Howard could feel them closing in, prudish, religious right-winged gnats clamoring to nail the King (Lear) of All Media to the talk-radio Cross, just like in a Mel Gibson flick. The situation had begun relatively innocently, by Stern standards. On his February 24 show, in between the usual fart noises and haw-hawing about bra-cup sizes, Howard hosted one Rick Salomon, who plays a key role in the Paris Hilton sex tape. Salomon, who maintains TrustFundGirls.com, was asked by one of Howard’s idiot callers if he’d ever had sex with black or Latin women. “Ever bang a famous nigger chick?” the caller inquired. “What do they smell like? Watermelons?” Somehow, this slipped through the rather loosely knit decency filter at Howard headquarters. After all, Stern, who once celebrated the Xmas season by playing a tune called “Nigger Claus,” has been doing this stuff for close to twenty years.
Perhaps the King, blissfully dreaming of a naked Phoebe Cates, backdoor entry, or celebrity lesbianism, hadn’t noticed the change in the weather. The Janet Jackson Super Bowl Boobgate, highlight of a season that has featured such sketchy mainstream fare as the Britney-Madonna kiss, the Bono Golden Globe F-word use, plus the usual thousand booty-shaking hip-hop videos, opened a new front in the culture wars. Official forces of “decency” are on the move. Prompted by Congress, the Federal Communications Commission—Michael K. Powell (son of Colin), chairman—is in the midst of increasing the fine for use of “indecent material” (defined as commentary of a “sexual” or “excretory” nature) from $27,500 per incidence to $500,000. A “three strikes” dictum has been proposed, with broadcast licenses in the balance after the third offense. In January, the FCC issued an all-time-high $715,000 fine (for 26 instances of dirty talk, at the old rate) in the case of Bubba the Love Sponge, a corpulent, potty-mouth Florida D.J. Bubba was canned, his bill paid by Clear Channel Communications, which did not sit well with the notoriously cheap 1,200-station media giant. Noting the responsibility that comes with power, John Hogan, head of Clear Channel’s radio division, told the FCC he was “ashamed” to have aired Bubba’s content, vowing “zero tolerance” for such vulgarity. Days later, following Stern’s February 24 N-word incident, Hogan pounced. Saying “We drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content, and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it,” he canceled Stern’s show on the six Clear Channel outlets that carried it.
This curtailment of 15 percent of his realm, including Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Pittsburgh, and San Diego, hit Howard hard. After some initial, pitiful whining about how “they dropped a bomb on us . . . This is the end of me,” Stern rallied, mobilizing his bully pulpit, schooling his 16 million listeners as to the mammoth plot being hatched against him, the Constitution, and the nation in general.
“Perhaps the king, blissfully dreaming of a naked Phoebe Cates or celebrity lesbianism, hadn’t noticed things were different now.”
You see, a few days before, in what will likely go down in fan annals as Stern’s Damascus Road moment, the King had had an epiphany. Long known as a Republican sympathizer (his aborted 1994 governor’s run and subsequent party switch were considered critical to the election of George Pataki), Howard announced that reading Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them convinced him George Bush was “a religious fanatic and a Jesus freak.” Bush was “bent on getting some sort of bizarro agenda through—a country-club agenda so his father will finally be proud of him,” Stern said. It was his Bush-bashing—ranging from passionate, if murkily argued, attacks on the president’s stem-cell-research stand to calling W. “a former drunk who spent 40 years driving his car into bushes”that cooked his goose with Clear Channel, Stern said. The “indecency” charge was just a cynical cover.
Relying on somewhat scattershot information likely snagged from frenzied Internet searches, Stern, like his idol Lenny Bruce going over his court records, devoted much of his morning program over the past two weeks to explaining how Clear Channel (which also owns a sizable percentage of the country’s performing venues, setting up a music-market combination Alan Freed never dreamed of) is “in bed with Bush.” Lowry Mays, the San Antonio, Texas–based Clear Channel CEO, went “way back with the Bushes” and helped W. sell “that fa-ca-ta baseball team” (the Texas Rangers), which “made him a millionaire,” Howard said. (Mays was involved in the sale of the team to longtime buddy Tom Hicks, a Clear Channel board member, enabling W. to make out yet again.) Clear Channel’s pro-Bush, anti-music stance was well documented, Stern said, as witnessed by the possibly apocryphal list of “don’t play” songs (like John Lennon’s “Imagine”) after September 11. The FCC was one more Bush tool against him, Stern charged. Rather than bother him, Howard said the commission might find out “why Colin Powell Jr. gets a $500,000 budget to fly first-class because his back hurts him,” an ailment Stern attributed to excessive bending over on the commissioner’s part, his nose “up Bush’s butt.”
Whether or not Stern’s ire changes red states to blue, his campaign brings up typically heated issues, free speech and otherwise. Cuz: You know, Howard might be a New York icon, but he is pretty disgusting. His demurrals that the N-word, for instance, is not one of George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words the Supreme Court decreed could not be said on the air are weak at best. It is the usual liberal problem: You don’t want your kids listening to this guy asking everyone whether they’re a “triple-input” sex creature. But look who he’s up against! At least Howard makes you laugh. It is the Stern Dilemma: foul but funny.
Right now, things are bleak, says Stern. Should the FCC actually start levying those $500,000 fines, Howard says his longtime boss, Mel Karmazin, COO at Viacom, will not be able to keep him. Citing “an FCC source,” Stern says that “Powell is freaking out because he doesn’t know whether fining me now and knocking me off the air will cost Bush the election . . . They might wait.” Whatever happens, Howard says, he is sick of being harassed, with his engineer, Tom, sitting on the squelch button lest the whole wack pack be marched off to Camp X-ray. He is leaving Earth. Or rather, what is currently called “terrestrial radio,” in favor of going satellite. Satellite is the future; it’s like early cable, wild and untamed. On satellite, Howard says, he’ll be able to do his show, for real, without stupid rules, Colin Powell Jr., and the rest. Even if Bush loses, Stern says satellite suits him. How wondrous will that be—looking up into the sky as Howard flies by, doing his fart jokes.