After Shock

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

He made fun of Pat Robertson and Sean Penn in equal measure.

This seemed right to me.

I tuned in once, on a whim, stuck in traffic one day on the way to work. And I came back, a few days later, because it had been interesting the first time. I understood where Howard was coming from. His irreverence was as familiar to me as my face in the mirror.

83 hours a year of . . . well, what was it exactly?
Dan May
83 hours a year of . . . well, what was it exactly?
Laughing beats road rage.
Dan May
Laughing beats road rage.

I listened for a while, nodding my head and "uh-huh"ing as I drove along, until the show went south -- fart noises, strippers in the Robo Spanker, etc. -- and then I'd have to switch stations.

But I always came back.

And before I knew it, the pot was boiling, I was listening to "Who Wants to Be a Vaginal Millionaire?" and they were serving frogs' legs for dinner.

Any regular Stern listener will tell you that the people on the show become like family.

You get to know everybody, even the engineer, even the interns. Warts, small penises, and all.

When I started listening, Howard was just getting divorced, and I heard all about that. How painful it was, how it was sometimes even funny in its pain.

Artie Lange, Stern's lovably schlubby sidekick, accidentally had sex with a hooker in Vegas. He didn't know she was a hooker; he just thought she was into him. Embarrassing stuff. But I heard about that, too.

They were more honest in their failings than most of my friends. And they expected no less frankness from the rest of the world.

Most interviewers hold back. They want to be liked, want to be polite. Not Howard and the gang.

They pushed. And it didn't matter how big the star was.

There was a reason I'd decided to become a journalist. I was nosy. I wanted answers. Answers about whether the town dump contained toxic chemicals. Answers, too, about whether Jose Canseco's wife was into threesomes.

The Howard Stern Show got them.

They had Ryan Phillippe on once, and they asked him if Reese Witherspoon kept him on a curfew. A good question, especially since Witherspoon's career had taken off and Phillippe's had not. (Phillippe said no.) They asked Aaron Buerge, then "The Bachelor," how he handled dating a bunch of women and not getting to sleep with them. Did he masturbate afterward? (Buerge said yes.)

They took nothing, and no one, seriously.

Two years ago, the American Idol judges came on as guests, and Howard asked them to listen to two amateur singers and sound off on whether either had a shot at pop stardom.

First they brought in some random hot chick. The judges thought she was okay, but not great.

Then they brought in a guy, Tim, who sang the big single from the Spider-Man soundtrack, "Hero," a song that was everywhere at the time.

There was no excitement, not even from the ever-positive Paula Abdul. (She said he couldn't project.) Simon wasn't impressed. Neither was Randy.

And then Howard dropped the bomb: "Tim" was the lead singer of Saliva, the group that first recorded "Hero," and sold eight million copies of it.

Not many radio shows could get all three American Idol judges in for a real studio visit. Even fewer would use the opportunity to make them look like idiots.

Irreverence, not shock, was the show's hallmark.

They'd play "The Homeless Game," where they asked street people ridiculously easy questions: How many wheels are on a tricycle? How many nostrils do you have? Callers won prizes by correctly predicting the homeless guy's success -- or, usually, lack thereof.

This was cruel. When you're raised to revel in the politically incorrect, it's also hilarious.

(The issue of homelessness was actually a dinnertime topic, back in the day. Sure, Hollywood likes the idea of the Saintly Homeless Family, stuck on the street thanks to events beyond their control. Smug as we were, we never bought into it.)

Hilarious, too, were the people in the show's fascinating band of regular callers, The Wack Pack.

There was Beetlejuice, a guy whose medical condition left him with an abnormally small head and a propensity to lie pathologically.

There was Wendy the Retard, who was, in fact, retarded, but still loved Howard.

And then there was Daniel Carver. A proud Ku Klux Klan member with a thick Georgia accent, Carver was "discovered" after he left irate messages on the show's answering machine, complaining about black people and Jews.

Most radio shows, if they bothered at all, would have given a guy like Carver a sound bite, expressed horror at his offensive comments in a self-serving way, and then brought on the NAACP to refute him.

Howard let him review movies.

So Carver would call up, and discuss Amistad, or Driving Miss Daisy, assessing them strictly in terms of their racist content. (Amistad got a zero rating; Driving Miss Daisy got two burning crosses.)

And while some people were livid that Carver was allowed to say the N-word on the air, to me, it was wonderful radio, and one of the best arguments against racism I've ever heard.

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