The cultural conservatives who boosted their profiles and filled their coffers by attacking Howard Stern back in the 80s and 90s had to have had mixed feelings when Howard went over to Sirius satellite radio in 2004.
On the one hand, he was finally off the public airwaves, where he would no longer poison—to use their word— popular culture. (I get a sense when I hear Rick Santorum talk about “the devil” destroying American culture, in his mind’s eye he sees Howard Stern).
On the other hand, with Howard tucked into a pay-per-tune format, the Arbiters of Goodness and Decency couldn’t use him as a whipping boy and fundraising hook anymore.
But now Howard is risen.
By signing on as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, not only is he back in the mainstream, he is bigger than ever. As his guest Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and The Voice told him this week, TV reality show fame is orders of magnitude bigger than radio fame…. And Howard was already pretty damn famous.
But now he won’t just be influencing popular culture, he’ll pretty much BE popular culture.
In many ways, his trajectory has followed the same path as that of Elvis, All in the Family, George Carlin, The Simpsons—all performers or shows that the guardians of American culture tried to vomit out and suppress, but who in the end came to define American culture, push it forward, and eventually be embraced and lionized by it.
Not long ago there was a story about how pastors are using episodes of The Simpsons to teach moral values. The Simpsons—the show the churches and righteous politicians once wanted to ban.
I have always thought that Howard was just as much, if not more, ahead of his time. His drawback was that by going to Sirius, he took himself a bit farther out of the game, and therefore, for a while, his influence on mass culture waned, even if his impact on the creators of that culture only grew (witness the list of celebrities who attended his party in LA recently).
A few months ago, long before Howard announced his move to AGT, I interviewed Bob Lefsetz, the media guru and fellow Stern fan. Lefsetz told me Howard’s task was to get himself a bigger audience in order to stay relevant.
“Howard Stern, if he were on mass media, could be the most powerful person in America. People are looking for leaders . People are looking for something they can rally around. Used to be in the last decade we all watched the same thing. Used to be everyone had an opinion on “Rowan and Martins Laugh In.” We’re looking for rallying points. But Howard took himself out of the game. You have to be able to scale. Howard literally can’t scale because he’s on satellite. If someone has Sirius they listen to Howard, otherwise it’s too big a step.”
That is exactly what Howard sensed he needed to do to.
He is going to be a wild success on that show. He will have a Second Coming in pop culture that will drive some conservatives crazy—witness Michele Bachman’s urgent fundraising appeal of last week, denouncing Stern.
But mass, middle America will finally see what so many of us have for so long. America needs Howard Stern’s talent.