So, I'm at the office the other day and blithely toss my pod mate what I think is a harmless conversation starter: "How much do you care about Howard Stern's marriage breaking up?"

Even before he can answer, another male colleague pops up out of his cubicle, like a Whac-a-Mole, and offers his opinion. He cares a lot. Then my pod mate joins in. He cares a lot, too, for another reason. Then, my pod neighbor joins in. He has another set of fervently held beliefs about Stern. Then again, he watches MTV's "The Real World."

Surrounded by pod people, I am persuaded: Folks, especially men, are not only surprised by the news last week that Stern's 21-year marriage appears to be ending, but they are saddened and somewhat betrayed, as well.

Never before have I written a more counterintuitive-yet-truthful statement: Stern's fans had faith in his marriage.

This for a man who cavorted with hookers and strippers on his morning-drive show. Who painted the unclothed breasts of guests. Who had women strip naked in front of him so he could evaluate, on air, their primary and secondary sexual organs for quality and quantity.

Last week, Stern, 45, talked about his marriage's dissolution during his show (heard locally on WJFK-FM), living his life in public as he always has. He mourned the relationship, blaming its demise on the time demands of his profession, which includes not only the radio show, but TV, movies and publishing work. He praised his wife, Alison, also 45, and his three daughters, ages 16, 13 and 7.

One of my colleagues theorized that Stern's separation proves that he could no longer "separate" his work and private life. That no matter how tolerant Alison was of his on-air shenanigans--Stern even talked about her miscarriage on the air--that no wife, no mother, can stand having her husband be Caligula at work and Ward Cleaver at home.

Predominantly, though, my co-workers believed that Stern's act was just that--an act. His listeners identify with him: On one hand, he has a job that any man, deep down, would kill for. On the other, he's a suburban family schlub, just like them.

Such was the theme of Stern's 1997 movie, "Private Parts," based on his autobiography. The film's final scene has a beautiful woman flirting with Stern while he flies home. He agonizes to the camera, but eventually does the right thing--he turns her down and runs into the arms of his family, waiting at the airport.

Michael Harrison--editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, which covers talk radio--has research that seconds what my co-workers believe about Stern.

"He gets away what no other human being could," Harrison says. "One of the things that lets him get away with so much, in addition to the fact that he is supremely talented, is that most people do believe that he is extremely stable, and a dedicated family man; a real solid husband and father."

Stern's agent, Don Buckwald, did not return calls.

Radio analysts say it is too early to speculate what the breakup might mean to Stern's career.

Tom Taylor is a reporter for M Street Journal, which covers the radio industry. He is near Stern's age, and the breakup is painful for him to watch--he has friends whose long marriages have dissolved. He believes Stern and sympathizes. But last week, he says, he was getting a haircut and his 22-year-old stylist--a Stern fan--laughed off the whole episode as a publicity stunt. Stern as Rorschach test.

Radio consultant Walter Sabo says folks may be missing the big picture.

"The news to me is that, unlike a movie star or a TV star or a writer, the audience binds with [Stern] in such a way that's unique to radio in that everyone feels something about it," he says. "When a [radio] host has a personal event, people feel it will affect 25 hours a week of programming."

If Stern continues his show as it is, a smart blend of self-deprecation and social satire, his ratings numbers--and income--probably will continue to grow. Harrison's research estimates Stern's audience at 9.25 million listeners a week, ranking him third nationally behind Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Stern's show is broadcast out of New York's WXRK, and syndicated by Infinity Broadcasting, which is owned by CBS Radio. Forbes magazine estimated his 1998 income at $20 million.

A final note: One of the many Stern fan sites on the Internet posted a poll, asking users if they thought Stern and Alison would get back together. Sixty-five percent answered a hopeful yes.

Goodbye, Sonny WMMJ listeners and staff are still mourning the sudden passing of afternoon-drive deejay Sonny Taylor, who died of liver cancer on Oct. 22 at age 59. Taylor had worked at the black oldies station (102.3 FM) for 10 years, helming at various times the morning, midday and afternoon shifts. His warm, friendly tone and sharp sense of humor endeared him to listeners, as did his love of '60s Motown music.

As well as hosting afternoon drive, Taylor did a Sunday afternoon show called "Majic Memories," where he reveled in spinning his favorite '60s tunes and taking requests.

"That was when he was really feeling good about what he was doing," says Chris Connors, WMMJ program director.

Taylor was born in the Bronx as Walter Towler. He worked as a bank teller while attending broadcast school and landed his first job at KXLW in St. Louis in 1965. His announcing career took him to New Jersey, Long Island, Miami, Chicago and New York, where he was a deejay and program director of WWRL, an influential pop station in the '60s and '70s.

He crossed over to the record industry in the late '70s, becoming vice president of black music promotions for Polygram Records. He returned to deejaying after four years in New York and Chicago and arrived at WMMJ a decade ago.

Cathy Hughes--founder of Radio One, which owns WMMJ--says her son, Radio One President Alfred Liggins, broke into tears at the news of Taylor's death. Taylor had been feeling ill and took a week off from work to have tests done. His cancer was diagnosed on Monday and he died the following Friday.

Hughes says Taylor was a master of "walk-up" brinkmanship, the deejay term for talking over the instrumental beginning of a song, stopping just short of speaking over the lyrics.

"A lot of times, I and the rest of his fans would be listening to him and be saying, 'The song's gonna get him, the song's gonna get him this time,' and boom: He was gone, and there was the song," Hughes says. "He wouldn't allow a millisecond between him and the intro to a song."

She recalls Taylor as a consummate professional who nevertheless loved a martini--or three.

"Even if he had one too many, he never showed up unprepared the next morning," Hughes says.

WMMJ held a unique tribute to Taylor at Scripture Cathedral Church at Ninth and O streets NW last Friday night. Each WMMJ deejay prepared a memorial script modeled after his own on-air show. The deejays followed one another, as they do on the air. When it came time for the afternoon-drive slot, a tape of Taylor's was played.

Taylor, who never married, was buried in New York and is survived by his mother, three sisters and one brother.

WTOP Combo

All-news WTOP broadcasts simultaneously on 1500 AM and 107.7 FM. In the next ratings period, Arbitron will combine the two signals into one ratings number. But up through the most recent one, released Oct. 21, they were separated, which led to confusion. It turns out WTOP's combined signals actually scored No. 2 in the important target audience of men, 25-54, not third, as recently reported.

Burning to discuss matters of global importance? Then go find a United Nations chat group. If you want to talk about radio with The Listener, log on to tomorrow at 11 a.m.

CAPTION: Sonny Taylor, a fixture at WMMJ for 10 years, died Oct. 22 of liver cancer.