on its annual celebrity power ranking.
If anyone ignored, dismissed or denied the existence or impact of Howard Stern before, they no longer could.
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Yet, all of Stern's accomplishments have apparently never been enough to earn him the respect of the entertainment community. It continues to dismiss him as a minor irritant, a c-list celebrity who does not deserve recognition or attention. Fellow entertainers brazenly steal material and ideas from his show, and when confronted, wave off his indignation -- as if it was coming from a delusional man who believes he also invented the wheel and discovered fire. On-air personalities screw up their faces in mock pain whenever they mention his name, as if he was a dose of bad-tasting medicine they had no choice but to swallow. Industry award organizations like the Radio Hall of Fame routinely pass him over to induct inferior talent. His own alma mater, Boston University, until recently, pointedly excluded him from their hallowed halls, refusing to hang his portrait among the other celebrity graduates.
Today, Howard Stern toils away in the significantly smaller listener universe of satellite radio, which, after a surge in membership following his acquisition, now finds itself struggling to survive. Even the unstoppable force that was Howard Stern could not save the technology, which hit the immovable objects of an economic meltdown and increasing competition from alternative media. Commanding less than ten percent of his former audience, Stern is now marginalized as a cultural phenomenon that has passed his prime.
Yet, driven by a relentless need for perfection, his show remains a masterpiece of improvised dialogue; a mosaic of brilliant observations about society; of exquisite interviews of celebrities and even ordinary people that surgically cut to the heart of their humanity and illuminate their vulnerability as no other interviewer in any other medium ever has -- or ever could. His humor continues to push the boundaries of cultural decorum, running the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the raw to the refined.
Stern readily admits to being bitter and bewildered by the dogged obstinacy -- even hostility -- of the entertainment industry to recognize his contributions and give him the respect he is due. Yet, he refuses to yield or solicit their approval, and rather revels in the role of the outsider -- like the fallen Archangel who defiantly proclaims he would rather be ruler of his domain than serve a vain and capricious God in heaven.