Satellite of love
Inside the studio on Howard Stern’s first Sirius morning
BY BILL JENSEN
About 100 reporters and photographers are milling around the plush Sirius Satellite Radio reception area in midtown Manhattan, waiting to be ushered into a press conference to document Howard Stern’s first day on satellite. Omelets are being served. Cappuccino is being poured. And we’re all listening to a woman describe the details of putting finger after finger up a man’s ass.
The new Howard Stern Show — the one he has been dying to share with America since he first took to the air 25 years ago — is being piped into the room. The idle chatter of the media is muffled as the audio play builds to a climax. The Associated Press reporter sitting next to me noticeably winces as the Stern regular they call “Evil Dave Letterman” asks sex-talk queen Heidi Cortez for the whole fist.
The theater of the mind has returned with a vengeance.
Fed up with the FCC’s murky guidelines as to what qualifies as indecent, Stern announced in the fall of 2004 that he was leaving “terrestrial” airwaves for a five-year, $500 million deal on Sirius satellite radio. He served out the rest of his contract with Infinity Broadcasting (which syndicated his show in 45 markets), but the last months of the show were strained. Old bits could no longer be played for fear of fines in the post-Janet’s-breast-at-the-Super-Bowl world. Strippers and porn stars, staples of Stern’s show, were noticeably absent. Eventually, the show devolved into one giant commercial for Sirius. Stern couldn’t wait to bust out.
On Monday, Stern busted.
Inside the new studio, custom-built for the show, Stern sat behind a massive U-shaped desk. To his left, sidekick Artie Lange and sound-effects man Fred Norris flanked the show’s writers and new addition, announcer George (Captain Sulu) Takei; newswoman Robin Quivers sat in a glass booth in front of Stern while a mass of robotic cameras for his on-demand cable-TV network swiveled overhead. All the goodies from the old studio, such as the Tickle Chair, Robospanker, and Wheel of Sex, stood guard to Stern’s right, next to a mirrored bookcase filled with show relics like the Gary Puppet (modeled after producer Gary Dell’ Abate), as well as bottles and bottles of vodka.
Stern’s first order of business was to address a rumor that he and long-time girlfriend Beth Ostrosky had gotten married over the holidays. He told everyone they had, only to recant, admitting that he was playing a joke on the staff (sort of a strange way to kick things off for a man who prizes honesty on the air). He then listed the darkest secrets of 11 members of the staff (which included masturbating while watching family members urinate, and sex with meat and vegetables), which would be matched to the confessor on a later show, and discussed varieties of oral and anal sex with Takei. All uncensored. You could hear the glee in Stern’s voice. The X-rated candy-store window he had pressed his nose up against for the last 25 years was smashed to bits, and all the sexed-up, grossed-out inventory was his for the taking.
In the past, the FCC and its unwitting agent, WXRK (Stern’s old flagship station) general manager Tom Chiusano armed with his infamous dump censor button, might have busted in and busted heads with Stern the second he muttered a phrase like “mud on the turtle” during a conversation about anal sex. The fights with guys like Chiusano were often a large part of the old show’s appeal — the entire plot of Howard Stern’s Private Parts focused on Stern flipping the bird to authority figures (remember Pig Vomit?). But today, after 25 years of painting himself — and not without good reason — as a man crucified by the FCC, that part of Stern’s cachet is gone. And he’s fully aware of it. (Stern did address grumblings that the FCC would try to regulate satellite radio now that he’s arrived: “This is a private affair,” he said. “If they go after us, this mean’s cable is going away, books are going away … there is no legal justification.”) But at 51, he’s made the choice to trade in the rebel-yell headaches for the freedom to do whatever he wants. Now he just has to get people to pay for that freedom.
IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?
An hour into the Monday broadcast, Quivers asked Stern how he was feeling.
“How do I feel?” answered Stern. “There’s four people listening.”
“Yeah, it kind of feels like we’re just talking to each other,” replied Quivers.
When Stern signed on to Sirius, the then-two-year-old provider was limping along with 600,000 subscribers. Today, after strong holiday sales of Sirius players, 3.3 million people are paying $12.95 per month for the service. The surge in sign-ups earned Stern (and agent Don Buchwald) a $220 million bonus in the form of Sirius stock.
But even if every Sirius subscriber listens to him, 3.3 million is a lot less than the 18 million Stern has been accustomed to throughout his career. And for a man who sees a therapist four times a week and has spent his life working through an obsessive-compulsive disorder that has crept into his mania about ratings, the 15-million dip in listenership could start to eat away at him — no matter how many summer-camp-counselor-lesbian stories he can now share on the air. (Not to mention the fact that Sirius is not even the biggest satellite-radio provider — XM radio, which offers Major League Baseball, Opie and Anthony, and Snoop Dog, has six million subscribers.)
But Stern is confident that this is just the beginning — he repeatedly equates paying for radio with paying for cable television and bottled water. And his romper room is now a whole lot larger.
He’s in charge of two 24-hour stations that will be chock-full of Stern-flavored news and shows (the $500 million price tag is reportedly earmarked for salaries and for marketing). The Stern favorite It’s Just Wrong (a game show in which family members undress each other) is back. Lesbian Dating Game is back. And then there are the new ideas. The ideas he wouldn’t have dared air on regular radio — like Tissue Time with Heidi, a phone-sex show to help men go to sleep, which he sampled during Monday’s debut (and which stopped Ed Bradley in his tracks during last month’s 60 Minutes interview with Stern). And though it hasn’t been publicized, once he has enough material in the bank, Stern will give himself Fridays off, which will help with the burnout factor.
Fielding questions about Sirius, his non-marriage, and his daughter performing nude in an off-Broadway play, Stern seemed relaxed and genuinely happy before the press. He talked about why he wears a condom (germs, added girth, endurance). He boasted of his nine-person news team (featuring New York news veterans like former managing editor of WABC Eyewitness News Liz Aiello, George Flowers, and Ralph Howard), which is saddled with one mission: to cover all things Stern. Beside him was his entire cast and support system, which give the show its dysfunctional-family-sitcom vibe, the real reason most listeners tune in each day. And Stern’s biggest advocate throughout his career, Mel Karmazin, came out of retirement to be Sirius’s CEO and has his back.
At one point, Stern scoffed at people wishing him luck in his “new venture.”
“I’ve been doing this for 25 fuckin’ — friggin’ — years,” he replied, catching himself after dropping an f-bomb.
A NEW AUTHORITY
Wait, did Stern just censor himself?
Yes. Stern doesn’t want any of his guys to curse unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Last week, during a studio test that was aired on Sirius, Stern got to taste the freedom of his new address for the first time — and anyone who happened to be listening got a taste of where Stern draws the line. As the staff worked out the new studio’s bugs, friends of the show called in, including Dan the Farter, a long-time guest with the Stern-coveted talent of being able to fart on command. On terrestrial radio, if his farts were “too wet,” they were censored. That was the actual law laid down by the powers that were. Now they will be to Stern’s juicy liking. Stern also played some old — and for once, uncensored — bits. In one, staffer Benjy Bronk engaged in role-play phone sex with a 66-year-old woman. He played the role of the horse: “Can you feel my hoofs on your back?”
The bit played out and the cast cackled at each mention of the term “horse cock.” Stern was in his element.
But then writer Sal the Stockbroker delivered some new bits. Bits that seemed to fulfill the mainstream media’s prophecy that the show will simply devolve into a carnival of “shits” and “fucks.” So during the test Stern quickly implemented a kangaroo-court system — each time a cast member drops the f-bomb, they will get tea-bagged by show writer Richard Christy. Obviously a joke, but you could tell Stern was not going to let his staff run roughshod over the freedom he worked so hard to obtain. “When I curse, it’s the right amount of cursing at the right time,” he chastised members of his staff toward the end of the test run. Then he played bumpers for his show’s new call-in number: 1-888-9-ASSHOLE.
Bill Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.