Turn Off Howard

Howard Stern's billboard controversy; local rockers censor themselves

The task of pulling Howard Stern up from his abysmal showing in recent local morning-show ratings apparently requires more than a billboard on every block. It demands something of a local controversy, and WRQC's (Rock 100.3 FM) billboard campaign to promote The Howard Stern Show has produced one made to order. The ubiquitous signs feature an outstretched, cleavage-baring model and the slogan, "Turn On Howard." Perhaps predictably, they've sparked protests and a boycott campaign against the station.

Now the 3-month-old flap has taken a strange turn. Two weeks ago, a flyer attacking the ads was torn off a bulletin board at Pandora's Cup, a coffee shop at 2516 Hennepin Ave. S. in Minneapolis. Co-owner Sonja Hayden says that Ranee Hanson, executive assistant to the general manager at WRQC, phoned her threatening legal action for "allowing" the flyer to be displayed in the first place.

"She said the flier linked an employee at Rock 100.3 with the KKK, and contained other defamatory and slanderous remarks," says Hayden. "I went over to the bulletin board and told her, 'I don't see this flyer, so I can't remove it.' She said, 'That's because it's in my hand. A friend of the station already removed it.'" Hayden says she never saw the offending handbill, and Hanson declined to comment on record about the incident.

Propaganda that refers to the Klan to smear one of the most popular Jewish entertainers in America would make the station's critics look ridiculous, and Laura Khun of the Media Action Alliance, which organized a January 18 rally against the billboards, says her group printed no such flyer. A quick search of other Uptown neighborhood bulletin boards turned up no other copies.

All the same, a source at the station confirms the flyer's existence. This doesn't spin well for the folks at Rock 100, who you'd think would cling to the principles of free speech as dearly as their listeners cling to fond memories of soft-core porn Whitesnake videos. Station operations manager Andy Bloom says he's been fielding calls about the billboards, and that he has played some of the phone messages on the air. Dealing with Stern-related controversy is nothing new to Bloom, who brought The Howard Stern Show to its first market outside of New York, Philadelphia, in 1986.

Bloom says he's sticking with the current billboard campaign for the time being, but a source close to Rock 100 reports that the station has also photographed an elderly woman "in the exact same pose with the exact same clothes" as the "Turn On Howard" model, possibly for a follow-up ad.

The protesters are right on one count: The billboards are the visual equivalent of being subjected to an invasion of Kip Wingers, terrorizing our fair city by singing a cappella on every street corner. Really, who wants to be forced to imagine Howard Stern being turned on by anything? That said, I'm with sex columnist Dan Savage in determining that Stern is ultimately good for the universe. Besides getting conservative guy-guys somewhat used to the idea of male anal sex (Stern is obsessed with it), his show's air of openness leads to frank discussions of topics the moralizing mass media will only handle with kid gloves. Two weeks ago, Stern asked Pamela Anderson about her first sexual experience, and she responded by confidently discussing her rape at age 12. It was one of those moments when the say-anything atmosphere in Stern's studio led to an honest exchange about the realities young women face in a guy-guy dominated society.

 

Still, I can see why Stern is sinking in the Twin Cities. Nothing hammered home how wildly his sensibility differs from that of most Minnesotans than KFAI's January 29th edition of Local Sound Department. Broadcast live from the 400 Bar, the show was an on-air going-away party for its longtime host, Mark Wheat. Though the accompanying live performances weren't bad--Cranky's minimalist, post-punk grooving was particularly tight--the portions of the show purporting to be a "roast" were no such thing. Instead, the on-air guests paid polite compliments to the longtime booster. Given the chance, I would have recounted a cruel joke I played on Wheat late last year, phoning-in to LSD and pretending to be a Federal Communications Commission officer after the host inadvertently broadcast Semisonic's uncensored cover of Prince's "Erotic City."

As I later discovered, Semisonic played the same song live on The Howard Stern Show around the same time, similarly unbleeped, and they haven't heard from the FCC, either. Since the commission's nationwide automated monitoring system seems less than omniscient, maybe those local retro-garage cads the Conquerors should have played one of their dirtier songs on January 23, when they appeared on Michael Feldman's public-radio game show Whad'Ya Know? As it was, the band probably still jolted the show's non-punk-fan listeners out of their seats before Feldman's salacious interview with Ana Voog sent them scurrying to their modems.

All the same, you and the FCC should tune in to NBC this month when local noise-meisters Lifter Puller appear on the The Jenny Jones Show (no one at Jenny Jones could confirm an air date yet). During the taping a few weeks ago, the band was asked to play something a little less abrasive than the sexually suggestive "Roaming the Foam," settling instead on "The Bears." Sounds cuddly enough, but the song's an ode to big bearish men and the men who love them. The talk show's theme the night of LP's performance: stripper wars.

 
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