August 26, 2010
10 Ways Howard Stern’s Retirement Will Hurt the World
This blog is devoted to examining the effects of Howard Stern on the culture at large. These days a lot of his on air discussion revolves around whether or not he’ll renew his contract with Sirius and stay on the radio as a morning broadcaster.
I can’t imagine what it’s like going through such a major life decision so publicly. Quite an industry has grown up around one man—doing anything other than simply renewing will upset the status quo for a lot of people.
But I don’t care about them. At least, not for the purposes of this blog entry. What I’ve been wondering is what happens to the culture, to society, without Howard? I’ve come up with 10 effects. They’re all bad.
1. There will be less innovation in broadcasting.
Howard has always been at the cutting edge of the industry. He took radio to the edge of social acceptability, until society had to catch up to him. He perfected some aspects that already existed, and invented others. I give him credit with pushing the reality show format, with introducing real life—sex, pornography, frank talk—into a very plastic medium, with finding incredible talent, with pioneering forms of satire and social commentary (see the celebrity sabotage, the societal outcasts he turns into ongoing characters, The Howard 100 News). His move to Sirius didn’t create satellite radio, but enabled it to survive. The fact that Howard has survived major show shake ups, even thrived after each one was predicted to ensure his doom, shows that he is still capable of growing and changing. There’s no one else who looks ready to push as many boundaries or develop as many new, untested ideas.
2. There will be one less powerful voice to combat the phonies, hypocrites and demagogues on our airwaves.
Nobody as big as Howard speaks as frankly and as honestly about the Limbaughs, Schlesingers and Becks. Howard is not afraid to take them on, and he is more than their equal on the air. Though he is not overtly political, he can rise up and bash them down in a way that no one else—other than Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert—really can.
Howard, Robin and Fred are as classic a comedy team as American entertyainment has ever produced. Their timing, their individual strengths, their teamwork— all of it honed over decades of working together—that will not be repeated any time soon.
4. There is no one to replace Howard as a truly great, on-air interviewer.
Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert and Rachel Maddow are all excellent, but their format is so limiting. The rich, famous and powerful who had the balls to sit with Howard face an interviewer in a forum that is as close to no-holds-barred as exists in broadcasting. No language, topic or time limits—and an interviewer as smart and articulate as any guest. Jon Stewart won’t go there. Howard will.
5. There is no bullshit meter in mainstream media as accurate and as outspoken as Howard Stern.
Howard understood that outing hypocrisy is entertaining. Whether its politicians, news stories or celebrities, Howard has a canny sense of when the public is being fed a line of crap, and he can relentlessly attack the crap-feeders.
6. There is no one who is both as childish and as mature.
Howard innovates, but he is also rooted in the Boomer generation. He is not divorced from history, and it’s refreshing to hear someone who can talk about contemporary culture, but with a sense of what came before. If his references to Ed Sullivan and the Beatles and the Ramones date him, they also deepen him.
Howard is sooooo Jewish. He makes Larry David, with his golf clubs and Brentwood manor house, look Unitarian. Whether he likes it or not, Stern is a very visible, voluble, valuable representative of his People. The values he promulgates—tolerance, questioning, innovation, humor, irreverence—are the best of Jewish values. Yeah, again, there’s Jon Stewart, but Stewart speaks mostly to the converted, Howard preaches to a much more diverse audience.
People get caught up in the lesbian strippers and fart contests. Sure, there’s that. But the whole circus Howard brings to town embodies certain bedrock values. I’m going to reel off values I’ve heard Howard espouse, or demonstrate, time and again over the years. He seems to have lived up to them in his personal life, or at least the part that’s been made public. That’s quite an achievement for someone who has been in the public eye as long as he has. Social acceptance (Eric the Midget), gay rights (George Takei), hard work, civic involvement (Pataki, Whitman). When The Simpsons came out people attacked it for undermining values. Now churches use it to teach values. Years from now they’ll use Stern the same way.
9. There will be no one else to save satellite radio.
Unless they find the Moshiach and give him a channel, shalom Sirius. And I say that as someone who like a friggin’ genius bought stock at—I don’t want to say what I bought it at. I hope Mel Karmazin will figure out a way to transform the company, but under the current model, it really needs a big personality. No one has an audience as loyal as Howard’s. Done. Period.
10. There will be no more surprises.
A classic line in Private Parts has one NBC executive explaining why even people who hate Howard still tune in—to see what he’ll say next. There are very few shows that have the ability to surprise us. Some can shock us. Reality shows are full of scripted shocks and edited emotions. Howard Stern manages to supply daily, raw, entertaining surprises. They can come in the complex interactions of the people on the show, or in the bits or guests, but they inevitably come. It is very rare to find mainstream entertainment that dependably surprises and sometimes even shocks you—and in so doing challenges and provokes and makes you laugh and think. The Howard Stern Show is a circus, full of comedy and stunts and weirdos and logic-defying moments. But it is an important, undervalued circus, whose tent is as big as all society. When it leaves town, we’ll all miss it.