I used to think I was a big Howard Stern fan, but that was before I met Alice Rubio.
For the past 10 years -- the entire time Stern has been on the Phoenix airwaves -- Rubio has tuned in to his show, every day, all morning, with rapt attention.
She wakes up to Howard, gets ready to Howard, and drives from her home in Glendale to her office in downtown Phoenix, listening to Howard. She even works to the sound of Howard, dispatching calls for Qwest with one ear and listening to her hero with the other. Through no fault of her own, Rubio did miss one month in that decadelong stretch. In 2001, the local station that had been hosting Stern's show switched to a Spanish-language format. Stern was out, and it took another month to get him signed up and on air at KZON-FM 101.5.
"Those were the worst 30 days of my life," Rubio confesses.
Rubio is 43, but her cheerful exuberance makes her seem much younger. She's worked for Qwest for 25 years, until recently in bilingual sales. She's also a shop steward for her union. She campaigned, hard, for John Kerry.
She and her husband, Mario, have raised three boys, now 24, 21, and 14. Thanks to her, all three are fans.
"I got them into Howard," she says.
In some ways, Rubio is a very cool mom. For example: Last month she took 21-year-old Matthew to New York for Stern's farewell to FM radio. (More on that later.) And she sent him, via taxi, to Stern's favorite strip club, Score's, with an admonition not to get in any trouble and to come straight home after.
But she can be tough, in ways that are also related to Howard. When Clear Channel gave Howard the boot, Rubio responded in kind, barring her sons from attending concerts at the Clear Channel-owned Cricket Pavilion.
"I missed the Ozzfest," Matthew Rubio says, matter-of-factly.
"I told them they can't go," Alice Rubio says, smiling sweetly at her boy. "Not after what Clear Channel did to Howard."
In the last month, everything about Alice Rubio's morning ritual has changed.
On December 16, Howard Stern did his final broadcast on FM radio.
Fed up with fines from the FCC and offered a sweet $500 million deal, Stern was fleeing to the satellite service Sirius, which offers its content through specially equipped radios for a $12.95 monthly fee.
And that's when Alice Rubio flew to New York, with Matthew, to witness Stern's farewell show.
When the Yahoo! Webcast -- broadcast online to an estimated 4.4 million fans -- showed the crowd at Union Square, the two Rubios were the first fans to come into view: cold, wet, but undeniably thrilled to be there. Though you couldn't see it on the Yahoo! footage, Alice Rubio was also sporting her Arizona "HWRD 100" license plate around her neck.
It was the first time Alice Rubio had ever been to New York. And by being there, she missed her husband's birthday. (Mario Rubio, despite listening to Stern every morning with his wife, is not a huge fan. "I tune him out half the time," he says.)
To Alice Rubio, there was no question about whether to go.
"I have to go," she told Mario. "I have to be there!"
Stern made her laugh for 10 years.
She felt that she owed him much more than one lousy trip to New York. But at least that was something.
And so there was also no question of what Alice Rubio would do when Stern launched his satellite career this month. She bought the equipment, got a subscription, and spent three long weeks after her New York trip waiting for the Sirius show to start, waiting for the return of her hero.
She loves the Howard Stern Show. This is not necessarily a love she can explain. When I press her, she explains that Howard is honest. That he tells it like he sees it.
But it really comes down to emotion, not intellect.
"If I don't wake up with him," she says, "I'm in a bad mood all day. It's like the sun doesn't come up."
He makes her happy. That's all there is to it.
For me, things are not so simple.
If Alice Rubio, with her three kids and Mexican heritage, doesn't quite fit the image of the stereotypical Howard Stern fan, then neither, I suppose, do I.
Nothing with so much as a whiff of sex. I had to sneak over to my friends' houses just to watch Beverly Hills, 90210 -- which, in retrospect, was about as sexy as watching Barbie and Ken hang around their beach house.
I'm no longer under the familial thumb. I've moved cross-country (twice), gotten divorced (once), and announced my plans to join a church that my parents consider borderline blasphemous (Catholic). I'm no 28-year-old virgin.
And while my parents have never had a problem with a glass of wine at dinner, let's just say I now drink it by the bottle. Alas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By harrumphing about the wrongness of his beliefs, most radio shows would have taken Carver far more seriously than he deserved. By letting him talk instead, Howard made him look like an idiot.
On the Howard Stern Show, a KKK kleagle like Carver wasn't a scary guy in a hood who could kill you.
He was a not-very-bright, not-very-successful redneck who sold racist knickknacks from a post-office box.
Really, Carver's commentaries probably did the KKK more harm than six Jesse Jacksons. If that pathetic dude is a racist, I like to imagine some teenager thinking, why would I want to be one?
It's something Howard's critics didn't get. They'd call in sometimes, or pen op-eds for the newspaper about The End of the World As We Know It, as exemplified by the fact that here was a radio host who was always trying to talk women into getting naked, or letting KKK members talk about black people.
Howard would get testy. "It's a joke!" he'd cry. "Don't you get it, people?? It's FUNNY."
I spoke to a dozen Stern fans in the Phoenix area. When they recalled their favorite moments on the show, none of them talked about the crass bits, or girls getting naked. (Well, okay, one guy did. But he was the exception.)
These were smart people. Lawyers, professors, accountants. At one point, I discovered that even my father -- not just a religion teacher, but an intellectual who hates pop culture -- had actually listened to Howard on occasion. And kinda liked it.
What these people agreed about was that the show was intelligent. That the interviews were good because Howard didn't kiss up to anyone.
That it was funny, and irreverent.
You didn't have to like the parts with strippers, or the farting. The only thing that mattered was that you didn't take anything too seriously -- especially yourself.
After all, you could get offended, but then you'd just miss the next joke.
Most people who like Stern as much as I do bought Sirius subscriptions back in December.
"I've listened to other shows in the morning, like the Edge, when Howard is on vacation," explains Donald Ortiz, a 29-year-old who lives in Mesa and works in a machine shop. "They're funny, but they just don't keep me as interested."
Ortiz's wife hooked him up with Sirius for Christmas. "In a perfect world, I'd prefer he was on FM radio," Ortiz says. "But it's not like I wasn't going to keep listening."
Brittany Ogden, 21, who works in college admissions, bought Sirius equipment last month for her house and her car.
"Howard was definitely the main motivation," she says. "He's frickin' hilarious."
But even with Sirius' rising subscriber base, satellite channels still only account for about 3 percent of radio listeners.
On FM radio, Stern was thought to draw 12 million listeners a day (see "What's the Frequency, Phoenix?"). Even with three million-plus going to satellite, there are plenty of regular listeners who decided not to make the move.
One of them is me.
Despite my affection for Stern, I long struggled with my appreciation for the show. I vowed to give it up more than once.
My feelings hit a fever pitch this winter.
The catalyst was a segment involving a regular caller named High Pitch Eric, who was chiefly popular because he has a permanent falsetto that he uses to great effect in prank calls.
This, I must admit, was not interesting to me.
And it got worse.
Someone on the show got the idea of taking bets on how much, in pounds, that High Pitch excreted over the course of a 24-hour period.
Yes, they planned to weigh his crap.
That's about the most disgusting image I could possibly summon, short of anal ring toss, which, come to think of it, they also once tried on the Howard Stern Show.
I wanted nothing to do with this.
So I changed the station, faithfully, whenever the High Pitch/crap concept was discussed.
I found myself drifting over to National Public Radio. Most of my friends, even the ones who used to listen to Stern back in the day, seemed to be starting their sentences lately by saying, "This morning on NPR . . ."
While I, of course, was limited to, "So Howard had this porn star on . . ."
I started to wonder if I was shallow. And, if I wasn't, why did I listen to a show that's obsessed with weighing some freak's fecal material?
I'd been trying to convince my boyfriend that the show really was intelligent, and he had challenged me: What, exactly, he asked, had I ever learned by listening?
And this was all I could come up with: When Fred Durst was on the show, he volunteered that, down below, Britney Spears does not prefer a tidy Brazilian wax.
She's got an old-school '70s-style bush.
Of course, it was huge news. (This is when Britney was still hot.) I called my friend Erin the moment I got to work, and we must have gasped at the horror for a good 10 minutes.
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.
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."
"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.
And so I drove the dark streets of the west side, trying to get to Rubio's house by 6 a.m. -- the time she normally gets up, and an hour in which I'd typically rather be dead than awake.
I listened, all the way, to NPR. It was way too early for the Diane Rehm Show, but they were doing a fleet of typically serious topics nevertheless, on Morning Edition. The longest segment (or did it just seem that way?) was about a screening program to monitor teens for mental health problems and, hopefully, prevent suicide.
It was dark, all right. And by the time I arrived on Alice Rubio's doorstep, at 6 sharp, I was beginning to think I needed screening myself.
And then Alice Rubio threw open the door.
I had been expecting a bathrobe and sleep-smashed hair. What I got was radiance.
Every light in the house seemed to be blazing. And Alice Rubio was completely dressed for work, in neat jeans and a sweater, her hair done, her makeup perfect.
The East Coast feed of the Howard Stern Show started at 4 a.m., she explained. On satellite, you don't have to wait for a local station to kick in; you can listen to anything anywhere.
So she'd set her alarm for 3:45 and heard the familiar heartbeat that Sirius had been playing as a countdown to the show.
She hit the snooze button.
No wonder she was grinning.
"All morning I tried calling in," she reported, breathlessly. "But we couldn't get through."
In the two weeks since, Rubio tells me that she's continued to get up as early as 4 a.m. for Howard -- often, she says, before her alarm goes off.
"I never used to get up before the alarm," she says, and even she sounds amazed.
What was wrong with me? I was supposed to be a smart person, or at least had spent years thinking of myself as a smart person. And yet I was struggling, hard, to like NPR, which is what smart people are supposed to like.
But an answer came, supplied by the other Jewish comedian I adore -- one who, unlike Howard Stern, has been embraced by the intellectuals.
Yep, my answer came from Woody Allen.
In his 2004 movie Melinda and Melinda, Allen posited that people fall into two camps: those who prefer the escapism of comedy, and those who want the confrontation of tragedy.
Give two writers the same premise, Allen suggests, and they can spin remarkably different stories, one where life's problems are a source of humor, another, a place where the gods are against us.
And then Allen does it.
In the tragic portion of Melinda, the characters listen to Stravinsky and get suicidal over their failed relationships.
In the comedy, they play Duke Ellington. And when one character wants to leave his wife, he briefly agonizes over the situation, but only until she helpfully falls in bed with someone else and cheerfully informs him that it's over.
Anyone who's ever been divorced will tell you that's pure fantasy. Even the friendliest divorces are ultimately heartbreaking.
But Allen knows that. After all, even when arguing for comedy, his characters never suggest that life really is a warm, happy place. Or that divorce is easy.
Instead, he argues that we need comedy because divorce is awful. "It's exactly because tragedy hits on the truly painful essence of life," his comic writer explains, "that people run to my comedies for escape."
Indeed, after listening to NPR for a month, after hearing about the ice cap melting, the war in Iraq, and teenagers committing suicide, laughter seems like a better solution than ever before.
But I'm no longer convinced that I have to listen to comedic radio to find it.
Last Tuesday, Diane's guest was a guy named Robert Brustein, a noted acting teacher and theater critic, who had just published a book.
Within two minutes of listening, I'd discovered that Brustein had a) dropped out of the Yale School of Drama because it was "anti-intellectual," b) a crush on Meryl Streep, whom he described as a "femme fatale, the woman who excites every man she sees," and c) a voice so pretentious, it belonged on Inside the Actors Studio.
Diane didn't press Brustein on his strange attraction to Meryl Streep, as Howard would have.
She didn't even ask him about his role in championing the art of Henry "The Fonz" Winkler.
But, kinda like Daniel Carver, the KKK movie reviewer, just letting Brustein talk was enough.
"It's a spiritual journey I'm trying to describe here," he said.
And, "This is a calling rather than a business."
And, in dissing the movies, "In the movies you behave. You don't act."
Rehm, a classic tragedian if there ever was one, took all this quite seriously. She even asked about the poor would-be actors who face their parents' scorn for choosing such a disrespected field.
But I laughed all the way to work, laughed until I was wiping tears from my eyes.
Yeah, I'm comedy all the way.
It took me five years of listening to Howard, and then losing him, to figure this out.
Important things happen in the world, mostly of the horrible variety. And I could fret about them. I could shake my head sadly, Diane Rehm-style, and maintain my dignity.
I could take them seriously instead of reverting to adolescent irreverence. For example, I could stop mocking Robert Brustein's manner and actually try to challenge his theory on acting.
Or maybe even just sit still and learn something. Novel thought.
But right now, no matter what I'm listening to on the radio, I've got the voice of Howard Stern in my head. The FCC may have killed his place on the FM dial, but it couldn't push him out of my car entirely.
And I can't stop laughing.
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