The Lessons of Howard Stern

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Five years ago yesterday Howard Stern spent his last day on terrestrial radio. Hasnt it been quiet since then? Prior to his disappearance, hardly a day went by without your morning paper ruined by his latest outrage. He sometimes dominated the national conversation.

For those who blessedly do not remember him, Howard Stern was not the first “shock jock” on radio but he is the one who perfected the vulgar craft. One of his very earliest stunts happened after the Air Florida plane crash into the Potomac River. The day after Stern called Air Florida to price a ticket from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge, where the plane crashed. He was fired shortly thereafter and decamped to New York City.

Anyone living in New York at that time remembers vividly the sensation Stern became. It seems every car radio in New York was tuned to his show in the morning. His show became a daily guilty pleasure for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. Those New Yorkers that did not listen to Stern certainly came to know him in the news and entertainment pages. Frankly, some of it was outrageous fun though it was hard to listen to him for longer than half an hour. His vulgarity seemed almost natural for the times and for New York. When a Philadelphia station picked up his show in 1986, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported more complaints in three months than in the previous three years in New York.

Even with complaints pouring in, Stern went from strength to strength. He gained listeners and eventually syndicated his show all over the country. He experimented with television. He wrote books. He called himself the “King of All Media.” But all of this rested on his ongoing assault on the sensibilities of middle America, his ability to shock the bourgeoisie and annoy those with broadcast regulatory power.

Calling Air Florida and mocking an airplane crash, however, did not get Stern into FCC trouble. That was juvenile and a sick joke but still acceptable for broadcast. Where Stern got increasingly into trouble was over sex. In 1986 a Philadelphia mother complained that her son heard a Stern broadcast that talked about breast and penis size, sexual intercourse and bestiality. Stern told one called that he had been “sodomized by the television puppet Lamb Chop” and joked about sex with Aunt Jemima. After the 1999 shooting spree at Columbine High School Stern wondered why the shooters did not first have sex with the women they killed.

In the beginning the FCC said it felt hamstrung. A 1985 statement claimed, “our role in overseeing program content is. . .very limited. . .the First Amendment protects the right of broadcasters to air statements which may be offensive, and a free society requires governmental forbearance in those instances.” In response to the Philadelphia complaint, however, the FCC decided to get tougher and begin enforcing nearly moribund standards. In a unanimous vote, the commissioners found that Stern “dwelled on sexual and excretory matters in a way that was patently offensive.” The FCC broadened its definition of what qualifies as obscene to include “language or material that depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory activity or organs.” Stern’s response was to hold a huge rally in New York where he thumbed his nose at the FCC.

In 1990, the fines started coming. Six thousand dollars against Infinity Broadcasting, $105,000 in 1992 against Great Media and then two fines totally $1.1 million against Infinity in 1992 and 1993. By 2004, stations or companies that carried Stern’s show were fined a total of $2.5 million, the largest ever against a single show.

In 2005, Stern announced he was leaving terrestrial radio to join Sirius Satellite radio for a reported $100 million per year over five years. Or course, this made national news. Howard made a bundle and he went off to the new media that would greet him with no censorship at all. But then something happened. He really was not heard from again. And thereby hangs a tale for the age of electronic communications.

Sure you can find him in his gilded ghetto on Sirius but their total subscriber base is only 20 million. His personal audience is only a tiny subset of the total. Because of that, no one really cares. He is not in the public consciousness. He is mostly not in the press. His new contract was announced in newspapers yesterday, one carried it in a small article on the bottom of the third business page. For all intents and purposes, Stern is gone from our culture.

What happened to Stern is rather like what happened to dissident theologian Charles Curran. Curran was booted out of Catholic University of American, declared a Catholic theologian no longer. He decamped to a Methodist university and hardly anyone cares what he thinks or says anymore, only the mouth breathers of far left Catholicism. 

Stern led to the revival of another good public policy idea, driving the trash back into a ghetto. Would you make this trade? All porn forever leaves your Internet service provider, your cable pay-per-view, leaves all forms of mass public distribution. In exchange, it is allowed to move back into clearly defined red-light districts from which it may not wander. This would not preclude prosecution for obscenity; that must increase and take new forms to keep up with the e-threat. But everything else should just go somewhere out of our sight, like Howard Stern. The world would be a better place.  

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.