Ahhhh, the shower. All day, Howard Stern has felt so goddamned pressured. He’s in one of his obsessive funks, so frequent lately, and can’t wait to get under the hot water. And freaking relax. So Howard sneaks off, pads across the whitish bathroom tiles, a towel secured around his waist. Howard’s not one to run around the apartment naked. Not with his very small penis—no need for Beth to see him unaroused.
Howard steps into the shower, a palace of curved, floor-to-ceiling glass, determined to escape the stress that is freaking brutal. Every morning, Howard does four-plus hours of America’s most popular morning-radio show. In a few weeks, he will join Sirius, a satellite-radio company, where he vows to reinvent the medium. Sirius is betting $500 million (and, probably, its future) on Howard; it’s given him two entire channels. That’s 48 hours of dead air to fill every single day. Plus, Beth seems to feel a little ignored right now. No wonder he’s barely sleeping.
In the shower, Howard powers up the hot water. There are nozzles everywhere, like eight of them. His hair, that dense wheel of curls, which, thank God, he still has, flattens against his head. Just stand there, Howard tells himself. Zone out. He’s a Transcendental Meditation guy. Every morning and night, he empties his head, which is what he’d like to do right now. Except the vibe’s not right. Is it the freaking bathroom mirror? From the shower, Howard can catch a glimpse of himself, enough to disturb anyone. “Fat!” is Howard’s reaction to a mirror. “Ugly!”
Just freaking breathe. In TM, you let distracting thoughts float right out of your mind. Some thoughts, though, are like fish bones. Like how about that ad Howard’s boss took out? Good riddance to twenty years of stale fart jokes, as if he couldn’t wait to usher Howard out the door. Infuriating! Reduce Howard to fart jokes! What about his penis and vagina material? He practically invented saying penis and vagina on the radio! And his stripper bits and lesbian gags and his legion of deformed and defective characters? Howard’s boss ought to drop to his knees and thank him. Those fart jokes built an empire! That genius should get testicular cancer!
Which might be about the time that Howard hears the voice. Where the fuck is this coming from? Howard thinks. He hears a series of sharp, percussive notes, like an old Teletype machine. It’s the way WINS, the all-news radio station, introduces its newscast. Then Howard hears a news anchor’s sonorous voice. Except that instead of introducing the WINS newscast, Howard hears the voice intone, It’s “he Howard 100 News.”
It’s like the radio gods are sending Howard a radio show. All the news you want about the universe that is Howard Stern. Everything about the characters in Howard’s world, their fascinating lives, including, yes, the gases they pass. And not just the gases! Howard hears that rich newscaster’s voice say, The Howard Stern Sports Department. But our sports, thinks Howard. Like how about High Pitch Eric, one of his characters, who’s fat and disgusting and speaks like a girl, eats for a whole day. People could bet on his, uh, output. It’ll be the … Craptacular! Howard can imagine the hushed, reverent tones of the sportscaster, as if he’s describing Tiger Woods. There in the steamy shower, Howard puts his fist to his mouth, like it’s a microphone: High Pitch approaches the Porta Potti. He appears ready. Concentration is on his face … That’s funny! That’s genius!
Howard’s boss no longer permits fart noises on the air. But on satellite, anything goes. Yes, Howard thinks, I want to host the Craptacular.
Howard’s so excited about “The Howard 100 News” he’s got to tell Beth. He rushes out of the shower, almost forgetting the towel. Six foot five and hung like an acorn! Where’s the goddamned towel? “Honey?!”
In recent years, Howard Stern claims to have harbored a deep secret. It’s a notion that seems, on the face of it, preposterous. After all, Howard has a confessional urge like no one’s ever heard. Before Howard, radio was mostly comforting, discreet, tasteful. Emotion, if it surfaced at all, was happy (later on, and even worse, it was mellow). “[Radio] was a lot of people who didn’t say shit,” grumbles Howard. To Howard, that was all phony, and Howard despises phonies. “The show is about honesty,” he says earnestly. But Howard’s honesty is not the honesty of, say, Oprah. Howard hates Oprah. Howard’s earliest professional instinct was to erase the line between private and public, which often mirrors the one separating discomfort and comfort. Howard says, “Discomfort is something interesting to explore.” Starting, of course, with his own. His anal fissures? His ex-wife’s miscarriage? Howard wants you to know.
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.”
“Okay,” Buchwald responded. Though just in case, Buchwald said, he’d listen to offers.
For years, the morning host to strippers and porn stars—he threw lunch meat at their bare asses—tooled home to Long Island, to a big house with a lawn and a pool. There he sometimes imagined he was living an extended episode of Leave It to Beaver. For a couple of schizy decades, the outrageous morning man did nightly duty as suburban husband and father to his college sweetheart and their three daughters. Howard and Alison had met as undergrads at Boston University. She was his first serious girlfriend. They married at age 24. “I got happily married so fucking young,” Howard says.
It wasn’t really a typical household. Howard followed his own early-to-bed, rise-in-the-dark schedule (masturbating himself to sleep every night, he told his audience). And as time went by, he passed a growing fraction of his at-home time in the basement, where he had a 100-inch TV and double locks on the door. There, he labored to turn flatulence into mainstream humor, and to write two best-selling memoirs, as well as to, uh, do research. For instance, he spent time dialing into online sex-chat rooms, including one called the Howard Stern Room. “The pathetic fact is I … seldom emerge, except for meals,” Howard said.
Alison wanted a social life. Howard hated to travel. “To tell the truth,” he said, “I hate every fucking place in the world.” He didn’t especially like to dine with Alison’s friends. They told him what was wrong with the show, and not to make fun of Jews. To Howard, it seemed like the garmento husbands inevitably carped about how they too ought to have radio shows since they were as funny as Howard.
Howard was exceedingly devoted to his wife, while simultaneously forlorn—a bind that would prove one of the great inventions of his career. Howard was an id on a leash, which, Howard knew from the start, made him, sexually, an Everyman. “I want new experiences,” he once explained, “where Alison can’t accuse me of cheating.” And so Howard hatched a vibrant fantasy life in which he was … single. “I have my whole single life worked out,” Howard once announced. “There aren’t many girls I wouldn’t fuck. I’d be with somebody every night.”
In the meantime, Howard had women—Howard, old-fashioned, called them “broads”—stop by the studio and get naked. He gave them money to do things, like kiss each other. Soon, spectating wasn’t enough. He spanked women on the air. “Butt bongo,” he called it. Then, one day with a naked woman in the studio, Howard announced he too was getting naked. Cue the superego. Alison, magically, was on the phone to the studio.
“I’m really getting offended,” Alison said.
“You’re not happy because I’m a desirable man. Well, how about giving me sex every once in a while?” Howard told her on the air.
She told him he sounded like “a dirty old man.”
“I love you,” he said sweetly.
“I love you too,” Alison said and hung up.
Then Howard plunged back in, returning to the naked girl in the studio.
Of course, both satellite-radio companies—there are only two—wanted Howard. Sirius, though, needed him more.
For satellite radio, the next mass medium, the value proposition starts with this: Terrestrial radio sucks. The technology is out-of-date; it’s not yet digital quality. Plus, because the real audience is not the fan but the advertiser, playlists tighten, less-popular genres disappear. “Radio was a business that focused initially on passion and music and then, instead, decided it was packaging listeners for advertisers,” says Hugh Panero, CEO of XM, which is the larger satellite company. It proved adept at packaging listeners; Howard’s show has as many as 22 minutes of ads per hour.
Satellite technology offers better-quality audio (though digital radio is coming). And it cut the ads on music stations and expanded the offerings. Satellite reaches the entire country with 120 channels (Sirius) or 160 channels (XM). To get it, you must pay a monthly fee.
In the competition for satellite dominance, Sirius was the category’s laggard. Among other things, XM was first to market with an iPod-size portable player; Sirius debuts its version this Christmas season. Both companies made deals with automakers to install satellite radio into new cars. Again XM led, claiming more deals with car manufacturers. Most important, it has outpaced Sirius in subscribers. By year’s end, it will have 6 million, compared with 3 million for Sirius.
Howard, who has more listeners than both satellite companies combined, could be a momentum changer for Sirius. After all, before Howard’s announcement, it had just 700,000 subscribers. Wall Street treated it like a castoff. A share of XM traded for about ten times as much as a share of Sirius.
Howard’s agent negotiated, as is his practice, without consulting Howard. XM’s Panero was prepared to pay Howard close to $30 million a year. But Sirius’s offer was, as Panero put it, “shocking.” At a time when Sirius had not quite $13 million a year in revenue, it offered Howard a hundred million dollars a year, about eighty in cash, the rest in stock, for five years. And that’s mainly for “The Howard Stern Show.” Sirius wanted Howard’s imprint to be larger. The company gave him two channels to program, for which it will pick up most of the tab.
On October 6, 2004, during his regular K-Rock show, Howard made his announcement. Instantly, he’d changed the radio game. Howard’s millions of fans went up for grabs; it was a more profitable audience share than, as Hollander put it, “at any time in my 27 years in the business.” Howard vowed “to bury” Clear Channel, “you sons of bitches.” But the immediate competition pits Howard directly against Infinity.
For Howard, the private moping was over; indeed, the stars seemed to be aligning. The following month, Sirius announced that Mel Karmazin, former COO of Viacom, was coming out of retirement to be its new CEO, its third. Karmazin is a superstar executive whose arrival added its own cachet to Sirius, and to satellite radio generally; also, he may be the only radio exec Howard has ever called a friend.
On September 30, 1985, Howard was marched out of WNBC, fired for, among other offenses, being impossible to manage. (Howard had aired a running fight with his bosses, one of whom he referred to as “Pig Virus.”) That same day, Karmazin, then CEO of Infinity, called to say he had to have Howard. At the time, Infinity was a chain of half-a-dozen stations, and Karmazin was known mainly as a terrific ad salesman. “I don’t think anybody should think in terms of my skill set being involved in creating radio programming,” he says. Yet even Karmazin sensed that Howard was on to something. “Everyone’s boss is an asshole, right?” he says. “That sort of makes for great radio.” As long, Karmazin knew, as he wasn’t the asshole boss. Howard’s contract stipulated that he couldn’t mention Karmazin on the air.
Karmazin turned Howard into Infinity’s franchise player. At Howard’s insistence, Karmazin bucked the wisdom of the time—that radio was a local medium—and put Howard on in Philadelphia, eventually in Los Angeles, and syndicated him. Not that there weren’t tensions. At one point, Howard says, he stormed into Karmazin’s office. “If you guys start inhibiting and editing me, I’m going to lose my audience,” Howard told Karmazin. “How the fuck do I stay No. 1?” Still, when the FCC came after Howard, Karmazin stood behind him, to a point. Eventually, though, Karmazin says that the FCC stopped processing his applications to buy radio stations, and he settled. (That 1995 settlement cost Infinity $1.7 million.)
“I’ve got some kind of weird rebirth going on,” Howard says. “All of a sudden, I’m like the old Howard Stern. This stuff just rushes into my head.” He makes it sound like a mental illness.
By 1996, Karmazin had built Infinity into a chain of 44 stations and sold it to Westinghouse, CBS’s then-parent, where he became the largest individual shareholder. When CBS merged with Viacom in a deal worth $37 billion, Karmazin was appointed the company’s No. 2; in the initial bear-hugging, he seemed likely to succeed Sumner Redstone, Viacom’s now 82-year-old CEO and chairman. Redstone made it clear he wouldn’t observe generational niceties and step aside. (“He’s full of shit,” Karmazin says of Redstone now.) And so, in 2004, Karmazin, then 60 years old, exited Viacom, intending to retire.
At least that’s the story Karmazin tells me in Sirius’s glass conference room at Rockefeller Center, situated dangerously close to both Eminem’s and Martha Stewart’s studios. Karmazin has white-gray hair, furry black eyebrows, and large white teeth. He’s a compact man in a good business suit who was once in line to run a vast slice of the country’s media (and, in that capacity, dismissed satellite radio as a nice niche business). Why is he at the helm of an eleven-year-old company that’s never made a profit?
After leaving Viacom, Karmazin tried golf. “I hated that,” he says. He traveled. “I really don’t want to travel anymore,” he says. Karmazin is the poor Queens boy who took an office job for the air-conditioning. He attended college at night and thrived in business, in part because he famously trimmed costs, and also arrived early. (He says, “It wasn’t like I was a visionary or anything.”) To this day, he says, he’s first in the office, at 6:30. “I turn the lights on here,” he says. Even sitting in a conference room, Karmazin constantly pushes himself away from the table, gliding on a wheeled chair, a pantomime of energy-to-burn.
“I really did miss, you know, the business stuff,” explains Karmazin, by which he means being “able to solve problems.”
Also, Howard’s arrival intrigued Karmazin. They don’t socialize. Much of Howard’s show has never been Karmazin’s thing. The Craptacular? “Not my taste,” he says. Still, Karmazin had ridden Howard to the top once before. (“His tombstone could read, MEL ROSE WITH HOWARD,” says one industry insider.) Karmazin did his due diligence in a brisk two weeks.
Among his priorities is to make Howard the company’s flagship offering. “Howard is going to be bigger than he has ever been,” Karmazin says. “And that’s going to help our company significantly.”
Of course, the relationship may not be tension-free. Howard has already gotten resistance to his “Howard 100 News” team, a group of seventeen, including “award-winning professional journalists.” Some Sirius executives have complained. They don’t like to walk out of their offices to find Howard’s news team sticking microphones in their faces. Clearly this delights Howard. “You’re going to have to deal with it,” he’s told the uncomfortable execs.
“He’s got no choice,” says Howard. “He’s in the building. He’s going to have to.” This time, Howard’s not prohibited from mentioning Karmazin on the air.
“It ain’t in this contract,” says Howard gleefully. “He’s fair game.”
Before I met the outrageous Howard Stern, I’d been concerned. With Howard, I knew, vengefulness is sport. He finds a person’s weaknesses, zeroes in. “I can fuck you up your ass six ways till Sunday and pick your corpse clean, and you won’t know what hit you,” he delicately points out. But the first time I meet him, my impression is different. I think, Howard might be in recovery. It’s the end of another week of 5 a.m. wake-up calls. He’s bone-tired. At 51, he seems vulnerable. His systems, most of them, suggest wear and tear. He’s towering, a physically dramatic presence, but it’s kind of a sight gag. He’s imposing and thin as a post (even if he thinks he’s fat). He’s not hardy. There’s his fear of germs—“I’m a germphobe,” he announces as a kind of introduction. He’s apparently sworn off several food groups. I watched him approach a buffet of desserts; delicately, he extracted a thin bit of cantaloupe. And then there’s the insomnia. I’d seen e-mails Howard sent to his staff at 2:58 one morning, at 2:53 another morning. Howard’s rich as a god, of course, but he can’t quite subdue his inner Aerosmith. He’s dressed like an off-duty rocker: jeans, Caterpillar boots, a navy tee under an unbuttoned shirt. He has a couple of small gold hoop earrings and, scrawled on a pinkie, an ex-con’s blue tattoo.
Of course, Howard is in recovery from, he says, years of professional compromise. “They just ruined a goddamned medium,” he says. “They ruined me.” Howard mentions this in his Upper West Side penthouse, which is spacious, open, immaculate. It’s done in tasteful earth tones. Howard flops onto a gold couch. “I think I got kind of dead inside and just kind of accepted this,” he says. He leans back. The couch seems to nearly inhale him. Howard says he needs a nap.
Then the topic changes, and so does Howard. Weariness vanishes. He propels himself across the room, heads to his desk, and returns with a black spiral notebook and a folder containing his plans for satellite radio. He spreads them on the coffee table and suddenly pitches his big birdish body onto the floor, landing on one knee, as if he wants to physically get into the material.
“I’ve got some kind of weird rebirth going on,” he says. “All of a sudden, I’m like the old Howard Stern. This shit just rushes into my head.” He makes it sound like mental illness. He’s obsessed, manic. “I’m like out of my freaking mind,” he says. “I hear radio shows in my dreams. I haven’t been this turned on by radio in so long. I can think about nothing else. This is nuts.”
Howard flips through the spiral notebook. He’s pasted e-mails inside and scribbled notes. They’d tried to stop Howard being Howard. Now, with two channels all his own and no FCC, Howard plans to exact revenge: He’s going to be more Howard than ever. He’ll turn what’s inside his head into a radio world. He’s already got “The Howard 100 News,” the brainstorm delivered to him in the shower. It’ll make the whole thing cohere and, at the same time, mock the coherence of that other, you know, “real” world.
Howard will still have a morning show. “Fuck a show!” says Howard exuberantly. He’s back on the couch, but bent forward, his chest nearly touching his knees. “I’m going to give you real action. I got famous for ‘Lesbian Dating Game’? Now I can really do it. We’ll hear the date, and if they like each other, we’ll have the date right there and the sex right there, and it’ll be done beautifully.”
Howard’s radio world will be a red-light district. “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if my audience could all lie down at night together and come together?” he wonders. “Cum together?” Howard’s idea is “Tissue Time With Heidi Cortez,” a 24-year-old Playboy model and “orgasmer” who will offer phone sex to Howard’s audience. He’s also working on a show called “Confessions From the Bunny Ranch,” a Nevada whorehouse. Howard plans to tape a room 24 hours a day. “You’ve heard of Taxicab Confessions, but that’s bullshit,” he says. “You’ll be right in the prostitute’s room. You’ll hear the negotiation. You’ll hear the screwing. You’ll hear the after-sex conversation. And that fascinates me. I want to be in that room.” Howard hopes to launch a show called “I Want to Fuck a Porn Star,” a send-up of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. “It’s going to be difficult,” cautions Howard. “If you can answer the questions, you will get to fuck a porn star. So many guys from my audience would love that opportunity.”
“I do miss you lately,” says Beth, Howard’s pinup-girl girlfriend. “I am not messing up this relationship,” says Howard grimly. “I don’t want to keep repeating my life.”
It’s possible that Howard is just a garden-variety pervert (as he’s sure every guy is). Howard’s instincts, though, are usually satirical. His targets are seriousness, good taste, the other boring virtues of adulthood (including reading books). Howard is a professional adolescent, though in his hands, adolescence is also a devilish send-up of mature, uptight opinion, like that involving bodily functions. “Sometimes flatulence is the funniest thing in the world to me,” Howard says. “It just is.”
Like the Craptacular. “Listen, to me the Craptacular is what I’m all about,” he says, and then, with earnestness, adds, “I really thought this guy was going to outproduce a baby elephant.” When done as a sportscast, it’s also a joke on every pompous sportscaster.
He has other self-serious targets. “You’ve heard of The View,” Howard says. “We’re going to round up four crack whores, and every night, we’re going to take the exact topics that The View talked about. I can’t stand those women on The View, but to hear ‘The Crack-Whore View’ girls talk about those same topics? It will be ten times better.” Howard has an idea for another talk show, the genre of, say, Meet the Press, except with girls from Scores, Howard’s favorite strip club. “One of the things that I love are these Scores girls get drunk about four o’clock in the morning, wasted,” he explains. “We want to have a round table, ‘The Drunken Scores Girls Show.’ I want to throw them topics of the day and just hear them.”
In his apartment, Howard has wound himself up. “It will be like nothing else,” he says. “It will be real.” Real is a favorite Howard word. Real is a retard on the radio for 24 straight hours, which was an idea in one of Howard’s late-night e-mails. Real is a racist with his own show, which Howard threatens. “One of the sitcoms we’re working on—very exciting—‘Meet the Fuckheads,’ ” Howard says. He’s written a synopsis, which reads, “An exciting sitcom starring married couple Jeff the Drunk and Wendy the Retard and their son Elephant Boy. Jeff, a hand-stamper at a local swimming pool, is spiraling downward and his retarded wife is fed up with him when suddenly life changes on a dime. He hits the winning lottery numbers. He moves into an exclusive neighborhood next door to Donald Trump.”
Of course, Howard could fail. Howard has been best when his oppositional disorder is engaged. Without a censor, a wife, or a manager trying to rein him in, who will be his foil? The calculation seems to be that he has good taste, everyone’s internalized arbiter, to screw with. Will fans cough up $12.95 per month for this? “That’s a very risky career move,” says Howard, “but I don’t care.” Maybe it’s the mania talking—or the promotional possibilities of the moment. But Howard acts as if he can’t believe his luck. “I mean, fuck me!” he shouts. “We’ll get the real Donald Trump.”
Howard reels off ideas, which he will also put on TV—he’s got a separate subscription deal with In Demand TV. “It’s crazy! All of a sudden,” he says, “I’m like on fire creatively.” He’s got more. “You’ve heard of Desperate Housewives? We have The Really Desperate Housewives.” It’s a show starring his staff’s significant others. “Each week, these wives desperately try to change their famous husbands into something they’re not: human,” says Howard. Some of the ideas are still incubating. Howard has to tell all. “Face the Shrink”: “Every night you will hear a live psychiatric session with a very famous celebrity,” he says. “It’s going to be a real shrink, real psychotherapy. Also, the shrink is going to analyze some of my Wack Pack guys.”
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.
50 piled on. “Bitches,” he mentioned.
After the show, Howard was suspended for a day—with pay, he says. The ostensible reason was that later in the program, Howard talked extensively about Sirius. The next day, Hollander called a closed-door meeting at the Beacon restaurant. There, management laid down the law. Again. Tempers flared. That’s when Howard called Hollander a “house Negro.” Hollander wasn’t pleased, but later, he sounded understanding. “Howard’s very nervous,” said Hollander. “It’s like he’s had a fourteen-month honeymoon, and now he’s got to go do it.”
In the living area of his apartment, Howard takes a seat next to his girlfriend, Beth Ostrosky. Outside, it’s a stunning fall day. Through the windows, and the apartment has tons, you can see all of Central Park, every single red-yellow-orange tree.
Beth is almost twenty years younger than Howard and a beauty. White-blonde hair, opalescent eyes, long legs. She’s modeled since she was 9; recently, with a lingerie specialty. Not long ago, she appeared on the cover of FHM magazine in a bikini, a career high point. Beth, though, apparently feels some pressure on her modeling prospects. It’s her ass. She says she can’t stand her ass.
The thought moves Howard. “Honey,” Howard tells her. “You’re my sex object. I want to see your ass. I want you to walk around the apartment naked.”
“Never!” gasps Beth.
Howard grabs Beth’s hand. “Beth doesn’t think she looks good, and I’m like, ‘You’re insane.’ ”
“No,” Beth says. “I can doll myself up and be fine, but, no, I have a really poor self-image—really, it’s bad. Really bad.”
“We’re two insecure people,” Howard says, shrugging.
Howard pulls Beth’s hand onto his lap. It’s an adorable scene. A goofy V-shaped smile settles on his face. It’s like he’s wearing a slice of pie. It softens his features, doubles his chin. Howard might be on his prom night, though, of course, Beth is the type of beauty Howard couldn’t ever have taken to the prom. Howard was an ungainly teen; Beth was homecoming queen. “I can’t believe I’m with the homecoming queen!” Howard sometimes says.
For Howard, his fucking happy marriage, which ended in 1999, was a different kind of relationship. “Alison wanted somebody who was involved with her and did things with her,” Howard says. “And I wasn’t fitting the bill.” He squirreled himself away in the basement. “She kind of confronted the sort of lack of marriage that we had,” says Howard. “What I think ended us … we both had problems with that lack of passion. I’m sure it wasn’t often enough, ’cause I was gross.”
Part of Howard hates being divorced. (Alison remarried a year later and is currently a practicing psychoanalyst. “I’m now very happy and leading the life I always wanted to,” she says.) Howard’s life works better now, too. For one thing, that schizy feeling is gone. “I used to think I was two different guys,” Howard says. “I was very sure that I was one way on the air and then when I come home, I’m Ward Cleaver and I don’t have any weird thoughts.”
Howard has come to a different conclusion. “That’s horseshit,” he explains. “That guy on the radio is me. And when I get off the radio, I behave differently, but I’ve got to own the fact that I’m fascinated by strippers. I’m really sexual. I’m curious about everything. That’s a much healthier way to look at who I am, I think.”
Howard had expected to be one of those divorced guys who goes around sleeping with everyone. “You would think,” Howard says. “But I found out that that’s not who I am. It was all fantasy. I didn’t feel right just sleeping with someone. It’s not my thing. I feel like it’s a use: a use of me and use of them,” he says. “There’s too many bad feelings afterwards.”
The evening Howard met Beth at a dinner party, he was feeling particularly lonely, missing his daughters, who range from 12 to college age. He and Beth talked till three or four in the morning. And the next day, they hung out, watching movies at Howard’s.
“We were like, ‘Wow, this is so nice,’ ” Howard explains. “We connected and we hung out and it was great, and I didn’t want to give up that feeling.”
Beth hadn’t listened to Howard’s show much—still doesn’t. But she had an impression. “He was a crazy maniac,” she says. “Like, that was my impression of him.”
They met five and a half years ago. Last year, she moved in with Howard. Howard doesn’t want to ever remarry, which Beth says is fine. “I never had that burning desire to get married,” says Beth. “If he wanted to get married and we decided, he’s the one I would want to marry. But I’m okay. I never had the burning desire to have children … yet.”
Howard pushes back into the couch and crosses his fingers out of Beth’s view. A pie-slice smile settles on his face.
“Most of the marriages we know are all fucked up and miserable,” says Howard helpfully. “Out of everyone we know, we’re the happiest. We think, anyway. We believe.”
“Oh, we’re for sure the happiest,” says Beth.
Howard, though, requires a lot of effort on Beth’s part. He’s high maintenance.
“I don’t think I am high maintenance,” Howard protests initially, then adds, “I think therapy’s helping a lot.” Howard goes four times a week. “Beth would be the first one to say it’s all about me … ”
“It’s all about him,” says Beth. She wags her head good-naturedly, “but I’m okay with it. We’re good together.”
“I am self-centered, and I don’t know how you change that, but I am really working on trying to be empathetic in my relationship with Beth and understanding where she’s coming from.”
“You’re doing a great job,” says Beth.
“I think we’re on the right path,” says Howard.
Of course, she makes clear, “he needs attention. He’s very needy.”
“I’m a needy person,” says Howard. He nods his head, and the fuzzy circle of hair bounces.
“He’s very sensitive. He needs constant adoration and—”
“I do. I need her to pay attention to me. I feel bad for this woman.”
Howard is truly worried. Howard’s relationship with his fans has often been the most potent in his life. The other evening, Howard listened to a roundtable of his superfans, a competitive category, on Sirius. They talked about their favorite moments of his K-Rock shows.
Beth walked in. Howard says that, in general, “she has taught me not to be so serious and to lighten up a little bit.” That time she couldn’t distract him.
“You sensed a vibe from me that I was upset,” says Beth.
Howard did. But he couldn’t tear himself away. “This,” he says, referring to the plans for Sirius, “is my sex now.” It’s a joke. Sort of. Listening to his superfans talk about the universe that is Howard Stern charges him up. “That connection between me and the audience gets a little too important,” Howard says.
Beth’s rarely seen Howard like this, and she’s thrilled for him. “I feel it’s just the rush of what’s ahead. All the anticipation and all the ideas are flowing,” Beth says. But she misses Howard. “I do miss you lately, but I know that there’s an end.” They’re still holding hands, working out their relationship in real time, like a radio show. Sometimes they talk to each other, sometimes to me. “I hope that it’s not going to be five years of this,” Beth says, no doubt to Howard, though she looks at me.
“No,” says Howard softly. Howard assures her he misses her, too. He’s solicitous, almost pained. This particular complaint strikes home; his work obsession was one reason his marriage dissolved. “Honey, I swear to you, I’m going to balance this out because I miss being with you,” he says. “I mean, we have a great life together and I know how important it is to sort of spend time together and be together, so it’s my selfishness that I want it all. I want the radio thing going and I want, I want this full relationship—”
“We have great chemistry,” says Beth.
“We have a great—that’s the exact word—”
“I answer his sentence—” she says.
“It’s true, we really feel this great connection. I feel it.”
Beth’s not complaining; she’s a good sport. “I think I’m going to get him back,” she says. “I hope.”
“I am not fucking up this relationship,” says Howard grimly. “I don’t want to keep repeating my life.”
For one thing there’s the sex, girlfriend sex, not wife sex, though Alison was a fine sex partner. Still, Beth’s the homecoming queen, the shiksa goddess with a closetful of lingerie.
“I’ve never felt more comfortable with somebody sexually and more excited about, I mean, it’s … ”
Howard pauses. He looks at Beth. “Honey, go in the other room.” Then he looks at me. “You got to try her out.”
“Could you imagine?” says Beth, good sport to the end.