After Shock

Howard Stern's switch to satellite means a whole new world for Phoenix radio. And for me

My upbringing, though, clings to me, like cigarette smoke after a late night at Richardson's.

I still cringe when I hear people use "Jesus Christ!" as an expletive; I'm never 100 percent convinced that God won't decide, at some point, that He's had enough and smite the speaker dead.

Similarly off-putting: fart noises, menstrual cycles, and bowel movements. While I've long been fascinated by other people's sex lives, I can't say the same for their bodily functions. My official position has always been that shit doesn't stink, thank you very much, and if provided with evidence to the contrary, I'm going to hold my nose. Politely.

Alice Rubio, an even bigger Howard Stern fan than Sarah Fenske.
Alice Rubio, an even bigger Howard Stern fan than Sarah Fenske.
NPR's Diane Rehm is the anti-Howard.
Dan May
NPR's Diane Rehm is the anti-Howard.

And yet I listened to the Howard Stern Show regularly for five years.

Yes, the show that featured "It's Just Wrong," a game with the stated goal of getting brothers to undress their sisters. And fathers, their daughters.

The show where women once competed to win breast implants by vomiting on a guy with a puke fetish.

For Alice Rubio, listening to Howard Stern is an uncomplicated pleasure. But my listenership was not a simple thing, not something I allowed myself to enjoy completely or something I resigned myself to.

I do not, generally, lead with my heart.

I cannot simply love something. I want to know why I love it. Whether I should. Whether loving it is okay.

I've been wrestling with the Howard Stern Show for five years.

Like many Stern fans who discussed their fandom with me, I didn't set out intentionally for the land of naked strippers. If there had been a conscious decision involved -- if, say, I had to cross the room to turn on the radio -- I probably never would have started listening.

But radio, like sin, is rarely intentional.

I remember an analogy from religion class, back in elementary school.

Two frogs are in a pot of water. A chef wants to cook them.

The water isn't boiling. Not yet. If it was, the frogs would jump out.

The chef turns up the heat gradually, and the frogs get used to it. They think it feels fine: They think, with their frog brains, that this kettle must be a posh spa.

And they're lulled into staying and thinking everything is okay.

"It seems a little hot," one frog says.

"Don't be a wuss," says the other. "It's great."

And they're soaking in the hot tub right until the moment they're boiled to death.

It's a silly analogy, but I think the Christians are dead on the money about the way people become desensitized.

This is why substance-abuse counselors talk about "gateway drugs." We do not just wake up one day and shoot heroin.

We start with Boone's Strawberry Hill.

We do not start by laughing at incest or vomit.

We start, maybe, with a basic philosophy of life. In my case, an irreverent one.

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote a newspaper column called "My Dad Says." My father was my hero, until I turned 14 and discovered boys.

Even after other men show up on the scene, the paternal footprint is a tough one to step out of.

And my father, while a very sincere Christian, is no milquetoast Ned Flanders. When I was growing up, he was sarcastic, and opinionated, and often angry.

Some of that, I think, was human weakness, but it also fit his brand of Christianity -- if eternity hangs in the balance, there is no sense in revering piety or politeness.

When you're convinced that much of the world is a heart attack away from eternal hellfire, you can't help but be unimpressed by conventional wisdom.

The status quo must be challenged. The difficult questions must be asked.

So he had shouting matches with Jehovah's Witnesses. And admitted, when we asked, exactly what illicit substances he had tried, pre-Jesus. He even challenged my Sunday School teacher, a well-meaning church lady, on her interpretation of "Away in a Manger."

Horrifically impolite moments.

My mother was mortified when my sister and I pointedly informed our younger cousin, then 4 years old, that Santa Claus didn't exist. But my father, I think, greeted the news with a certain perverse pride: These are my daughters, and even in elementary school, they tell it like it is.

All of this meaning: If I'd been raised to abhor crass humor, I was also raised to admire the politically incorrect, the probing question, the irreverent.

Above all, my four siblings and I got the irreverent. Family dinners were often free-for-alls of insults and verbal roughhousing. We'd shout caustically about whatever was in the news, interrupt one another, and dish out insulting nicknames. (For years, one of my brothers was known as "Fats." And "Fats" did the honor of dubbing me "Teen" -- because I'd become a total stereotype of melodramatic teenage behavior. According to him.)

In this family, religious as it was, very little was sacred.

This was the soothingly warm water that I found myself slipping into as I listened to the Howard Stern Show.

Howard Stern agitated. And pushed his guests to speak truthfully. And brooked no intellectual smugness, from either the Left or the Right.

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