Howard’s Beginning

How this most proper of cities launched Howard Stern, this most improper of celebrities

Once Karmazin persuaded Stern to simulcast in Philly, the skeptics came out in full force. DeBella spoke for many in Philadelphia radio when he told this magazine in 1986 that "Philly will not accept him. I don’t think Philly really cares about listening to a morning show from New York… Howard Stern will find his first defeat at the hands of John DeBella. I don’t lose."

Yet, almost immediately, ‘YSP was invigorated. In Stern’s first full ratings book, ‘YSP went from 19th to 5th in the morning. Overall, the station went from a 3.6 Arbitron rating to a 4.5, its first top-ten finish in a couple of years. While DeBella continued to do well — it would take Stern three years to beat him among all listeners — Stern’s pull among men 25 to 54 was so strong that ‘YSP was able to quadruple its advertising rates just months after his debut.

Now that DeBella has vanished from the scene to start a landscaping business and the Stern juggernaut continues to roll, the conventional wisdom at the time — that Philly was too parochial to embrace Stern — looms as one of the great radio miscalculations of the last decade. "That concept never occurred to me," says Stevens. "The first I heard of that was from our competitors. Think of it. John DeBella was spouting this philosophy every five minutes: ‘Stern won’t work, not because I’m funnier or more talented, but because Philadelphians won’t accept an out-of-town show.’ It was just incredible arrogance. I mean, the last time I checked, Philadelphians were watching the CBS Evening News, and that comes from New York."

Even as Stern’s popularity in Philadelphia continued to rise, others dismissed his success as the natural byproduct of "shock value." "Okay, but after a couple of years, do you think people are still listening to him for ‘shock value,’ whatever that means?" asks Stevens. "I think the only thing Philadelphians were shocked by was the fact that here was something funny on the radio. Until Howard, all you had here was DeBella’s ‘Hump Wednesday’ nonsense and ‘Harvey in the Morning,’ who is a wonderful guy but is not an entertainer."