Shock Treatment

It doesn't really matter whether he overtakes KQ and Tom Barnard. Either way, Howard Stern wins. And local radio loses.

In the eyes of the press, this is a numbers war. If Stern makes inroads among male listeners ages 18 to 34, he'll make headlines. If Barnard holds down the fort, the story writes itself. The real news, however, is behind the lines. The battles that matter are being fought underground.

Because win or lose, "The King of All Media" is here to stay.

In writer David Remnick's obsequious New Yorker profile of a couple of months back, Stern takes pains to insist that the over $3 million in fines the FCC has levied against his show have not added to its notorious reputation and have, in fact, been bad for business. The 43-year-old Stern also says he's not interested in being lumped in the same category as Larry Flynt. "Look,'' he tells Remnick. "My life isn't about the First Amendment.''

Well--yes and no. Stern hasn't shown up at the Supreme Court wrapped in a flag, but he's a shock jock's shock jock who, from day one, has found success by being more crass, more crude, more "anti-establishment" than his peers. The fact remains that if he hadn't spent a decade flipping off the FCC's Standards of Decency, he would still be spinning Top 40 in Hartford, Conn., where he worked his first full-time radio job. Jim Riffel, a New Jersey-based filmmaker who just released a documentary titled Shut-Up and Listen! The Self-Proclaimed King of All Media & The First Amendment Wars, takes the view that the FCC has become just another public relations tool for Stern and his recently co-opted parent company, Infinity Broadcasting.

Says Riffel: "The FCC is the best thing that ever happened to Howard Stern. When they fine him, his ratings go up. Infinity Broadcasting dips into their little damage-control fund, pays the fine, then turns a $10 to $20 million profit in increased advertising. When he was fined $1.7 million by the FCC in 1987, Stern put out a double CD called Crucified by the FCC and made an enormous amount of money."

In fact, according to Paul Colford's 1996 book, Howard Stern, King of All Media, it was Stern's patented, potentially libelous irreverence--perfected over a six-year period--which led to an iron-clad partnership with the most powerful executive in radio, Mel Karmazin.

As a DJ at WWWW-FM in Detroit from 1979 to 1981, Stern had a dominatrix deliver the weather forecast and organized a bra-burning demonstration to coincide with the Republican National Convention. Stunts such as these earned him a Billboard award for best AOR (album-oriented rock) disc jockey, then landed him a job at WWDC-FM in Washington, D.C., where he quadrupled the morning audience. In 1982 Stern was signed at WNBC-FM in New York City for an annual salary of $200,000. There he spent most of his tenure playing second-fiddle to NBC's morning man, Don Imus, and fighting with management over content: a skit depicting the Virgin Mary being chased around a singles bar; jokes about AIDS; fake calls to the KKK; an in-studio faith-healing for a paraplegic. But before he was ousted in September 1985 over "conceptual differences," Stern was outperforming Imus and getting better ratings than the station as a whole.

In the wake of the high-profile firing--and increased attention from the FCC--Stern embarked on a strategy that is now a staple of his marketing attack. He started to use other media to promote his visibility. He appeared on CNN's Larry King Live, wrote humorous essays for national magazines, and appeared on late-night TV. He even did stand-up. In the meantime, Infinity Broadcasting CEO Karmazin decided to sign Stern for $500,000 a year--not because he would deliver the largest audience, but because he would guarantee supremacy with regard to a specific demographic, men from 18 to 34. By May 1986, Stern was paying his first fees to the FCC while helping Infinity trounce WNBC. A year later he was number one in Philadelphia. By the fall of 1991, he was number one in New York among all listeners.

Over the next year Stern was splitting hefty syndication fees with Infinity in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Dallas, and Los Angeles (reportedly in excess of $400,000 per year per market). Then, in October of 1992, Stern hit a wall. For over a year he tried in vain to make inroads in the Chicago market, but was bounced from station to station and beaten back by the market's popular local talent.

Again he healed his wounds by profiting from other forms of expression. His autobiography, Private Parts, became a best seller in the fall of 1993, selling over a million copies and earning its author $3.5 million. A cable special released the same year, The Miss Howard Stern New Year's Eve Pageant, was the most popular nonsports event in the history of pay-per-view, paying Stern over $4 million.

In 1995, E! started shelling out $1.5 million a year to rebroadcast Stern's show on the tube. In 1996 his second book, Miss America, became a best seller and a movie version of Private Parts went into production. In 1997, coinciding with the film's release, he and Karmazin have set out to sign up additional affiliates. Last month his ratings improved in Chicago.

"He's working so many elements now, he can't lose,'' Riffel says. "He's like McDonald's. Even though a home-cooked burger may be cheaper, even taste better, he's there; whether you like or not, whether I like it or not, whether the FCC likes it or not.''

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