Stop him, change the subject, and Howard obliges. He’s surprisingly gracious. But his energy drains. The couch reclaims him. He’s laid-back, again in need of a nap.
“What’s in the folder?” I say. It’s like pushing a button. Howard leans forward, his chest bumping those inordinately tall knees, and pours the contents on the coffee table. It’s his new logo, a black-power fist—classic Howard: arrogant, aggrieved, inappropriate (who’s whiter than Howard?), bristling with aggression.
“This is a big black fist up the ass of Clear Channel, the religious right, George Bush, those motherfuckers on the FCC,” says Howard gaily. “That fist will appear everywhere because that inspires me.”
The day Howard announced on K-Rock that he’d signed with Sirius, he still owed fifteen months to Infinity, K-Rock’s owner. “[If it were my decision] he would’ve been gone the first day,” says Karmazin. Easy for him to say. Howard pulls in $100 million in annual revenue. People looked at the numbers, the effect on the market. Infinity decided to hold Howard to his contract, which created a colossally awkward situation. Hollander, Infinity’s CEO, had initially hoped Howard would stay with Infinity—he’d been ready, say industry sources, to offer him an eye-popping $35 million a year. He didn’t even get a chance to make an offer, a professional discourtesy that still smarts. Now he hoped for some understanding from Howard, a gentlemanly accommodation. “We both have a difficult January coming,” he told Howard.
In some ways, Hollander’s looked more challenging. “Somebody in their career was going to be entrusted with replacing Howard Stern,” says Hollander. “I landed on the seat. If I don’t succeed here, that’s what people will remember.”
Howard, inevitably, turned the awkwardness into a radio reality show on K-Rock. Soon, Infinity banned Howard from using the word Sirius. Fine. Howard called it “eh-eh-eh.” I can’t wait to get to eh-eh-eh, he’d tell his listeners, all in on the joke. At Sirius, Howard had begun to preview material a couple of hours each evening. “The Howard 100 News” team interviewed his parents. One of Howard’s characters on K-Rock, a black New Jersey garbageman who calls himself “King of All Blacks,” auditioned for a show on Sirius. Wendy the Retard did 24 hours straight, no callers. The next morning, Howard would review these performances on K-Rock.
If Howard is Sirius’s biggest break, keeping a lame-duck Howard on K-Rock might be its second.
In October, Infinity announced its lineup, five D.J.’s who would replace Howard in various markets. In New York, David Lee Roth, the former Van Halen rocker, will take over Howard’s slot. Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller will do a slot on K-Rock too. Hollander hired Adam Carolla in Los Angeles; Carolla will get help from Jimmy Kimmel. Roth is the wild card. He has little radio experience. “If he doesn’t work, they’ll say that was the dumbest thing,” says Hollander. “If it works, they’ll all call me a genius.”
Clearly, Hollander wants to take Howard’s slot in a different direction—for one thing, K-Rock will now be all talk. He avoided Howard imitators. Toning down the trash talk is a theme. And a popular one. At XM, CEO Panero echoed the sentiments. Let Sirius identify itself with Howard’s young male demo. Panero lately describes XM’s appeal as mainstream, diverse, “known for a lot of different kinds of content.”
Hollander announced his new roster in Advertising Age, tweaking Howard. “We didn’t just replace Howard,” said one ad. “We’re freshening up the airwaves altogether. Twenty years of fart jokes gets old.” Howard, predictably, took offense. “What the fuck is this?” said Howard. “They called me a piece of shit.”
A few days later, Howard had 50 Cent in the studio. Howard wanted to hear about 50 Cent’s “bitches,” as Howard put it. The rapper said a couple were waiting back at the hotel—he even remembered one of the bitches’ names. Howard wanted to call the bitches. Howard clearly enjoyed saying the word bitches, which he thought was funny coming from him.
Tom Chiusano, K-Rock’s general manager, didn’t appreciate the humor.
“They call dogs bitches,” Howard said. “It’s a common word.”
Chiusano entered the studio, a small, dingy, low-ceilinged room where Howard sits behind a large U-shaped console. Chiusano, who favors black tasseled loafers and pinstripes, explained that the repetition of the word bitch made it potentially indecent. Obligingly, he spoke into a microphone. “I’m not wrong,” he said, which didn’t exactly sound bold.
Howard, who wears T-shirts and jeans to work and who constantly reminds listeners that he is reinventing radio at the moment, turned to 50 Cent. When 50 comes on Howard’s satellite show, Howard told him, he can say anything he wants. Then Howard asked Chiusano, why didn’t they just kick him off the air? “Dude, let’s end this already,” said Howard. “Prick,” he added.