“The Howard Stern Show,” long in decline, is dead.
In March 2020, when New York City officially went into lockdown, Stern fled to his basement in the Hamptons. Over one year later and now vaccinated, as he first admitted on-air Monday — back from yet another vacation — Stern still has no intention of ever returning to his Midtown studio, his luxury Upper West Side apartment, or any semblance of pre-pandemic life.
The Howard Stern who stayed on air as planes flew into the World Trade Center is unrecognizable.
“Things will never get back to normal,” he declared just two weeks ago. “I do not believe the pandemic will ever be over.”
For a once-constant listener like me, this is heretical, especially here in New York City, where every single neighborhood is struggling to survive. Also, Howard: This pandemic will end, even though you, a germophobic recluse, clearly wish it would not.
But such sentiments have defined Stern’s show and attitude this past year: pessimism, anger, and a worldview that shrinks ever inward, limited in size and scope to The Basement — the literal and metaphorical dwelling place of this once-great show.
Stern, 67, renewed his contract with SiriusXM last December, signing for five years at a reported $120 million per. This is incredible, considering he works three days a week, Monday through Wednesday, broadcasting maybe three hours per day, about 112 shows per year with 253 days off.
That’s a salary of over $1 million per show.
Once upon a time, you could argue that would be fair compensation; after all, one could never predict what Stern would do or say. As memorialized by an analyst in Stern’s 1997 biopic “Private Parts”:
“The average radio listener listens for 18 minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for, are you ready for this, an hour and 20 minutes . . . Answer most commonly given? ‘I want to see what he’ll say next.’”
As for those who loathed Stern: “The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day . . . Most common answer? ‘I want to see what he’ll say next.’”
Today, it’s all too easy to predict what Stern will say next. Don’t just take my word for it — endless Reddit threads and Facebook groups are devoted to carbon dating the show’s death, parsing over its comedic breadcrumbs and wondering why Stern even bothers anymore.
Indeed, Stern sounds like a guy who should have retired years ago, one begging to be fired, an attempt to end his own misery.
Howard: Your listeners are right there with you. Put us all out of your misery.
Consider a typical show, consisting — on a daily, “Groundhog Day”-like basis — of such content as imitations of his nonagenarian parents and their hearing loss (“What?! What did you say?!”) — as enjoyable as talking to one’s own hard-of-hearing relatives — while revisiting slights and traumas from his childhood yet insisting that decades of three-to-four-day-a-week therapy have made him less angry and more evolved.
We usually segue into graphic, sex-obsessed talks with Ronnie the Limo Driver, a 71-year-old Stern show mainstay who has now become its lead character, eating up airtime and surpassing Stern himself. (Hope Ronnie got a raise for all this heavy lifting, unlistenable though he may be.)
If it’s Monday, we may get a recap of Howard’s weekend, which typically involves how many Peloton classes he took, updates on his lifelong disordered eating, current blood levels, and rants on why the one-percenters who live near him in the Hamptons, post-vaccine, won’t wear masks all the time.
If his much younger model wife, Beth, comes up, it’s to discuss how efficiently she cleans (now that the maids are gone), her eating habits and blood levels, and the hundreds of rescue cats that cycle in and out of their house.
If “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette” happens to be airing, we can count on a mind-numbing, 45-minute soliloquy.
Next, we’ll probably take some calls from the mentally impaired characters known as “The Wack Pack,” or be subjected to prank phone calls that Stern insists are real but are clearly fake and scripted.
In lieu of picking on society’s weakest, Stern will turn his rage on most any staffer in his sights. It says something that even the most picked-upon loyalist — say, his producer of 37 years — doesn’t even bother to really fight back anymore.]
Why? My guess is that Stern’s rants are so expected and so often hit the same notes — personal hygiene, looks, financial status, marital troubles, professional incompetence — that even attacked staffers feel the same boredom that long ago came over the listener.
And how could they not? Stern long ago abandoned his best attribute, going after famous hypocrites. Hilaria Baldwin, for example, pretending for years to be from Spain — when really she’s from Boston — and bagging a movie star would once have been Stern show fodder for days.
But Hilaria barely rates a mention. Why? Can’t piss off Howard’s good pal Alec in the Hamptons. Howard’s in with the cool kids — all he ever really wanted, despite claims to the contrary.
Who’s the hypocrite now?
Instead, we get musings on how wonderful Stern’s BFF Jimmy Kimmel is, what it’s like to go to parties at Jimmy’s house in LA and hobnob with George Clooney — Howard the everyman, the commuter’s best friend, RIP — or his days as a judge on “America’s Got Talent.”
This thin, tepid gruel is finished off with what it was like for Howard the Renegade to break into radio, deep-dive instructions on how to cue up songs on vinyl, and general “get off my lawn” gripes over life in America circa now: “I don’t know what you could do to get noticed on this YouTube”; “Just cancel sports — who cares? So f—king dumb”; “Podcasts — they’re bores, they’re f–king bores.”
Perhaps that last sentiment is related to Stern’s waning influence. Upon the announcement of Stern’s imminent contract renewal in 2020, B. Riley analyst Zack Silver wrote to clients, in part:
“Is Howard Stern really still worth $100M+ a year? Our recent survey work suggests that only a low-single-digit percentage of respondents subscribe to SiriusXM solely because of Howard Stern.”
Silver suggested that the re-up most benefited the company’s stock price. “For investors,” he wrote, “we believe that a potential renewal with Stern serves as a proof point that SiriusXM can continue to retain and attract top talent to its service.”
Really, why should Stern put any effort into his show when he’s been rewarded for hardly working? The less he puts into the show and the more he treats his paying audience with contempt, the more money he makes. No wonder he won’t leave his bunker.
All that said, one of the most perplexing decisions to fans, of late, is the unexplained dropping of the show’s most popular segment, historically airing last: The News, with sidekick Robin Quivers going through the day’s headlines while Stern riffed extemporaneously.
The News cost nothing to produce, was a must-listen, and usually guaranteed at least one unpredictable hot take from Stern, earning him a spot in the news cycle.
Yet in quarantine — the most newsworthy year in recent memory — this segment has completely disappeared, with zero explanation. There may be no greater F-you to his longtime fan base: Even that is too much work.
The self-proclaimed King of All Media has, without seeming to realize it, given a master class in how to lose an entirely captive audience.
SiriusXM doesn’t release ratings, but as far back as 2013, Stern knew he was in trouble. He called a crisis meeting, thankfully taped and leaked by a disgruntled employee (you can watch it on YouTube). This is Howard Stern as Norma Desmond, blaming everyone else for his decline.
Here he is standing alone on a stage, his beleaguered staff seated below.
“You know what?” he begins. “If this show isn’t here in three years, you don’t have a f—king job! . . . I’m pissed.”
He was just getting started. Why, Stern asked, can’t he get Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt — hell, even Neil Young — to appear on his show?
“It’s bugging the s—t out of me,” he said. “Neil Young shouldn’t be able to s—t without hearing somebody talking about me.”
A PowerPoint of favored guests, whom Stern fawns over to a disgusting degree on-air, turned into a verbal assault against almost every single one.
“Whitney Cummings was doing jack s–t when we found her . . . she was going nowhere fast,” Stern said. “Adam Levine owes us, man . . . no one was looking for him before ‘The Voice.’ And David Letterman — I’ve done his show . . . probably 27 f—king times, and he’s only been on our show twice.”
Maybe Stern should have asked himself why he, unlike some others in show business, doesn’t beget loyalty? Nah — he kept on blaming the overworked, underappreciated and abused staff, who, he added, looked like unwashed slobs.
“We look like we have homeless people working here,” Stern said. Publicists, managers, celebrities “go, ‘Oh, this show is so gross — look at them, they look like bums, they don’t know what they’re doing — YOU’VE JUST BLOWN IT FOR ME! . . . Go the f—k home and go get dressed.”
After all, Stern said, “ ‘The Howard Stern Show’ is maybe the coolest, hippest place to work on the planet” — even if Stern didn’t know the name of that rock star who could maybe convince Eddie Vedder to appear (the late Chris Cornell) or that Brad Pitt isn’t from Kansas (Missouri), or that celebrity guests had been left to linger in the lobby, no show escort, before giving up and going home (Jon Bon Jovi, twice).
Underpinning all this rage was, Stern admitted, the company’s overall disdain for his show.
“Sirius has treated us in a very odd way,” Stern said. “We’re gonna fix that. I’ve heard [SiriusXM president and CCO] Scott Greenstein say, ‘Oh, why would we put [Artist X] on your show?’ . . . What are you, f—king high? You put them on our show because we’re the only channel anyone’s listening to.”