After Shock

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

In retrospect, the Britney factoid -- while thrilling as gossip -- hardly counted as educational.

So I thought some more.

I calculated that I'd spent some 83 hours last year driving to work and listening to Howard.

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'd gotten some great laughs. But when was the last time I learned anything important?

No wonder I knew more about Lindsay Lohan than I did about Iraq. And no wonder I was better informed about Lindsay's feud with Hilary Duff -- a teen pop star/movie star I've never actually heard on the radio or seen on film -- than I was about the Shiites and the Sunnis.

It was Howard Stern's fault.

And so on December 16, while superfans like Alice Rubio gathered in New York City to say goodbye to Howard Stern, I switched off KZON, mid-drive, and switched over to NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show."

Rehm was interviewing Robert Parker, one of the world's foremost wine critics.

Aha! I thought. Wine. I will learn something important.

And that day I decided not to get Sirius. I vowed to make do with my old radio.

No more Howard Stern.

I would listen to NPR.

Thanks to the timing of Stern's departure from KZON, I didn't really miss him until he'd been gone for two weeks.

First I was singing Christmas carols on the way to work. And then I flew home for Christmas and didn't need morning radio at all. I needed Prozac, because my family drives me crazy, but not radio.

Then January came, and I went back to work.

And I tried to adjust to NPR.

In Phoenix, the 9 to 11 a.m. host is a woman syndicated out of Washington named Diane Rehm.

Rehm is to Stern what Lassie is to Cujo. They don't even seem to be the same species: She is painstaking, reflective, polite. He is . . . well, we've already talked about him.

Really, she'd be the perfect target for his jokes, which (I must admit) was one of my first thoughts as I began to listen. After all, she's got a horrific speech impediment that gives her voice a strangled, anxious quality.

I could just hear Howard: If you have a speech impediment, why work in radio?

(Later, of course, I learned that Rehm's speech impediment is a medical condition, and then I felt awful.)

Her attitude couldn't be more different from Howard's. You will never hear Diane Rehm tell her listeners, "It's a joke, people. It's FUNNY."

Instead, everything in her manner points to a different conclusion.

This is serious.

This is important.

My morning ritual changed from laughing aloud to furrowing my brow in quiet reflection.

And so I plodded along through Rehm's show, learning about Iraq and learning about the mind of Alan Alda, and thinking maybe this would work for me.

I am not just sneering at life, I thought. I am engaging it.

And then came the show about infectious agents.

Rehm had two science guys on, two very dull science guys. And they were talking about the role of bacteria in disease.

A caller asked about Crohn's disease, and at Diane's prodding, one of the scientists, Dr. David Relman, explained the disease's pathology.

"It produces abdominal pain and diarrhea, mostly," he said. "Histologically, it's confirmed by the appearance of these granuloma in the bowel wall."

Bowel wall?

"There are those who believe it's caused by an infection," Relman added.

Diane did not giggle. She did not even seem to arch an eyebrow.

"Perhaps something one has eaten?" she asked, in a voice that the queen might use to ask for a spot of tea.

This is what I thought I wanted, I told myself. This is shit that doesn't stink.

But the problem is that shit does stink. And some of the time, as even I have to admit, it's positively funny.

I found myself thinking about what Howard would do with an interview like this. He'd be joking about a guy who used phrases like "histologically" and "infectious agents." Fred would be making fart noises in the background. Robin would be getting grossed out . . . just like I was, even with Diane's unflinching propriety.

I couldn't help myself.

I flipped over to KZON, Howard's former home in Phoenix.

I knew Howard was gone, but I was hoping against hope that his replacement, Adam Carolla, was doing something funny. That he was ripping on someone, that he was getting at one of those truths that you can only get at through humor.

"This is how much I know about the judicial system," Adam Carolla was saying. "Sandra Day O'Connor: chick or dude?"

I turned off the radio and drove the rest of the way to work in silence.

So that should tell you something about my state of mind on January 9. I was already thinking, maybe I can't do NPR. Maybe I need to get satellite radio.

January 9 was the morning of Stern's satellite debut, and Alice Rubio had graciously consented to let me visit while she got ready for work that morning, listening to her beloved Howard through an entirely different medium.

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