In recent weeks, as Howard Stern mounted his one-man battle against the Federal Communications Commission and its White House–appointed chief, Michael Powell over his alleged culture crimes-indecency offenses, they said-which then translated into financial threats and radio-station excommunications, he looked to be a man alone.
But on Tuesday, May 4, he found a defender.
Not only a defender but a Republican, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “I think Howard Stern is what he is,” Mr. Giuliani told The Observer . “Everyone knows what Howard is like. They listen to his show and then they’ve made a decision that they enjoy his kind of humor. I think the F.C.C. or regulatory agencies have better things to look at than that. And I think it does get very close to inhibiting free speech.”
Mr. Giuliani had sat with Howard Stern in his studio on West 57th Street three times in the last decade, and fielded call-ins, including on the two anniversaries of Sept. 11, 2001. He said he could not understand the reticence of political figures to speak on Mr. Stern’s behalf.
“I’m not running for office and I never did quite understand that,” the former Mayor said. “But maybe if I was running for office, I would feel somewhat different about it. I don’t think so.” Mr. Giuliani said he’d met Mr. Stern’s parents during one on-air appearance. “I met his parents, who are the nicest people you ever want to meet,” he said. “They are very, very sweet, nice, understated people.”
Other than Mr. Giuliani, however, Mr. Stern has been in the wilderness, not quite a pariah, but not bathing in the warm power light on which the immensely successful can count in America. Few public officials-especially those in Washington, D.C.-have been willing to support the 90’s “King of All Media” since he was dropped from six Clear Channel Communications radio stations in February and subsequently threatened with $1.5 million in fines for discussing sex acts with former Paris Hilton boy toy Rick Salomon.
On the one hand, Mr. Stern’s fight is nothing new: Since 1990, the F.C.C. has proposed $4.5 million in fines against media companies for indecency, $2.5 million of which were against Mr. Stern alone, according to the Center for Public Integrity. But in an election year, during a war in Iraq, with a religiously inspired President intent on re-engineering the political center to the right, there appears to be little to lose for Republicans in attacking as a easy a stereotypical figure as Mr. Stern-an uninhibited Long Island Semitic O.C.D. sufferer does not seem to represent a crucial voting block for Mr. Bush-in consolidating a conservative core. While the F.C.C. works overtime to pin Mr. Stern to the wall-and if a Senate bill that limits commercial free speech passes, muzzles him for good-Mr. Stern has been left to flail and battle on the air with little political capital beyond his base. His recourse has been to line up his roughly 8.5 million listeners into a voting militia. “I call on all fans of the show to vote against Bush,” Mr. Stern told his audience. “We’re going to deliver the White House to John Kerry.”
“We are in a war. It’s a cultural war,” Mr. Stern said on the air. “The Republican party used to stand for-and I supported this-less government in your life, less intervention in your life, less control of your bedroom and your private life. They no longer stand for that.” Talking about the Senate bill, Mr. Stern said, “I look forward to the day because those guys will make me bigger than life.”
Since he was dropped by Clear Channel, Mr. Stern’s ratings have risen 22 percent in New York in the last three months.
But in Washington, D.C., Mr. Stern has met with relative silence.
Two weeks ago, the committee that runs the National Press Club in Washington voted down a proposal for Mr. Stern to appear as a guest speaker, according to two sources familiar with the situation. And, even though Mr. Giuliani was secure enough to back Mr. Stern, Democratic politicians, who are de facto aided by Mr. Stern’s diatribes against the administration of George W. Bush-have been relatively silent. Neither Senator Charles M. Schumer nor Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken up for Mr. Stern, nor returned calls to The Observer by press time. But for Democratic pols, there seems to be too much to lose by getting close to Mr. Stern. Howard Wolfson, the former spokesman for Senator Clinton, now a partner at Glover Park Group, said it would have to be a very controlled environment for him to allow a client to appear on the show. “You’d want to think pretty hard about it, before you did it,” he said. “I think it would probably require some alteration in the content of the show.”
Governor George Pataki, whose election to office was heavily aided by Mr. Stern’s support in both 1994 and 1998, also did not respond.
“I haven’t heard from any of those people,” said Don Buchwald, Mr. Stern’s agent. “Since the Democratic National Committee has the luxury and importance of an editorialist named Howard Stern who is on their side, they kind of got their cake and are eating it too. Now they don’t have to endanger anything, because they have Howard’s very clear voice, who is very important to his constituency and will react to Howard being as lucid and vivid and intelligent and understandable as he is. So they got that.”
At ABC, where Mr. Stern has a deal to produce a one-hour Barbara Walters–like interview special, Senator John Kerry’s camp declined an invitation, said the show’s producer, Lee Hoffman. “They weren’t interested in doing the interview,” said Mr. Hoffman, “and they haven’t been particularly supportive of him.”
Describing his conversation with Mr. Kerry’s chief public-relations official, Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Hoffman said: “If any other person in America called and said, ‘I want to do a one-hour interview with John Kerry, in prime time, on one of the four big networks,’ the answer would have been, ‘Yes, when can we do it?’ So why is it that it was a no for us?”
“It’s somewhat ridiculous that nobody wants to sit down and talk to somebody, who, in conservative numbers, is talking to 15 to 20 million unique Americans a week,” said Mr. Hoffman. “I think it’s insulting to the Howard Stern audience, which I’m a member of, and a lot of my colleagues are, so to suggest that all of us are too stupid to talk to a Presidential candidate.”
“We told the Kerry people that-obviously we wouldn’t clear questions with them-but we could assure them that this wasn’t about his personal life,” he said. “We really wanted to have a serious conversation on the issues that affect Howard’s audience, which is First Amendment issues.”
“The times that I appeared, we were always very careful to make sure what was happening when I was on, making sure it wasn’t something terribly embarrassing or something you couldn’t live with,” said Mr. Giuliani. “And he was always very respectful. I think he knows the different times in which he’s acting in different ways, and when to be appropriate and when to be inappropriate.”
Mr. Hoffman was also angry that Michael Powell, the F.C.C. chairman, would not agree to be interviewed. “Why won’t the F.C.C. chairman sit down with a broadcaster? This is what Howard is, a legitimate broadcaster, with that large an audience-it’s outrageous behavior, it’s behavior that you wouldn’t have seen five or 10 years ago, when government officials felt they needed to be responsive to the electorate. Clearly they don’t. That’s what I find so offensive in all of this. At least have the courage to address that audience.”
Mr. Stern’s show, a mix of celebrity and political interviews, was first scheduled for May, but is now to be broadcast in November-very likely, said Mr. Hoffman, the week before the Presidential election on Nov. 7. Mr. Hoffman said he had been careful to outline Mr. Stern’s seriousness in matters of politics.
In the past, Mr. Stern’s audience has worked miracles for New York Republicans. Mr. Stern supported both Mr. Giuliani and Governor Pataki throughout the 1990’s. In return, New York Republicans generally defended Mr. Stern. In 1992, New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato wrote a letter to the F.C.C. defending Mr. Stern against a fine levied against him, saying, “Government action to limit free speech, whether in response to the religiously motivated right or the politically correct left, is un-American.”
But supporting Mr. Stern has always brought baggage. In 1993, running for Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman phoned Mr. Stern on the air to get his endorsement. Mr. Stern suggested she campaign in a string bikini-a small indignity, considering she won. Later, Gov. Whitman named a turnpike rest area for Mr. Stern.
And certainly getting close to the man who made famous the Lesbian Dial-a-Date and the Kielbasa Queen takes a certain political fortitude, one that most Democrats don’t seem to have right now as they try to skate through the culture-war.
“He’s someone you’re glad to have out there, but from a candidate’s perspective you need to keep him at arm’s length,” said Steve McMahon former media strategist to Gov. Howard Dean. “Their economic interests are Democratic,” he said of Mr. Stern’s audience, “their cultural interests are Republican and voting behavior is Reagan Democrat. To the extent those people come back to the Democratic party, voting for a Democratic candidate or against a Republican, the effect is the same and it’s all good for John Kerry.”
Asked why political figures weren’t coming out publicly in support of Mr. Stern, Mr. McMahon sounded somewhat like Mr. Kerry-who had already distanced himself from Mr. Stern’s conflict by suggesting it was up to the station owners to accept and deny what they found acceptable: “It’s not a question of Free Speech as much as one of propriety and appropriateness,” he said. “The anti-vulgarity rules are pretty widely supported on the left and the right, and are not generally considered to be anti-first amendment since they don’t govern what you can say, but only how you can communicate it when you are using a free license that is granted by the federal government for commercial purposes. This makes it commercial speech anyway, which is not protected to nearly the extent that political speech is protected.”
In February, Mr. Stern was dropped from six Clear Channel stations in February under its new “zero tolerance” indecency policy. Two months later, the FCC threatened Clear Channel with $495,000 worth of fines for Mr. Stern’s verbal freedom, which prompted the conglomerate to drop him for good. Mr. Stern’s show, which airs in 35 cities, is the subject of another FCC investigation that might lead to a fine of as much as $1.5 million for the show’s parent company, Infinity Broadcasting, according to a report by the New York Post .
The result: Mr. Stern’s ratings have spiked. In Los Angeles, Mr. Stern’s morning show finished No. 1 among adult listeners for the first time since 1995, according to the latest Arbitron ratings.
So far, Viacom president Mel Karmazin has been alone among powerful media figures in defending Mr. Stern. Said Mr. Buchwald, “There are a lot of industry people who I have been in contact with, and important people in the entertainment community, who have said, ‘Gee, you guys are really fighting the good fight for all the rest of us. I really wish we could do more, but politically it isn’t to our advantage at this moment.’ Privately, people are in great support.”
But the chieftains of heavily consolidated media empires like Viacom and NBC are wary of taking on the federal government, which they depend on for keeping their industry deregulated. With fewer companies controlling most of the media, regulating morality becomes easier for the FCC-and a bigger risk for media moguls to confront. On April 19, on CNBC’s Kudlow & Crame r, Larry Kudlow asked NBC president Bob Wright if “is it possible that the country as a whole is becoming more culturally conservative and, therefore, wishes to raise rather than lower the bar on some of these decency standards?”
“Yes, it is, Larry,” said Mr. Wright, “And we are in the business of listening to our viewers. So, yes, to the extent that we understand our viewers, then we have to pay attention to materials they like and dislike. That is part of what we do.”
For Mr. Stern, it’s all material. He has turned 20 percent of his show into a stage for countering what he described as a fight between corporate interests and individual expression. On April Fool’s Day, Mr. Stern fantasized his future: “Cross and Lopez,” a D.J. duo-their slogan, “Fun Without the Filth”-took Mr. Stern’s air time, aired a Clay Aiken dating game, exalted Jay Leno, placated the F.C.C. It was the scariest radio prank since Orson Welles’ 1938 The War of the Worlds Martian attack: a projection of a world where Mr. Stern’s Louis XIV curls and horny idiosyncrasies were relegated to the closet, where Morning Zoo cookie-cutter noise suffused the airwaves, without black bras or free speech.
Watch what ABC does: Mr. Stern’s show will make its November date, or not. Mr. Hoffman said Mr. Stern was interested in displaying his serious interviewing skills. “There’s always been that side,” he said. “He’s always had serious interviews, which is why ABC made the deal. It’s not all bathroom humor. A lot of it is smart and topical and edgy current events, and he has a world view that doesn’t change. He is consistent. You can track his world view over 20 years. It’s not expedient. He doesn’t change for the sake of shock. The fact that he’s the center of the story now doesn’t change the fact that he’s been talking about this stuff for 20 years.”