“The Howard Stern Show” isn’t what it used to be, which is either evidence of his professional genius or a crying shame.
“You used to say bad things about me,” Madonna mused during a recent appearance on his satellite radio program. It’s true: He panned her acting; he dished filthy gossip about her. But now he was interviewing her as respectfully as an ambassador, drawing out stories about the time she dated rapper Tupac Shakur and her harrowing rape as a teenager. She cited her belief in the “science” of astrology, and her host didn’t utter so much as a snort.
“I used to say bad things about everybody,” Stern said, with an air of apology. “I was an angry young man.”
Those who stopped tuning in when the pioneer of shock jock culture left terrestrial radio for satellite a decade ago have no idea what they’re missing. With the retirement of David Letterman, a shrewd, subtle interrogator of celebrities and statesmen alike, late-night TV has all but abandoned the art of the Q&A for goofy games and scripted shtick — and Howard Stern has unexpectedly emerged as the most potent and powerful interviewer in American broadcasting.
Stern is 61. He is nearing the end of a contract with SiriusXM, leaving open the question of what his platform will be in 2016. (Update: On Tuesday morning it was announced that Stern and SiriusXM had agreed on a five-year deal that will include a new venture into video programming.) But it seems clear that the longtime rebel and cultural outsider — who routinely hosted strippers on his show and showed off his butt cheeks at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards — has reconsidered what he wants his legacy to be and recalibrated his persona accordingly.
His show has become one of the most high-profile platforms for celebrities who want to promote their albums or sell their books, and the price Stern charges is candor. He nabs A-listers who wouldn’t have ventured within 100 feet of his studio during the days of Jessica Hahn and Lesbian Dial-a-Date.
“When you go on ‘Stern,’ you get the best insight into who the person is of any medium other than maybe the New Yorker,” says Bob Lefsetz, a music industry critic who writes the popular Lefsetz Letter.
Publicists urge their celebrity clients to hit “The Howard Stern Show” if they want to make an impact, and tidbits from those interviews spill onto gossip pages across the country. When Stern interviewed the elusive actor Bill Murray last year, producer and screenwriter Judd Apatow tweeted that it was “the Bill Murray we all have waited our entire lives for.”
Billy Joel called his interview with Stern “probably the most astute and insightful interview” he’d done. Amy Schumer got to make “Trainwreck” because Apatow heard her on Stern’s show and thought she could do a movie. The 1980s pop star Daryl Hall credits his 2007 appearance on Stern’s show with single-handedly launching his music webcast, “Live from Daryl’s House” — making him the seventh-most-Googled person the day of his interview and drawing 60,000 unique viewers to his first episode in one day. Plus, Stern’s intimate platform helped rejuice his faded public image, making him cool again.
“People found out what my personality was really like,” Hall says.
A guy who once joked about the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado and wished AIDS on his enemies has even developed a social conscience. Stern has been outspoken about gay rights, standing up for Ellen DeGeneres after activist group One Million Moms protested her appointment as J.C. Penney’s celebrity pitchwoman (though, in the style of Bad Old Howard, he speculated that the conservative agitators were just unhappy about being too ugly to get laid). After the recent shooting in Colorado Springs, he expounded upon the importance of Planned Parenthood for women. The language frequently used to describe him now would boggle listeners from an earlier era. On “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” writer and actress Lena Dunham called Stern “an outspoken feminist.”
“The truth is he is one of the most sensitive, pro-women, pro-equal rights, politically aware guys,” says “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, a sometime visitor to Stern’s show and who has been listening and tracking the show’s changes since 1990.
This transformation has infuriated some former fans. A cohort of indeterminate size but considerable volume harasses him on Twitter and complains in online forums that the guy who perfected damn-the-consequences rants about artificial celebrity culture has become the thing he once despised.
The old Stern skewered the “annoying” Jennifer Aniston, saluting Brad Pitt for leaving her; the new Stern made a toast at Aniston’s wedding to Justin Theroux. The new Stern gets his “boho-luxe” fashion sense written up in Hamptons Magazine. He even renamed certain members of his motley “Wack Pack,” a group of troubled and disabled people put on-air for comic effect, changing “Gary the Retard” to “Gary the Conqueror.” The angry ex-fans, who hate-listen and catalogue Stern’s about-faces and political correctness, call the host “Hollywood Howard” and “Hamptons Howard” and (oof) “James Lipton with a radio mic.”
“Howard has become a lot of the things that he always told people not to become,” says comedian Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, who left Stern’s show in 2001. When Martling’s cat Timmy died in the ’90s, Stern relentlessly teased his distraught staffer. But these days, with his second wife, model and animal lover Beth Ostrosky, Stern is sheltering 18 cats in his house and has been known to tend personally to a sick cat’s backside with baby wipes. The shock jock who once held nothing sacred has mellowed in a most dramatic way.
“There’s nothing wrong with change,” former “Howard Stern Show” staffer “Stuttering” John Melendez said this fall on a podcast, “but the old Howard would probably goof on the new Howard now.”
In 2004, before Stern left his show on New York’s WXRK-FM, carried by Infinity Broadcasting to nearly 50 markets nationwide, Slate called him “a shock jock in winter.” He had made a culture of provocation so mainstream that he had lost the right to claim the mantle of outsider, the critic wrote. Around the same time, Stern complained about not getting “credit” for the radio “revolution” that his show had spawned. By moving to satellite radio, Stern got all of that — a new focus, a new identity and new recognition. He was also integral to the success of the broadcaster. When Stern joined Sirius (now SiriusXM) in January 2006 for a $500 million five-year contract, the company had fewer than a million subscribers; just a year later, the company had 6 million subscribers, and Stern earned a hefty stock bonus.
Now, the question is whether Stern will stay put on satellite. His second five-year contract is up at the end of the year, and SiriusXM now has 29 million subscribers. Analysts make varying assessments about whether Stern needs the broadcaster more than the broadcaster needs him. If he were to leave, speculation has centered around a number of possibilities, including Internet radio and a TV show.
But satellite gives him a major platform, the stability of a sure thing and a hefty salary. Stern, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is now estimated to earn $80 million a year doing three shows a week.
Stern has long had a talent for interviews and a peerless curiosity. (The old fascination with strippers, he once said, wasn’t so much about their nudity as it was their lives “on the fringe.”) But in recent years, his celebrity sit-downs have become more high-profile and newsworthy. Lefsetz, the analyst, says Stern’s four seasons as a judge on “America’s Got Talent,” ending this summer, was a turning point. “It gave him a mainstream presence, and it legitimized him, and it showed who he truly was,” Lefsetz says. That made him more palatable to publicists and the news media, enabling him to get what Lefsetz calls “a higher caliber of guest.”
Thus, it was on Stern’s show that Lady Gaga last year talked about the lasting trauma of being sexually assaulted as a teenager by an older man (“I saw him one time in a store, and I was so paralyzed by fear”), and that Channing Tatum candidly panned one of his first big roles, in “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (“I’ll be honest, I [f---ing] hate that movie”). Stern is a frenetic interviewer, jumping from topic to topic, revealing an encyclopedic level of preparation reminiscent of NPR’s Terry Gross, and blending witty banter with effusive praise to ferret out confidences.
Through it all runs the sense that Stern has earned the right to ask deeply personal questions because he has already confessed to his audience everything from the size of his penis (“like a raisin”) to his problems in bed — this disclosure coming as he quizzed Billy Joel about whether he had performance anxiety with long-ago fling Elle Macpherson. It’s hard to imagine any other interviewer posing such a question, let alone being permitted to ask anything else after that.
“What Howard does is he asks intelligent, provocative questions,” says Daryl Hall. “He goes there in a way that you are comfortable with revealing that personal thing.” (To be fair, the questions aren’t uniformly intelligent; they tend to veer, refreshingly, between highbrow and lowbrow. In Hall’s case, that led to the revelation that he once had sex at the same time and in the same room as his Hall & Oates duo-mate John Oates. Good to know!)
The bounce that celebrities experience after they appear on Stern’s show has a lot to do with the generous time they’re given — often an hour or more. That, combined with the casual vibe, the inherent intimacy of radio and what Probst describes as the show’s “entrance fee” (“You are going to have to reveal something about your sex life or how much money you make or who you’ve dated”), means that audiences find themselves liking Stern’s guests more than they did before. Probst recalls hearing Stern interview David Spade, a comedian he’d never warmed to, and suddenly resolving to buy his new memoir. By chance, he met Spade at a party that evening.
“I said, ‘Dude, I have to tell you, you turned me on “Stern,” ’ ” Probst says.
Probst, who briefly had his own talk show, has closely studied Stern’s interviewing tactics. Sometimes, Probst says, he’s Howard the parent, who demands answers; or Howard the lover, who plays up his bond with his guest to get answers; or Howard the friend, who’s so concerned about his guest’s drinking or love life that he needs answers. Sometimes, Probst says, it seems clear that Stern has assigned a staffer or caller to ask a particularly probing question, at which point he acts shocked that such a topic would be broached, but since it’s already out there . . .
“I think ‘Howard Stern’ is the most important show in any medium,” says music manager and publicist Jonathan Wolfson, who says he’s placed about a half-dozen of his clients on the show, including Hall and Suge Knight. It can still take persuasion to persuade clients that it’s safe, he says, but it’s been worth it every time. One client, consumed by a legal crisis, had an entire suite of handlers who were familiar only with Stern’s provocative side and were deeply wary.
“Everybody just said, ‘Hey, go on “Larry King,” and it’s over,’ and I said, ‘No, you can go on “Larry King,” but a person who is innocent will go on “Howard Stern” and proactively confess his innocence,’ ” Wolfson says.
But publicists are one thing. The hate-listeners are another. It may sound bizarre to get worked up about someone failing to use the word “retard,” or “no longer affect[ing] a lisp for segments in ‘the Homo Room,’ ’’ as the New York Post put it, or making nice with celebrities he used to skewer, such as Kathie Lee Gifford and DeGeneres. (“It’s just a matter of time before he kisses up to Oprah,” writes an ex-fan on Reddit.) But there are plenty of angry young men, not all of them young and not all of them men, who lament the loss of an icon they saw as a cultural truth-teller, a man who would never pull punches for the sake of an interview.
The Internet is rife with theories about what happened to Stern. Some see his evolution in largely personal terms, the perennial outsider craving to be part of the cool crowd. Some speculate that his second wife mellowed him. Others have suggested that it’s pressure from the corporate suits, as Stern once joked on the air: “I’m being managed now into being politically correct.”
But Artie Lange, the comedian and “Howard Stern Show” staffer who left the program about six years ago amid drug problems, sees Stern’s evolution as a professional and even an artistic choice. On his podcast, Lange has devoted several segments to highlighting the contrast between the past and present Sterns.
“I think Howard had gotten bored with the rebellious thing,” Lange said in an interview. He recalled being stunned by Stern’s masterful interviewing technique when Paul McCartney appeared on the show in 2001. “I think he said to himself, ‘I’d like to examine that part of my skill set that is great at these interviews.’ ” Lange thinks Stern wanted to leave a legacy, to be the “guy who leaves behind the best catalogue of celebrity interviews of all time . . . ‘I’ve got McCartney, and maybe if I change my tune I’ll get Brad Pitt on there.’ ”
Is Stern stepping up his game or just going soft? Lange makes an unlikely comparison to Bob Dylan, who alienated his earliest folk-music fans when he went electric. It’s the artist’s prerogative to evolve, he said, even if Lange himself prefers the “childish, politically incorrect humor” of the old days.
Some months ago, Lange found himself listening to the show from the back of a hired car as Stern failed to mock sufficiently a guest grieving the death of his guinea pig. The driver couldn’t believe it and turned around to say so. Howard Stern, nice guy? From the back seat, Lange started ripping on the bereaved guest; the driver had to pull over on the Long Island Expressway because he was laughing so hard. “I was doing the old show for one guy in a Town Car on a shoulder of the LIE,” he says.
Stern sometimes sounds exasperated by his critics, but he has made a profession out of being fed up, and it’s hard to tell whether he really cares. His “America’s Got Talent” stint supposedly made him a sellout, he has complained on his show. “Or if I have a reasonable conversation with the guest, I’m a sellout. Or if I don’t do some bit I did 20 years ago, I’m a sellout. I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m a sellout: Why are you still listening?’ ”
That’s one of Stern’s triumphs — that the people who love him are listening — and that the people who hate him are listening. “You know that if we’re talking about it,” says his old sidekick Martling, “he’s doing the right thing.”
Libby Copeland is a former Washington Post staff writer.