Time for Howard Stern to Retire? Stacking Up the Miles Davis of Radio to the Miles Davis of Jazz
In 2015 I wrote two off-the-wall comedy film scripts. After giving them to a friend for feedback she asked, “Do you listen to Howard Stern?” I said no. From 1998 to 2002 I lived in Providence and caught him on the radio from time to time, and what I heard was hilarious, but he’d go to commercial for a never-ending block of ads so I’d search the dial. My friend concluded emphatically, “You’ve really gotta check out Howard Stern – he’s right up your alley.”
The next week I nabbed a torrent for The Howard Stern Show and the following day cleaned the house while Howard berated his producer Gary Dell’Abate for placing a Christmas card he didn’t want in his man purse. Interspersed with this browbeating were songs mocking Gary relentlessly, a parody of a Justin Bieber song called I’ll Suck Your Ween, and a caller with a gravelly, shrill voice screaming about her love for all things Howard as a sound-effect of crow’s cawing repeated over her. This is Mariann from Brooklyn, a regular caller who’s concurrently lampooned and loved on the air.
After what must’ve been an hour of Howard dressing down Gary he took another call and the caller asked what Howard’s wife Beth’s vagina looked like. And the guy requested specifics too, like the amount of lip meat and tightness, and the color and general aesthetic. I thought, man what an inappropriate question. You can’t ask something like that. If Howard yelled at Gary about putting a Christmas card in his bag he’s gonna destroy this guy. Well, he paused; he took a deep breath and sighed… and then Howard calmly described how nice his wife’s vagina is in extraordinary detail.
I was hooked. I listened to entire years of The Howard Stern Show, mostly from his new Sirius catalog; 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014. Any show I could find I listened to, even specials like Wack Pack History and Sternthology. I listened daily, for hours. There’s just so much brilliance in Howard’s takes on contemporary news and culture, his interactions with the Wack Packers and callers, his musings about celebrity gossip, the interplay with Robin, the zany characters on the staff, the phony phone calls, the parody songs, the interviews, the silly game show premises and more. The Howard Stern Show is a radio masterpiece.
So enthralled I did something I never do: I joined a Facebook group for The Howard Stern Show, and two things happened afterward. First I received a friend request from Wendy Pack. I did a little digging to uncover that this is Wendy the Slow Adult, a prominent Wack Packer from the show. I may love listening, but did I want to get personally involved? Maybe if Howard wants to be friends, but Wendy the Slow Adult? She’s such a moocher, as I’m sure Wendy would agree, right Wendy? “Yes.” The second I accepted that request she’d have a sob story about how she needs money to buy food for her mom and nephews when in reality she’d waste it all on scratch-off lottery tickets and Mt. Dew, then come back for more. I had to ignore that friend request, or as Wendy would put it, “Ah… no.”
The second thing I experienced in this Howard Stern fan group was the vitriol they had toward Howard. A large amount of the posts were about how badly Howard sucks. The show was better when they had more strippers, the show was better with Artie, Howard’s gotten soft, Howard’s sold out, Howard doesn’t have it anymore, he’s a liberal, yada, yada, yada. For a fan group they are insanely overly critical, even claiming they’ve stopped listening as they shit all over Howard, but obviously when they comment about specific details from that day’s show they’re still tuned in.
With that in mind and since Howard’s contract expires at the end of this tumultuous year it seems like a good time to put his career into perspective. Not what he is now, but what he’s always been and always will be; the GOAT of radio. He’s Radio Zeus. If you take Howard’s career as a whole there’s only one modern entertainer whose comes close to doing what he did for his medium and that’s Miles Davis, the single greatest jazz musician to ever live. Miles career, his music and his influence went way beyond jazz. That cat was a navigator of sound for half a century, keeping jazz relevant through the rock revolution. When Miles Davis died jazz was left in his wake and hasn’t been the same since.
Well, the same types of accolades apply to Howard Stern. He’s the Miles Davis of radio. Consider this: when Howard got to Sirius in 2006 it was universally agreed that he took a massive payoff to leave terrestrial radio for satellite where he’d fade into obscurity. Sirius had less than 400,000 subscribers and was far behind their satellite radio competitor XM. But Howard didn’t go away and his show didn’t become a daily porn orgy as predicted either. Instead he improved in a multitude of ways and his fans followed him, bringing more than 6 million new subscribers by the end of his first year. By 2020 Sirius has nearly 35 million subscribers, acquired XM after they couldn’t compete with Howard and completed the acquisition of music streaming service Pandora, making SiriusXM Pandora the largest audio entertainment company in the world. Sure there are other business parameters to consider, but Sirius’s remarkable level of success happened on the back of Howard Stern. There must’ve been some serious pegging going for that Cocktober.
However, that’s just the business side. It’s really their craft where a comparison of the Prince of Darkness to the King of All Media is most apropos. Miles started in the 40s playing bebop jazz that was popular at the time, yet discovering individuality with his muted trumpet sound, whereas Howard started out in the mid-70s on WRNW, WCCC and WWWW mostly being a DJ common for the time, but learning the craft and showing signs of finding his exceptional radio voice through humor and human connectivity.
By the next decade Miles experimented with more space in the arrangements, using different lineups as he explored the boundaries of swing, hard-bop, post-bop and cool jazz. His skills peaked around modal jazz on 1959’s Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time. By the next decade for Howard, the 80’s, he headed to WWDC and actively tested the boundaries of the traditional radio format, adding radio partner Robin Quivers as news presenter and gradually molding the program into something more authentic to his vision. His gamble paid off as he shot up the ratings and was offered a sizable contract by WNBC. While a turbulent stop that tested Howard’s mettle, WNBC helped him refine his abilities and provided great fodder for the air.
From 1963 to 1968 Miles Davis put together a prolific quintet that released numerous albums showing how developed and distinctive his sound had become. It was near the end of this period that electric instruments were introduced, ushering in a whole new period for jazz with the melodically spacious and rhythmically contained fusion jazz albums, 1969’s In A Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew. After WNBC Howard moved over to WXRK at the end of 1985 and by the following year dismantled his radio competition for ratings while expanding into syndication, making TV appearances, doing PPV events and increasing his popularity with video releases. Howard Stern was moving well beyond the frontlines of thought and decorum in comical and creative ways, elevating him to a position of national recognition.
As the decade changed to the 70’s Miles imbued his sound with elements of rock and oriented heavily toward funk, as evidenced by the 1971 release Live-Evil, while 1972’s On The Corner Miles mixed in avant-garde with classical features on a foundation of funk-jazz. This was a massive peak for Miles, similar to the one Howard experienced in the 90’s as he put together his own TV show, The Howard Stern Show, released the album Crucified by the FCC, appeared on the MTV video music awards as Fartman, had a New York Times bestseller with his book Private Parts, and even found success in a 1994 run for governor of New York.
After a 5 year hiatus from music to focus on sex and drugs Miles returned to jazz with 1981’s The Man with the Horn and 1982’s double live album We Want Miles, which earned him a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Soloist. In the latter half of the 90’s Howard scored a huge success with his second bestselling book, Miss America, and in 1997 a film adaption of Private Parts was released with Howard as the star. The movie topped the US box office in its opening weekend, won Howard awards and turned him into a household name.
As the 80’s wore on Miles experimented with elements of soul music and electronica, culminating in the 1984 release of Decoy. He spent the next few years performing concerts all over the world as an ambassador for jazz. For Howard, as he entered a new century, on top of his radio program, a feature film, comedy albums, bestselling books and more, he had numerous television shows being broadcast or in some stage of development. He truly was living up to the satirical moniker he gave himself as the King of All Media. However, after Justin Timberlake gave America a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast at the 2004 Super Bowl the FCC began a campaign of removing indecency from radio and television that targeted Howard and cost his employers millions in fines. As a result Howard eventually left terrestrial radio and took a career gamble on a new medium, subscription-based satellite radio. It paid off as Howard, finally free to format his content the way he’d always envisioned, made this period from 2006 to the present the greatest radio experience ever, highlighted by Howard’s growth into the best celebrity interviewer of all time, which inspired his latest book and bestseller, 2019’s Howard Stern Comes Again.
Now, why use thousands of words to lay out this comparison? Because it doesn’t do justice to how unparalleled these two men’s impacts are without being this thorough. Where Miles controlled the chaos of jazz, Howard steered the entire radio industry. Where Miles innovated the use of the mute, electric instrumentation and the blending of musical styles, Howard revolutionized the role of the DJ, the interviewer, the news presenter, the game show host, and being a researcher of babysitter porn. Where Miles had a career spanning 5 decades never absent of growth, evolution and experimentation, so too does Howard. The point is, love him or hate him, Howard Stern is a titan at what he does.
So before Howard’s legion of critics, sorry fans, claim he jumped the shark, and before Howard considers retiring it should be said that while Howard might be close to the end he isn’t there yet. Yes he’s reached the final years, but for Miles that meant albums like 1986’s Tutu where he incorporated synthesizers, drum loops and sampling, or 1992’s Doo-Bop, a hip-hop album recorded shortly before his death and released posthumously. These might not be considered Miles best works, but their contributions are vital to his career arch and the current direction of music.
And this is where I see Howard’s career. He might not have strippers on the Sybian anymore and he might not have the piss and vinegar he used to, he might be more interested in celebrities or the blueberries he puts in his yogurt, but he’s not done. He’s still evolving, still creating, still immensely entertaining and still checking the pulse of contemporary culture with a two fingered cul-de-sac, just like the way his mother took his temperature until he was the age of 35.
So to you fans who don’t get the version of Howard you want, don’t diminish the growth and gifts of what Howard still gives. Just because you’re stuck listening to Kind of Blue, I’m okay with listening to Howard craft his equivalent to You’re Under Arrest, a 1985 Miles album that mixed in pop and political statements. We can only be so fortunate that Howard re-signs for one more contract so we can get his swan song version of Tutu and Doo-Bop, so don’t push him away. There will never be another Miles Davis and there will never be another Howard Stern. Once he’s gone, ‘It’s over Johnny’.
Finally, to you Howard, don’t rob us of the home stretch. Give us those last few albums. Sign another contract so we can be there for your Zepplin’s Coda. Let us listen as you lose your timbre and stroke-out and give us a Dick Clark ending. Come on Howard, you can hate things at home alone for only so long and then you need to get behind the mic and do your one thing a day, The Howard Stern Show.
Look Howard, you can tell this is a genuine plea; I haven’t mentioned Fred once.
10/18/2022 07:29:46 pm
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10/24/2022 11:33:04 pm
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