He is the Voice of God.
He questioned Lady Di's virginity on the day of the royal wedding.
He made fun of Marion Barry's name and demanded a parade from the mayor's office when he first came to town.
He blasphemes the wholesome memory of "Leave It to Beaver" and delivers advice on everything from suntan pills to scoring.
He is Howard Stern, decadent deejay, DC-101.
He's a latter-day Lenny Bruce, the animus of television terror Joe Pine, a tone-deaf Frank Zappa who in five months on the Washington airwaves has almost tripled his station's morning-time ratings and forced them to install a seven-second delay.
He sings the Blues with the News.
"Hello, I'm a dwarf," says a rumbling voice sounding like Gorilla Monsoon on a headachey day. "I want to speak to Howard about Dwarf Dial-a-Date !"
"Hold on, we'll put you through to Howard," says a pinch-nosed Stern, covering up for himself.
Dial-a-Date, a spoof on television's "Dating Game," is a regular feature on Stern's 6 to 10 a.m. AM/FM MORNING MADNESS (WWDC, FM 101, AM 1260); only the contestants change, depending on whether it's Gay Dial-a-Date or Impressionist Dial-a-Date or, well, Dwarf Dial-a-Date.
"And keep your radio turned down when you're on the air," Stern admonishes the caller. A few moments later, the voice reappears, echoing because the radio has not been turned down; the caller obviously doesn't want to miss himself saying, "I'm a black Jewish albino dwarf." Stern hangs up, screens the next phone call, still masking his voice. "What do you want to talk to Howard about?" "I don't know," says the caller. "I keep calling but it's tough to get to talk to him."
It may be tough to talk to Howard Stern sometimes, but Washington seems to have no problem listening to him and his news partner, Robin Quivers, or to his parade of routines: Born Again Stern; Stuttering Deejay; Out of the Closet Stern; weather forecasts directly form God; cash giveaways amounting to the few dollars Stern might have in his pocket; Beaver Breaks, in which the Cleavage Family stumbles into the modern dilemmas of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. There are also on-the-air talent auditions; the helium-voiced Schlomo from the Planet Schleem; tapes of when Stern goes out on odd jobs like rubbing suntan oil on a gorgeous woman or running the projector at a pron house; identify-the-backewards-record contests; the parade of interviews with guests as unlikely as Lady Di and Prince Charles on their wedding day.
In fact, stern Spent Wednesday "broadcasting" from the doorway of St. Paul's Cthedral since they wouldn't let hi in with a DC-101 T-shirt. He spent most of the show questioning and royal couple's sex life and criticizing a wedding menu consisting mostly of Spam. When Stern's Voice of God announced his gift -- 12 children -- Lady Di's "protests" were to no avail. "Barefoot and pregnant," God intoned majestically, "that's how I like to keep them."
Stern's program, a wild mixture of music, call-ins and personality radio, is the first Washington show aimed demographically at a young (18 to 34) audience, and it seems to be working: It placed first with 18- to 25-year-olds in the recent Arbitron books. Stern earned his ratings with an irreverent zanines and often outrageous chutzpah that's left some surprised Washingtonians shaking their heads. Many of them simply see him as an obnoxious nerd and Stern has done surprisingly little to try and change thier opinion.
On his first day on the air, Stern called up the mayor's office. "I didn't even know his name but I wanted them to have a parade for my new morning show. I called up his office live on the air and spoke to one of his assistants. I was screaming, yelling at the top of my head, 'What kind of guy calls himself Marion? That's a girl's name!" That's a grl's name!' The gbuy was so insulted and taken aback by the whole thing, it was a very funny bit onthe radio." Stern keeps in touch with a "Mayor Barry" who answers his complaint with an Uncle Tom-sounding "Ta-SSUHH, Mister Stern!"
At the Detroit station where he worked before DC-101, Stern used to have a Leather Weather Lady, someone found over the phones who was really in the leather scene. "She'e be cursing at the listeners, 'Bith , this is the weather and if you don't like it, I'm going to come over and beat the crap out of you.'" In Washington, Stern has shown his respect for the corridors of power by enlisting none other than God to do the weather. After all, He should know.
Stern had DC-101 deejay Jan Schaeffer play Jim Morrison as if he'd never died but had instead had a sex-change operation. "Listeners were up in arms," he recalls gleefully "How dare I? Blasphemy! It freaked me out, the lack of humor over Jim Morrison."
Stern rcently tried to deliver an audience-chosen Earth Dog Award (a bag of dog excrement) to a rival country-music station. "I thought, gee, what a great joke, but when I walked in, they grabbed my tape recorded and asked me to leave. There's no sense of humor in this market. It would have been great if they'd gone on the air defending country music while I was telling them how great rock 'n' roll was. It would have been great radio. How dare they take themselves so seriously," he huffs. "The more personality you inject into radio, the more exciting it's going to become. Radio is a dying art form. It just sounds like a giant jukebox."
"Hello, this is God. My real name is Arnold, but I changed it. After all, can you imagine 'Oh my Arnold . . . Arnold Loves You . . . Arnold Saves . . . Arnold Is Dead . . . Arnold works in strange ways. . . ."
Sitting alone inside his glass-enclosed studio above Connecticut Avenue, the bushy-haired Howard Stern is chafing at the bits. There are about 50 "effects" carts piled on top of each other and sometimes he can't find the one he wants. "Radio is so one-dimensional," Stern complains, unwrapping his 6-foot-4-inch frame from a tangle of cables, cassettes and communiques. "It's usually a guy talking or music playing. Add a woman maoaning and a man carrying on in the background and you've got a whole scenario. Even though no one's i nthe studio with you, you can play off all those sounds. It really is a visual medium, it becomes multidimensional."
The moaning woman, the incomprehensible replies on a fake telephone interview tape, the backwards record, the romantic backwash -- all are really second bananas to Stern's true grit -- outrageous, but usually very quick, opinion, comment, judgment and observation. Howard Stern, being on the personality end of talk radio, has a lot to say and much of it infuriates, irritates, irks and provokes his listeners, who call up, trying to argue to make points in dialogues that are usually controlled by Stern, who's not above ending a conversation with "Ah, your mother!"
Stern, 27, has a way of keeping callers unsteady on their feet, a situation helped tremendously by the fact that people seem quite willing to make fools of themselves in the anonymity of call-in radio: "That's disgusting , but thanks for calling anyway." He's not above using a Mister Rogers-like oversincerity, or a Bill Murray insousiance ("Get out of here, knucklehead"), or even Don Rickles insults: "We care what you think, even if you don't have a brain." There are a lot of sophomoric allusions, a few too many "You know what I means" and "How do you think I feels?" Sometimes, listening to Stern's show is like being caught in a lunatic party line, especially since he seems anxious to give better than he gets. Most people in Washington won't take his calls anymore, a conservative reaction he has yet to fully accept.
"Fifty percent of the time, I'm really jerky ," Stern admits in a voice that is strikingly similar to Alan Alda's. "Some of the things I say are really stuped and you can get really mad at me. But I'm being honest. If someone's driving along and hears something jerky, he says, 'Wow, nobody ever says that because it sounds jerky.' But others agree and say, 'I can't believe you said that.' I'm trying to sound more like a friend than a computerized robot."
When listeners don't like what Stern's saying, they complain. "They complain about the God weather forecasts," Stern says. "People complained when I cut down Spam because they thought it was such a great food. I did a campaign against leisure suits. They're the tackiest things in the world, how could anybody be for leisure suits? Actually, most of the negative mail comes from people saying 'You don't give anybody a chance.' Well, that's not their job, to take over, that's my job. There's a lot of boring people out there who have nothing to say."
Howard Stern insists he was born a wise guy. He grew up in the predominantly black Long Island community of Roosevelt. "Until I was 15, I figured the world was all black. Then I went to a school with all the blond hair and blue eyes and I was very freaked out. I was inhibited for a while, couldn't talk. It would freak a lot of people out if they knew I was in radio now."
The Roosevelt experience was liberating in one sense. "It was very obvious that you were an outsider. To be an insider, you had to be light, make jokes about it and be willing to talk yourself out of situations." After graduating from Boston University with a degree in communications, Stern talked himself into a radio job in Westchester County (N.Y.) where the program director promptly told him to shut up and just play music for "housewife time."
After two years Stern moved to a Hartford, Conn., station that was so down-in-the-dumps the station owner accepted his proposal for a music show mixed with phone calls. It was during the time of a gas crunch and Stern's show was somewhat political and serious. "I started a boycott, 'The Hell With Shell' movement, and it mushroomed to the point where we got letters and phone calls from Shell threatening a lawsuit; it was in the papers and on television. That was my first taste of the power of radio."
His ratings started to skyrocket and eventually Stern was lured to Detroit ("You get a better offer, you go"). Unfortunately, the station there changed to a country format nine months later; fortunately, DC-101, slipping sadly in the Washington ratings, was waiting for him with open ohms. It took a while for listeners to get used to Stern's stuff, but he has an opinion bout that, too. "You have to train this audience because they've never had talk radio geared to them. WRC's obviously going for an upper demographic, so it's all sort of new to them. Rock 'n' roll audiences have never been exposed to talk radio; it's never been mixed with music, particularly in this market, so everything's fresh and exciting. For young people, it's much better than hearing some old bag, a 60-year-old housewife who obviously doesn't have an orgasm, or if she does, she's having a hard time. How can a young girl relate to that? That's why WRC doesn't do well with young people. Young people talk about orgasms and it's great. It's a whole new audience to tap into."
Sex is a large part of Stern's show. He's always talking about it, about not getting it, about whether his listeners aren't getting it, why they're not and how they can. And the listeners talk sex back (which is why the station installed a seven-second delay when Stern arrived), telling their fellow Washingtonians whether they've scored, the strangests places they've every made love, what they think of breasts and orgasms ("Today's topic: Why can't a man provide his wife with an orgasm?"). Sex even intrudes on the twice-daily "Beaver Breaks."
"As long as I've been on radio, I've always talked about 'Beaver' and the 'Three Stooges' but it never occurred to me to bring it back on radio and make it weird," Stern points out. In fact, the Cleavages have started to appear in 60-second skits: Wally and his rubber inflatable girl, Ward on the heels of a sex-change operation. "It's everything you would have liked to see on the show but couldn't." The spots are produced with DC-101's other air personalities and there's strong talk of syndication to at least 10 markets -- if the question of rights can be resolved.
And then there's Robin Quivers. For the past two months, Quivers has been the wonderfully professional newsperson coming into Stern's later hours. But she's also become much more; she's become Howard's laugh tract. A genuine, sincere hilarity pulsates over the airwaves when she and Stern start exchanging commentary. "If I'm having a rough day, Robin willusually be up," says Stern. "She transcends being a newsperson, she as a personality in her own right. She's uninhibited, says what's on her mind."
Quivers is usually the object of merciless needling by Stern, particularly when it comes to sex talk: "Hey Robin, if you haven't done it by now, you might as well dry up and die!" Sometimes Stern will slobber new lyrics dedicated to Quivers over songs like "Angie" by the Rolling Stones; frequently it seems he's right on top of her, tickling her and turning up the mikes to catch her full-bodied laughter. In fact, they can't see each other, aren't even in the same studio. "It's such a hearty laugh," Sterns laughs. "We get lots of phone calls fantasizing what she looks like -- a blond-hair, blue-eyed Farrah Fawcett type." When the two go out on appearances, some fans are surprised to see that Quivers is black. "'You don't look like you,' they say. I love to see that reaction."
"I don't want to be perceived as a moron, but I don't want to be seen as a heavy talk show host either, not at this station anyway," Sterns insists. aHe has a serious, concerned side that surfaces frequently enough: call-ins after the Reagan shooting and after Harry Chapin's death; fund-raising for the families of murdered children in Atlanta; a serious phone discussion with a battered wife. As well as frequent references to his own marital bliss.
"If someone calls you up in obvious emotional pain, you're not going to destroy them and make them feel worse," Stern says. There are other semi-serious features -- What's-Your-Problem Day, job-finding tips. But mostly there's the poking fun. "We make fun of everybody of the show," says Stern. "We have a good time. I'm not really the star of the show, I'm the orchestrator; the people are the stars. If the orchestration is solid, it's going to be a good show."
Some people bring up Mort Sahl, who had a less than exhilarating talk show experience in Washington. Stern scoffs at the comparisons since music is still a big part of his show, but "the point is, people are still talking about him. I think that's great. I listened to some of his tapes and I felt that half the time he was hallucinating. His view of the world was slightly warped. Then again, who's not going to say that about me?"
Mid-morning announcement on DC-101, Howard Stern speaking: "We're No. 1. In an independent survey, it turns out everyone feels that way. No one else is listening to the other stations anymore." Stern has in fact just been named Billboard Magazine's Album-Oriented Rock Personality of the Year (Major Market). If he could hear himself, he could also take his own dripping-with-sincerity advice:
"you're beautiful, I love you. Call my girl on Thursday, we'll make lunch. Don't ever change ."