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The day after the April shootings in Littleton, Colorado, radio personality Howard Stern asked on air if the perpetrators "[tried] to have sex with any of the good-looking girls?" His remarks created an outrage. His affiliate in Denver apologized for what was said. Stern never did, even though some of his fans said he had gone too far. In the end more people probably tuned in to Stern over those next few days to see what the fuss was about than at any other time before.
For Howard Stern, the Littleton comment was business as usual. Since his arrival in New York City in the early '80s, Stern has been one of radio's most popular and controversial personalities. Based out of the Big Apple, Stern's brand of radio madness is nationally syndicated on 50 radio stations. His show brings in big ratings, and only talk icons Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger have more listeners. Stern is credited with killing the "morning zoo" formats, and he's the only morning drive radio personality to be ranked No. 1 in the New York City and Los Angeles markets simultaneously. The only top-ten markets that don't carry Stern are Dallas (No. 7) and Houston-Galveston (No. 10). Given that Stern is one of the biggest stars in the radio industry, the question is: why doesn't a radio station in Houston carry Howard Stern?
"A lot of folks have the feeling that Howard is more trouble than he's worth from an advertiser and a community standpoint," says Jim Trapp, program director of KTBZ, The Buzz. "I'm not necessarily in agreement with that conclusion, but it just boils down to the fact that Howard will guarantee, once every six months, that he'll say something that gets everybody pissed off, and that's part of the show. There are a lot of advertisers who will vote against the outrage by not advertising on the radio station, and that scares people."
Stern's controversial nature does scare off some advertisers. His shtick and cast of politically incorrect sidekicks don't help, either. His regular cast of characters includes Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, Crackhead Bob, Fred the Elephant Boy and Daniel Carver "The Ku Klux Klan Guy," who rates movies instead of with stars or boxes of popcorn with burning crosses. Stern's guests include A-level Hollywood talent, strippers and porno stars, and people with physical deformities. His features include "Black Jeopardy" (a game in which contestants take on "African" names like Kareem In-My-Coffee or Jesse Jackoff and must begin their answers with "What am" or "What be"), "Lesbian Dial-A-Date" (self-explanatory) and "Who's the Jew?" with host "Kurt Waldheim Jr."
For Stern, nothing is taboo. He makes racial slurs that would get the Greaseman, the city of Washington's popular on-air talker, fired five times over. That Stern's sidekick Robin Quivers just happens to be black allows him to get away with it. Stern also spanked a bare-assed woman with a fish while she tried to sing. He had a man play the piano with his penis, which resulted in the first of Stern's many FCC fines for indecency. He also asked porno star Jenna Jamison's father to identify his daughter's vagina from a lineup of five vagina photos, which Jamison's father did. The staff applauded, and a Stern affiliate was fined. While breaking social mores, Stern has cost his parent company, Infinity Broadcasting (a division of CBS), more than $1 million in FCC fines. Technically Infinity's payouts are "donations" to the U.S. Treasury, something to ensure it can purchase more radio stations. For Infinity Broadcasting, the fines are a small cost of doing business. Stern is its cash cow.
"In terms of negative publicity, Howard is a saint compared to some much-less-talented yet highly paid jocks," says Los Angeles-based talent coach Dan O'Day. "Howard doesn't get arrested for drug use. He doesn't get sued for slander, for invasion of privacy or for violating clear-cut FCC regulations or for endangering public safety.
"The biggest risk that Howard presents to his affiliate stations comes from the wrath of the FCC in regard to perceived violations of the highly subjective 'indecency' rules. And the facts behind the instances in which Howard's stations [generally limited to Infinity stations] have been fined are laughable."
Stern's style of radio is listener-intensive. Instead of repulsing advertisers, Stern should be attracting more and commanding higher ad rates than shows that garner similar ratings. Ratings measure the number of people listening. They don't measure impact. Howard Stern has more impact than "ten in a row" shows, which often with their commercials become background noise for a listener. Stern, however, commands attention. His fans are passionately loyal, and many will do anything to promote him. Remember the Stern fan that called up ABC news during O.J. Simpson's Bronco ride? There are hundreds of other examples of Stern supporters doing most anything to get his name on national television. Stern's audience usually supports his nonradio efforts. His two books both topped The New York Times Best Seller list, his television show on E! is the network's highest rated program, and his movie, Private Parts, was a modest success (though it did not meet expectations). Only his late-night syndicated television show has been a real bomb.
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