Now that I have had a day or so to mull over the Howard Stern controversy, I realize I didn’t fully express my concerns. I previously posted about my fear of what I call “quasi-governmental censorship“, and Glenn Reynolds was kind enough to link to it. But right now, that post is so far down on my blog that it wouldn’t do to call this an “UPDATE.”
But speaking of updates, I note that Jeff Jarvis recently warned that some of the same people who want Howard Stern off the air also want the FCC to have jurisdiction over the Internet, and I still think this is an issue which should be of concern to bloggers.
[ED NOTE (at the risk of redundancy): Especially censored bloggers!]
Now, what follows is more personal.
I still haven’t had a chance to talk — really talk — about Howard Stern. But I want to give it a stab, because I have been listening to the guy for ten years now, and this blog is as good a place as any to share my personal thoughts, as well as my feelings.
When I first started listening to the Howard Stern Show, I thought the guy was an annoying jerk. I had read and heard condemnation of him by numerous voices on the left and the right, and I thought, “Well, I’ll just put up with him for awhile, and maybe I’ll gain some sort of insight into what the fuss is all about.”
After about a week, I began to realize that this was an intelligent sensitive guy, even a gentleman. (Many a laugh has greeted me when I have used that word to describe Howard Stern, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart.) He is a social critic who makes fun of everything and everyone, but most of all he makes fun of his own audience and listeners — sparing no one.
Then there’s Robin Quivers. When I first heard her, I envisioned a heavyset blonde woman — a stereotype of one of one of R. Crumb’s muscular Amazon girls. I was stunned to learn she was black, and this intrigued me more. I kept listening. I love imitations and irreverence, and I heard both every day.
His show starts at 6:00 am, and I am a late-night person, which made listening a bit inconvenient. To kill two birds with one stone, I thought, “Why not use Howard Stern as an alarm clock?”
My bedroom radio had a built-in timer, which I set to wake me up to Howard Stern each morning when his show started. I soon learned that I was not the only one to do this, because just before starting the program, he’d always play some sort of musical prelude which seemed perfectly appropriate to that sleepy, REM-dream-state I’d be in. Sometimes he’d even play this surreal, dreamy, 1960s sci-fi type, trance music — the stuff which typified many a movie “flashback” (or “memory regression”) segment. This was great — and it didn’t matter whether I slept through it or incorporated it into my dreams.
Eventually, I would wake up, and almost always in a great mood.
A great mood.
Was I alone in this?
Far from it. I hadn’t noticed it before, but I started to notice that many of the delivery guys — you know, ordinary working-class men who had to get up way early in the morning and perform the sort of drudgery which the economy (and the country) needs to function — would be listening to Howard Stern!
I am a morning runner, and I can’t tell you how many times I would hear bits of Howard Stern coming from the Pepsi delivery trucks, the Budweiser delivery trucks, construction sites.
These guys looked as if listening to Howard made their jobs easier! Easier to get to work, and easier to work when you get there! Running with a radio headset on, I’d sometimes hear an “echo” — and I’d loosen the headphone, and there’d be some worker or group of workers, usually smiling, getting through the hardest part of the day.
Can this be measured in dollars? It might be difficult, and it might require some serious studies by economists, but I have long argued that Howard Stern is a boon to the national economy, and I think I am right.
The more I listened, the more I came to love that show. I found that many white collar guys listened to him too, and then the more I asked around, the more I heard that women also listened to Howard Stern!
Imagine that! Women listening to this misfit misogynist trash talk guy! What continues to amazes me is that the women who like Howard Stern are a cut above; they tend to be smarter, more cynical (the healthy kind), and above all they have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate that Howard is intelligent and poking fun at all human foibles (not the least of which are his own). Even his braggadocio is deliberately ridiculous. His lies about serving in Vietnam, his endless declarations that he is the greatest “KING OF ALL RADIO,” the nonsense about his being “half Jewish and half Italian” — these are the kind of things which the clueless might take literally. And that fact alone — that the clueless take him seriously — is a very important part of the humor.
It’s tough to explain this to anyone who is not a regular listener. Yet these are the people who most hate him.
An example from (very) personal experience. My mother, who died four years ago, was intuitive enough to quickly grasp Howard surreal ridiculousness after listening to him a couple of times in the car when I drove her around. I remember one time my mom and I listened to “the news” (this is when Robin, a former radio news reporter, reads the news and plays straight man to Howard’s embellishments). Robin reported a story of a man-eating tiger in India — preying upon local villagers while Hindu officials debated what should be done while the carnage went on. (After all, you can’t just kill a tiger in India!) They played this totally inappropriate sitar music while Howard waxed philosophically…. and my mom was reduced to hysterics. When she got home, she told her husband (my stuffy stepfather, whose sense of humor definitely did not include Howard Stern) how hilarious she’d found this unfairly vilified man, Howard Stern. My stepfather grunted with a suppressed look of pain, as if having abdominal cramps, and I sensed he was waiting for my mom to leave the room. She did, and then came the ultimatum:
“Eric, I DO NOT WANT YOUR MOTHER LISTENING TO THAT MAN!
Quite naively, I posited gently that I thought it my mother’s business who she listened to, and, well, I merely added another reason for the man to detest me.
Not fair, but that’s the way it is with Howard Stern.
I used to become enraged whenever I would hear people tear into Howard, and I would ask them if they ever heard him. The usual reply was that they had not and never would.
Not fair — and who cares?
I noticed that the leftists hated Howard for being sexist and right wing, while the right wing hated him for being vulgar and left wing (guess they also hated the long hair on a 40 year old), while many of the rest of the clueless just hated him because they were told to.
What upset me the most was hearing moral conservatives repeatedly invoking Howard Stern’s name (almost by rote, to be taken for granted) as an example of All That Is Wrong.
He is not.
For me, Howard Stern makes my days just a little bit better. You can argue about the First Amendment all you want, but the bottom line for me is a quality of life issue. I would occasionally tell people that if they didn’t like him they could simply turn their radios off — or twist the dial to another station, but I soon realized this was a silly argument to raise with people who never had listened to him and never would.
Therein lies the problem. They don’t want merely the right to turn their dials or turn the radios off; they want ME to be unable to turn the dial to Howard Stern.
Again, not fair.
Without Howard Stern, life in the United States would be grimmer, less pleasant. Meaner. More sour. Guys arriving to work angrier. Less productivity at job sites.
Whose business is this? Freedom — to listen whatever the hell you want — should be everybody’s business, but instead the system tends to default to whomever is the best organized with the biggest ax to grind.
And many people have been grinding their axes to use against Howard Stern for many years. I couldn’t even begin to list the people who’ve been trying to get him off the air.
Well, since this is a long post, I might as well give it a try.
Here’s a partial list:

  • Concerned Women for America
  • American Family Association (see also this CNS report)
  • Traditional Values Coalition
  • Family Research Council
  • WorldNetDaily
  • James Dobson’s Focus on the Family
  • National Organization for Women
  • Sheesh! This gets tedious.
    But there are a lot of people out there who don’t want me listening to Howard Stern. And I freely admit, they have every right to try to stop me.
    So how come I’m not working my butt off trying to get their programming off the air?
    Because it wouldn’t be fair.
    Freedom — to listen to what you want to hear on the radio — strikes me as more fair than limiting that freedom.
    UPDATE: James Lileks (a blogger I greatly respect) in my opinion did not fully understand the dynamics involved behind the colloquy he discusses here:

    The driver had Stern on. He was talking to a caller who was born and raised in Nigeria ? she spoke impeccable English with that lovely African flavor. She wasn?t pleased about something he said; he let her go on for a while, then cut in and asked her if she?d ever ate a monkey. She was stunned ? how do you reply to something like that? He went on to note that a lot of people in Africa ate monkeys, and perhaps that?s where AIDS came from. And so on.
    (Via Glenn Reynolds.)

    I heard that exact same segment and had a completely different reaction. I thought the woman was shrill and crazy (and actually funny enough to have been a possible “phony phone call”). Howard had fun with her, and it was part of his art. The people call in and scream and he screams back. It’s art.
    As an example, listen to THIS. The caller sounds angry, but is just plain hamming it up. If you think it’s hurtful, all I can say is you are mistaken. It is comedy and it is art.
    Like many of the ostensibly hostile callers, that “Nigerian” woman was on the air more than once. Similarly, religious people call to scream at Howard, and he obliges by putting them on the air. Who is being exploited?
    Is anyone made to call in, get past the screeners and wait to talk to Howard Stern on the air? I know what that show is about and if I called and got through, it would be expected that I’d give my best effort at radio buffoonery. I’d probably do my damnedest to make the most out of the inevitable “insults.”
    I am sorry to see comedy taken so deadly seriously.
    (Although in fairness many would think I should be ashamed to have such bad taste…..)
    UPDATE: Doc Searls thinks that the future for people who want to be able to select what they want to hear is the Internet:

    My own take is that the FCC is working, unintentionally but very effectively, with the giant broadcasters to stifle free speech; and this is one more shovel of dirt on the coffin of Broadcasting as Usual, which will be replaced by the Net, one way or another. (Via Jeff Jarvis.)

    I hope so, but it’ll take a little getting used to — especially for the ordinary working guys who listen to Stern on the job.