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.
"It's frightening. So maybe now, when you've got some control and power, you go, 'Wow, I finally got here. I don't want to give this up--not yet.' I'm just coming into my own, really, when you think about it. Now I'm in a different situation. I can. . . . Well, am I really? I got the government on my ass . . . it's always something. There's always some sort of battle being fought, and I guess if you get tired of the battle, you just fade out. You just leave."
Maybe the reason Howard Stern does not trust success is that each time he accrues a little, he can't quite wallow in it. When Stern came to L.A. on July 25, 1991, KFI-AM's then-top talk man, Tom Leykis, predicted Stern would die in the market. "People in Los Angeles do not like insult humor, for one thing," he told the L.A. Times. "And for another, folks here don't really like New York or New Yorkers." Variations on Leykis' comments were heard when Stern debuted in Dallas the next year: That obnoxious New York Jew won't last a year in the buckle of the Bible Belt.
And yet, by October 1992, Stern was number one in L.A., marking the first time a radio jock was at the top of the ratings charts in both of the nation's biggest cities at the same time. (He went to number one in Dallas two years later, and he tops most of the 35 markets he's currently in. Now at Phoenix's KEDJ-FM (The Edge), Stern accounts for 57 percent of the station's total audience.) It was the beginning of Howard Stern's rise to superstar status.
But just three weeks after Stern hit number one in L.A., the FCC hit him with a $105,000 fine. It was one of many he'd get--not the first, not the last, not even the biggest. In December 1992, Stern--through his stations in New York, Philadelphia and Manassas, Virginia (Washington, D.C.)--was fined a total of $600,000, which was then a record for the largest fine ever imposed. Stern says the FCC was sending a message, and that it was the first time he really knew that he and the government were in it for the long haul.
"They timed it just so because I was getting real heat when I went to number one in Los Angeles," Stern says. "It was a big statement for me to go number one in L.A. within a year. Then the FCC socked me the next day. They were gonna teach me a lesson, and they won. They did. They just keep coming."