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Holding court over 36 frequencies from his throne at WXRK-FM in Manhattan, Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed "King of all Media,'' is chatting on-air with an anonymous caller from New Jersey, a soft-spoken, slow-witted professional wrestler who says he's called for advice. Stern, who's just put the fork in a week-old bit about the feminine hygiene habits of Ellen DeGeneres, is initially invigorated by the Friday morning call. It affords him a chance to shift gears, take aim at a fresh target. Improvise. But the wrestler refuses to be turned into a two-bit shtick. He has questions. He wants answers. "I think I'm going to kill someone,'' he confesses to Stern with chilly calm. "Killing women. It's all I think about, day and night. What do you think I should do?''
An intrepid shock jock, reportedly worth well over $100 million, Stern is uncharacteristically tongue-tied. His co-host, Robin Quivers, giggles uncomfortably, mutters "My God," then pulls away from her microphone. Jackie (The Jokeman) Martling and Fred Norris, on-site writers who tirelessly infuse Stern's four-hour morning show with wacky sound effects, are frozen silent at their state-of-the-art sound board. Suddenly Stern is wrestling with a broadcaster's worst nightmare.
"What do you think I should do?" the caller demands. Stern shakes off his brief stupor and gets into character. His voice drops into the soft, soothing baritone that got him into commercial radio in 1976. He prods for weaknesses by asking leading, personal questions. He toys with the caller's fragile sense of right and wrong. Then, under the guise of getting to a commercial break, he cuts the call short. "Call me on Monday," Stern says. "And try not to kill anyone over the weekend." Quivers, Martling, and Norris roar in relief.
The conversation, precariously poised between tasteless humor and indigestible horror, evokes the tightrope that Howard Stern routinely walks. That's enough to keep certain advertisers and urban markets out of the Stern camp--his show is not aired in such prominent locales as Atlanta, Seattle, and Houston--but it hasn't prevented his building a formidable media empire. One day Stern will go too far. Or he won't go far enough. For now, though, the critic-proof movie star, best-selling author, and late-night staple on E! Entertainment Television is on a hot streak. His show is number one in, among other cities, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, and he has spent the past year adding new markets to his résumé, including Memphis, Syracuse, Detroit, and Minneapolis.
Dallas-based Chancellor Media, which owns seven stations locally, is said to be paying somewhere between $650,000 and $1 million a year to air Stern in the Twin Cities. It's a carefully considered gambit that signals a new era in radio--one in which mega-buck media consolidation demands high ratings; high ratings demand huge audiences; and huge audiences require increasingly rigid and predictable formats.
A good deal of the flux in local radio stems from the loosening of ownership rules that accompanied 1996's Telecommunications Act. In the ensuing year, two companies--Chancellor and ABC/Capital Cities--have consolidated their dominance in the Twin Cities. ABC, a division of the Disney juggernaut and parent company of KQRS-FM and KEGE-FM, acquired REV 105 this past spring and turned it into a hard-rock station. According to most observers, they had two goals in mind: to eliminate the competition for their alternative rock station, the Edge (93.7 FM), and to block a hard-rock move by one of the Chancellor stations that would bring Stern into the market and thus pose a threat to KQ's Tom Barnard. Chancellor wasn't fazed; it rejiggered formats and refocused its energy on morning drive, pulling country music from their just-acquired KBOB, changing the call letters to WBLB (Real Rock 100) and launching a heavy-metal format anchored by Stern's R-rated antics.
The ensuing radio war, front-page fodder since Stern's show first aired in the Twin Cities on April 16, has already been a kick for radio junkies. Stern has gone out of his way to target Barnard, calling him a phony, challenging his manhood, wondering out loud what it would be like to have sex with his wife. In response, Barnard and his "morning crew'' have been conspicuously silent, pretending from day to day that Stern doesn't exist.
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