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And therein lies the true appeal of the radio program: It's a clubhouse where Stern and his pals bitch about their wives, whine about their sexual problems and reveal the most intimate parts of their lives without hesitation.
His longtime co-host, "newswoman" Robin Quivers, has yet to live down the revelation, included in her own best-selling book Quivers: A Life, that her father molested her with "ham hands." Sound-effects wizard Fred Norris' failing relationship with his wife, Allison Furman, whom he met during a Dial-a-Date segment, has become almost weekly fodder. Listeners know how well producer Gary Dell'Abate and his wife, Mary, are doing as they raise their first son, Jackson. And head writer Jackie Martling suffers endless ribbing about the show-biz aspirations of his wife, Nancy, who sells her albums through Martling's own 1-900 line and Internet page.
The Howard Stern show is, for lack of a better description, an unexpurgated soap opera with Stern as the catalyst, his colleagues as his supporting cast. "You know as much about us as you probably know about your friends," says Martling, who began as a once-a-week contributor to Stern's WNBC show. "And I'm not sure Howard thought that would even happen at the beginning."
"Howard always wanted to have reality on the radio," adds Norris, who met Stern back when Norris was a college student in the late '70s working at a Hartford, Connecticut, radio station where Stern was a bumbling deejay-in-training. "And Howard finds conflict very interesting."
Stern may well goad women to take off their clothes every morning, checking to see if their breasts are real or implanted, but he and his cronies are the ones who are truly exposed. Therein lies the contradiction: You know only what Stern wants you to know. He keeps his most private parts to himself.
"People come up to me all the time and go, 'I'm just like you,'" Stern says. "In fact, when I was talking to directors--this was before Ivan got involved with Betty--I would meet with directors, and a guy would come up to me and go, 'I'm just like you.' These guys were not like me, and I get that all the time. You're selective because you still have to entertain, [but] you still have to have your private life."
Howard Stern remains good friends with David Letterman, the first man to expose Stern to an audience outside New York. When Stern was working at WNBC in the mid-'80s, he regularly showed up on Late Night. He was a wacked-out bar mitzvah boy, Jewfro and all, in Hells Angels garb, and Letterman seemed endlessly amused by Stern's bad-boy rants.
They would often speak on the phone about, among other things, their disdain for NBC and their affection for broadcasting. Letterman had aspired to take the late-night throne from Johnny Carson since he was a kid in Indiana. Stern, by contrast, had been attracted to radio since the days his father, Ben, would drag him from Long Island to New York City, where Ben worked as a radio engineer and later as a sound technician with such show-biz legends as Don Adams (then the voice of Tennessee Tuxedo) and Wally Cox (Underdog). "I used to watch them do these sketches, this cartoon shtick, and I thought this was exciting," Stern recalls.
His love for the broadcasting tradition is what elevates Stern above the morning-show hacks who glut radio with sophomoric humor that lacks any true intelligence or underlying passion--just as it's the thing that makes Letterman a superior host to Jay Leno. Letterman and Stern have found ways to transcend the cliches and revitalize their respective mediums; they breathed new life into moribund formats, tapping audiences that would never have thought about watching a TV talk show and tuning in to morning talk radio.
Now Stern's not so sure he hasn't become part of the very institution he claims to despise--the radio business, which he regularly ranks a couple of steps below circus clown on the entertainment food chain. He is enamored of the medium's possibilities, hateful toward those in it.
Stern says, "I've talked to Letterman recently about this topic. Here he is about to turn 50 still doin' it, and there's something driving him as well. He's miserable doing it, and yet he's driven to do it. I don't think anybody [starts out looking] at it like you're part of a legacy or this or that, but I guess I do want to prove something. Who knows? I truly don't have an answer why I still do it. I just need to do it. I don't want to walk away from it.
"Maybe it's because [you] work so long and you get the shit beaten out of you for so long. Like [when I was] at NBC, you assume they know what you're doing, but they don't, and they undermine you and try to get you to lose your job and ruin your career. The people you're working for are trying to ruin your career!" With voice soaring, Stern rises, too--almost out of his chair.
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