As a New Yorker who has listened to Howard Stern on and off for the last twenty years, I find myself contemplating Stern’s legacy now that he is leaving “free” radio on December 16, 2005. The reason why I have listened to Howard “on and off” has mostly been because of logistics: I listen while I eat breakfast but then I miss fifteen minutes or so while taking a shower. I listen in the bedroom while getting dressed, but miss a few more minutes on the way downstairs and out to the car. Once in the car on the way to work I listen again, but must turn it off when I get there. This has been happening for all these years.
The hardest part is that it seems whenever Howard is going extremely well: getting George Takei to vent about Shatner, having a good time with a particularly strange phone caller, or interacting with one of his team in amusing fashion, I arrive at work and have to go inside.
Despite this annoying on and off thing, I have kept listening all these years. If people ask me if I am a Howard Stern “fan,” I am reticent to say so because I don’t see myself as one. I am a Mets fan, a Jets fan, even a Beatles fan, but I can’t say that I am a Howard fan. Still, I am a loyal listener, and that must account for something, especially since I have heard some of the best moments “live” over the years. These include numerous Sam Kinison appearances, disagreements with Jackie the Jokeman, unmerciful Gary bashing, the infamous fight with Fred (when Howard tried to play marriage counselor and Fred quit), and the most uniquely strange and oddly appealing times when guests like Gilbert Gottfried, Tiny Tim, Richard Simmons, or Martha Raye’s “husband” Mark Harris showed up.
I am sure Howard appreciates the notion of “legacy” as much as anyone. In a medium that has spawned notable stars such as Walter Wintchell, Wolfman Jack, Cousin Brucie, and (Howard’s nemesis) Don Imus, Howard stands out as someone who has not just been groundbreaking but more than anything else has been the ground. Howard likes to play the role of radio iconoclast, but (wonders of all wonders) the truth is that Howard is now the establishment. He is the one everyone looks to as the broadcast terra firma, and the famous and not so famous jocks all want to be (and don’t even have a chance to be) just like him.
So is Howard Stern the champion of free speech? Yes, Howard has raised the bar for what is permissible on the airwaves. The antics of those who have appeared on his show including lesbians, morons, drunks, dwarves, mutants, strippers, and the like are legendary because they were indeed broadcast in the first place.
The fact that this kind of irreverent and always hilarious programming could even make it out there is legend making in itself; but Howard also, despite wanting to say “bleep you” as much as anything, didn’t do it just to advance free speech. No, his primary motivation was creative license, and that is equally legend making.
Sort of like a Lenny Bruce of the radio waves, Howard’s freedom of expression was equally, if not more, important to him as free speech. Thus, when one looks at his legacy, one must also conclude that Howard is a champion of all artists: writers, actors, musicians, painters, sculptors, etc. Freedom to create without boundaries or medieval censorship is Howard’s raison d’etre , and he has more than survived all the less talented people who tried to limit or suppress what he was trying to accomplish. Howard is not just the King of All Media; he is the Emperor of the Airwaves, the Ruler of Broadcast, and soon to be the Sultan of Satellite.
I have not been listening this week for the same reason I never watched the last episodes of Friends or Seinfeld or why I hate going to wakes or funerals. The truth is that my memories of all the great moments on the show will have to suffice. Hearing the “goodbyes” and all the talk about what has gone by is a little too depressing for me. Yes, I laughed and laughed heartily along with Howard, Robin, Fred, Gary, Jackie (and then Arty), and Stuttering John; I appreciated the moments they gave me, but now I have to find a way to let go.
I suppose you have surmised that I am not buying a satellite radio, because I am not, so I won’t be able to listen to Howard on Sirius. As I said previously, I am not a fan; I am a loyal listener, but one who wants to be able to “listen” when and where I want, which eliminates the whole satellite radio concept. I don’t want to purchase the radio because it would become a burden, having to be taken everywhere I wanted to listen to Howard. I also don’t like the idea of “paying” for something that I believe should remain free. Sure, it’s an old-fashioned notion, but I despise cable TV as well because of the payment factor.
Yes, the real Howard fans are going to buy the radios, maybe one for each room in the house and even for the car. They are the real fans; I am not. I have been a loyal listener and, as of this Friday, my mornings are never going to be the same. Despite the suits at K-Rock with no vision or loyalty to a man who has enhanced the medium and made them all tons of money, Howard will no doubt thrive on Satellite Radio, and I wish him and the gang well, but I don’t believe he will ever have the listenership he once had on free radio. How sad for Howard; how very sad for us all.