Howard’s Beginning

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

After Philadelphia proved Stern could attract an audience outside of New York, Infinity began simulcasting the show in Washington, D.C. Then, on July 25, 1991, Stern debuted on Los Angeles’ KLSX-FM, where Bloom had become operations manager. Mornings in L.A. were the domain of the Mark and Brian Show on KLOS-FM, but not for long. Though they were as entrenched at the top of L.A. radio as DeBella had been in Philadelphia, it took Stern only one year to topple the morning team he refers to as "my two bitches."

"We prepared a Q&A about Howard so our sales people could address any concerns advertisers might have, and everyone said the exact same things that were said in Philly," Bloom recalls. "They said L.A. is different from New York, it’s more laidback. They said people in L.A. wanted to listen to DJs from L.A. If there’s one thing Stern has proved, it’s that none of that is true. Funny is funny, no matter what."

After dethroning Mark and Brian, the Stern show stormed across the nation, even getting picked up by small, conservative markets such as Conway, South Carolina, and Rochester, New York. Soon would follow the record-selling book, the pay-per-view special, the late-night TV negotiations and the national media blitz. No one — not Bloom, not Stevens, not Karmazin — thought the Stern show would take off as it has. Stevens might come closest to capturing why Stern appeals so widely and deeply: "Radio is at its best when you’re listening to something real," he says, clearly referring to Stern’s graphic on-air openness, as when he refers to himself as "hung like a pimple." "You’re driving down the road, trapped in your car, and it’s just you and that voice and you can tell when that voice is phony. But when it’s real, it’s captivating. Of course, NPR can be real, but it can also be dull. Howard’s real, but he’s also damn funny."

Indeed, there are different cliques of Stern listeners. Some listen because they are trapped in that car, and Howard’s openness fills up the deadness of their own lives. Others are attracted by Stern’s appeals to their white, middle-class resentments. Still others interpret those appeals as parodies of such resentments, as when Stern allows Daniel Carver of the Ku Klux Klan to ramble on about "the niggers and the Jews" until he serves as his argument’s own best defeat. And, finally, there are those who tune in for the same reason we can’t help but slow down and peer at horrific car accidents on the interstate: We are captivated.

We are drawn in not just by Stern, but also by his collection of, in his words, "people on the fringe," people like Janks, Stuttering John and Kallenbach. In his book, Private Parts, he writes of his "Wack Pack": "[These people] are much more interesting and compelling than any stupid celebrity who’s touring to promote his latest mass-media drivel. And with repeated exposure on my shows, these unusual people actually become stars."

Take pride, Philadelphia. We’ve given the culture a guy who blows smoke through his eyes while torching his genitals, as well as a guy who spends $400 a month shouting "Howard Stern" at startled QVC operators; and we’ve played host at least a couple of times a week for the past year to a guy who once asked Mike Wallace "How c-c-could you be so old and s-s-s-still have pimples?"