August 18, 2009
Stern Rule #1
My son doesn’t like it when I listen to Howard. All summer I’ve been driving him to his internship in Beverly Hills. I wait in the car for him to get out of the house, figuring the extra time he takes are a few extra minutes of Howard. He gets in the passenger seat and reaches to turn off the radio.
“Can’t we just talk?”
“No.” I bat at his hand. “Let me listen. If you don’t laugh, you never have to listen again.”
He accepts. He’s always loved to laugh. I think he would sell me out for a Henny Youngman joke. (Last night he told one of his latest favorites: A girl goes up to her boyfriend and says, “I think we need to stop seeing each other. Everyone says you’re a pedophile.” The boyfriend says, “That’s a pretty big word for a 10 year old.”)
So we listen, and sure enough, by about Venice and Sepulveda, Adi cracks a smile. By the time I drop him off on Canon, he’s laughed at least once. Yesterday he held out until we got to Mar Vista. Then Howard made his crack about Don Imus knowing how to treat kids with cancer when he can’t even put together a decent radio show. Adi laughed. Today he held out all the way to Beverlywood, until Artie did his Christian Bale impression. That set him off.
I like to listen for the guaranteed laugh on the way to work, but I realize there’s a much bigger reason I’m compelled to tune in: Howard is my teacher.
The revelation came to me when Howard was talking to Robin about, hmm, how do I say this—bathroom hygiene. He was nailing down the particulars—wiping with toilet paper versus moist towelettes versus showering. I found it all compelling, even if it was frustrating that in 20 years of talking about it, no one has mentioned the obvious: buy a bidet attachment for your toilet, $200 bucks, install it with a crescent wrench, and you’re done, end of story, case closed, and cleaned.
It’s true that one of Howard’s main influence on the larger culture is his willingness to talk about the things we all do, but which, for good reasons or bad, we’re loathe to discuss. Important—but that’s not what makes him so powerful to me. In fact, what he says, as groundbreaking as it is, is in the end less important than what he does. Howard affects the culture, and his listeners lives—including mine—by what he does. By example.
Ultimately I think that’s why we keep listening. Put all the bits and gags and interviews and doodie jokes aside—Howard is a radio therapist, an inspirational broadcaster, a self-help guru—disguised as a shock jock.
I can think of ten ways Howard has inspired and led by example. Here’s the first and most obvious one. Let’s call it, Stern Rule #1.
Run TOWARD conflict, not away from it.
Think about it. His battles with management. With and among his staff. With the Congress. With the culture. Howard will say he didn’t necessarily seek out these battles, and in his personal life I have no idea how he handles conflict (I don’t know the guy, and I’m writing here about his on-air persona, which of course can’t be one and the same with his radio persona. Otherwise he’d have killed himself a long time ago).
But on air, he relishes a battle. He thrusts himself into it, well-prepared, fully-loaded, his facts and allies in place. Most of us (by that I mean me) shy away from head-butting.
I can say Howard has led me to at least learn to go for it, if not relish it.
That’s a great gift—above and beyond the dick jokes.