“Oh, shit!” sounded the cry of the drivers, the early risers, and the chronicallyunemployed last week. “Now I’m gonna have to spend 12-fucking-95 a month on cockadoody satellite radio!” (Fortunately, the FCC doesn’t monitor private conversations or there would have been bleeps all through that.) This anguished wail rose up, naturally, because Howard Stern had just announced he’s leaving the ironically named Infinity for a five-year deal with Sirius satellite radio starting in January 2006, by which time some of us may have figured out how you hook that freakin’ thing up. As if the guy hadn’t changed the aural landscape enough with his button-pushing, zipper-pulling antics, the king of some media was now leaping into the Wild West frontier of satellite chat while gleefully announcing, “This marks the death of AM and FM radio!”
If Stern went to Europe for a weekend, he’d probably say that represented the end of North America, but in this case, there’s some underlying truth to his hyperbole. The harder the FCC rams its oversize dildo up the airwaves’ ass, the more satellite radio is going to blossom for the delectation of pervs, sickos, and the open-minded everywhere, just like cable TV has flourished as a wacky, arty alternative to network (which has wanly tried to catch up, under the indecency brigade’s watchful whip). Fed up with all the fines and wrist slaps, Stern is grabbing giggly Robin and running from his oppressors while helping legitimize the new venue and nabbing multimillions in the process. He’s a fucking pussy-lickin’, ding-dong-stickin’ genius.
This showbiz shake-up—one of the biggest since HBO first rocked, or maybe even since Garbo talked—could have only happened in the Nipplegate era, when Janet Jackson’s exposed breast proved so apparently life-threatening that it brought on a tidal wave of overeager smut cleanups and vengeful trash compaction. Yes, I know there have to be some broadcasting rules—like, no more CSI spin-offs, please—but the fervor with which the right wing tried to crucify Jackson was so excessive, the Velcro-ed singer became convinced the hoo-ha was a political ploy to throw people off the scent of the really offensive stuff—you know, in Iraq, where women are totally covered up, but the wartime atrocities tend to leak out.
Whether or not her titillating tit was used as a diversionary tactic, the prevailing mood had broadcasters kissing reactionary ass by turning fully clothed cartwheels and shrieking, “Hey everybody, we’re not dirty!” Playing up to that climate, Clear Channel made a big point of bouncing Stern from its channels in February because certain racial and sexual remarks made by a caller on his show were “vulgar, offensive, and insulting.” Duh. That would be like NBC dumping Joey because it’s “derivative, lowbrow, and erratic.”
But in come the Sirius folks, who want the Stern mishegos—warts, hemorrhoid contests, and all—banking on the fact that, right now at least, subscription services are as safe from government regulation as my butt crack. (Bleep! Siren! Alarm me!)
What is it about Stern that inspires an outlet like Sirius to be as crazily risk-taking as he is? Well, I’m vaguely in Stern’s target demographic (though I’m a fudgepacker), but I never understood his shtick until realizing he sort of does on the air what I do privately for friends—genital talk, politically incorrect jokes, and incorrigibly rude remarks. He does it with a nastier edge than I do, and without realizing that private snickers don’t always travel well to a big audience, but maybe that’s his genius—spewing anything for effect no matter how infantile, gross, or honest, as if there were no biological middleman between his mind and his mouth. The more Stern’s verbal stink bombs appall, the bigger his myth becomes, especially when the media dutifully repeat every single offending comment he gets busted for.
In 2001, he landed in deep shit for describing “blumpkins”—the act of getting blown while you’re on the toilet bowl—but isn’t that just a very handy tip for fast-lane double-taskers? Just as controversially, he’s cracked oven jokes about Jews, told watermelon one-liners about blacks, and made Columbine remarks that had listeners simultaneously laughing and vomiting, probably while getting blumpkins. Having protested the not humorous anti-gay messages of deposed TV stars Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Michael Savage, I’ve always found Stern to be alternately disquieting and liberating, never sure whether to boycott or yell bravo. The best-case scenario is that he’s aiming to puncture stereotypes while aggressively rolling around in them, and that his constant exploiting of disabled folks is a visibility breakthrough for the downtrodden. Where else would “Wendy the retard” get exposure, except maybe on The Apprentice or The Tony Danza Show?
The worst-case scenario is that he’s an objectifying frat-boy roughhouser masquerading as a free-speech hero. Politically, “he’s like Rick from Casablanca,” says a longtime Stern watcher I know who wants to remain anonymous. (I’ll call him Sterno.) “He sways whichever way it benefits him. Look at how he supported Pataki and Giuliani and now all of a sudden he thinks Bush is a monster!” A flip-flopping opportunist? What could be more perfect for the current political clime?
Stern’s flip-flopping over to Sirius is a fascinating choice that boosts its profile even more than its enthusiastic self-promotion (it sends out reams of e-mails about its promo events—this from a service that doesn’t believe in commercials); its knack for giving shows to everyone imaginable who might have any kind of following, from Mitch Albom to Big Pussy; and its game sexual inclusion. (Sirius’s gay channel, OutQ, is the kind of ultra-now feature its rival, XM, simply can’t boast. XM, by the way, is backed by Clear Channel. End of story.)
Stern may even end up helping Sirius soar—i.e., lose fewer hundreds of millions a year—especially since it won’t have to pay penalty fines every two weeks. Insiders tell me that some consumers have already responded to the massive publicity around the Stern shift by immediately subscribing to the service, giving it a lovely bump while affording themselves extra time to figure out how to do that friggin’ hookup.
But Sterno won’t subscribe, and not just because of the monthly fine, I mean fee. “Howard’s show is gonna lose something,” he gripes. “I like that he was a rebel working against the grain. Now, if he can say it, it’s no fun. It’s like if they legalized heroin!” That may be true—in fact, I know sexaholics who, the second they land in Bangkok or Amsterdam, suddenly can’t get a hard-on.
Oh, and who wants to be the one to tell our flatulent hero that Sirius is launching a hip-hop channel with Eminem, thereby making Howie only its second most offensive personality? I think I hear a lot of fucks coming—which are perfectly allowed, by the way. Start giggling, Robin.