Howard, in his telling, is a person who seldom feels at ease. “He wasn’t the most popular kid, and he didn’t feel like he belonged,” says Robin Quivers, Howard’s radio sidekick and friend of a couple of decades. It was an unhappiness for which Howard took a specific kind of revenge: He recruited others just like himself. That includes his studio crew. (“We’re all damaged,” says Robin.) Then, Howard added a whole other layer of losers, such as Crackhead Bob, Eric the Midget, Wendy the Retard, Howard’s “Wack Pack.” Stir into the mix strippers and porn stars, similarly undesirable in good company, and you’ve got what Robin calls Howard’s “own little club.” Howard, needless to say, anointed himself its king, “king of the dipshits,” as he puts it.
The club’s key rule: Anything is fair game; the more private and embarrassing and hurtful, the better. Howard’s real interest is emotion and not the packaged Hollywood variety. “He doesn’t want you to act mad; he wants you to be mad,” says his producer, Gary Dell’Abate, whose mother once called Howard’s mother to get Howard to stop belittling her son on the air. Racial hatred, sexual offensiveness: Those are real.
Howard tolerates celebrities as long as they enter his world. Recently, for instance, he explained to Robert Downey Jr. that, no, he hadn’t watched his movie that Warner Bros. had sent over especially for that purpose. “How ridiculous that he thinks the most interesting thing he has to talk about is his new movie,” said Howard. Howard wanted to know about Downey’s stretch in prison. “Did you fight?” he asked. Downey, annoyed, nonetheless produced. “I initiated,” he said.
Howard may be arrogant and insecure, a combustible combination; he may be a “miserable prick,” as he sometimes says. “You suck the joy out of everything” is one of his girlfriend Beth’s endearments. His savior has always been the microphone, behind which he feels unusually, some would say unreasonably, free. “I can tell my audience anything,” he says.
Except for a time there was one thing that was too private, too damaging, for even Howard to blurt out: He felt dead inside.
In 2001, Howard signed a five-year deal with Infinity, owner of 178 radio stations, including WXRK, K-Rock, Howard’s home base. Howard earned upwards of $25 million a year. Still, a few years into his deal, Howard was going limp. Says Robin, “I started to see him wither.”
Howard’s agent, Don Buchwald, is a gentlemanly presence who keeps a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of Howard in his office. “Howard couldn’t really function with the current FCC,” Buchwald explains. The Federal Communications Commission, among other duties, polices the airwaves for “indecency.” “I don’t think there’s a fucking thing I ever did that was indecent,” says Howard, whose on-air remarks have led to at least $2.5 million in fines, more than any other radio broadcaster.
The FCC doesn’t initiate complaints, listeners do. Howard has 12 million listeners. In 2004, the FCC sided with one offended listener. Howard had committed indecency by discussing “swamp ass,” a smelly personal-hygiene issue right up Howard’s alley. The FCC specifically didn’t like that the bit included “repeated flatulence sound effects.” The government fined Clear Channel, which carried Howard’s show on six of its stations. (Howard was on in 46 markets.) The fine (which included penalties for other performers) was a whopping $1.75 million. Later, Viacom, Infinity’s parent, would pay the government $3.5 million for a variety of infractions, including at least one by Howard. For Howard, the devastating effect was that Clear Channel tossed him off its stations.
Howard blamed the FCC and Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio company. But later, the grudge spread. He griped about his boss, Infinity, and its corporate parent, Viacom. He would have liked to take “swamp ass” all the way to the Supreme Court. Infinity was sympathetic to Howard’s cause, and in fact added him to nine of its stations a few months later. Still, Infinity instituted a companywide “compliance plan” to appease the FCC. “They”—Infinity and Viacom—“are allowing this to happen,” moaned Howard. He saw an unhappy trend. “I’m losing stations,” he said. “I’m not going to be making more money; I’m going to be making less money. And fuck the money, I’m going to be making shit radio. How am I the outrageous Howard Stern if I can’t talk?”
Howard, naturally, personalized his grievance—one of his gifts. (“Oh, absolutely,” he says jauntily, “I have a chip on my shoulder.”) “You guys have not stood up to the FCC,” Howard told Joel Hollander, COO and then CEO of Infinity. “House Negro,” he later called Hollander.
But the issue was bigger than a supposedly wimpy boss. Howard had lost his mojo. “I’ve been doing subpar material for the last ten years. I didn’t even realize it. I got sucked in,” Howard told his agent. Then he told Buchwald his secret. “I think I’m done.”