You think it, he says it

PROFILE : HOWARD STERN Over the top and over there. But soon you won't be able to ignore this American, says John Carlin
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The Independent Online
A man calls up Howard Stern to confess that he has had an incestuous encounter with his sister. The man says that he is 26 and married and his sister is 30 and also married, with a child. He lives in Virginia, she in Florida. They met up one weekend recently at their parents' place and, well, one thing led to another.

The man rambles on. Stern lets him ramble, figuring that his 10, 12, maybe 18 million listeners nationwide would prefer him, just for once, to keep his mouth shut.

The man's tone is mournful, self-excusing, ashamed. He might be speaking to a priest or a therapist. "But she looked so pretty there in her tight sweater, and then we hugged, you know, like, innocent, a brother and sister thing, and then we lay on the bed and..." Stern, unable to contain himself any longer, explodes. Not with a "Jesus, how disgusting!" much less with a "You poor weak fool!" but with a bald "SO WHAT WAS SHE LIKE?".

"We made it twice," the man deadpans by way of answer, noting a few moments later that the sibling tryst has had a calamitous consequence. His sister is pregnant. "So she's, like, having an abortion, right?" says Stern. "Huh, no, my sister, she has, huh, religious scruples..." Stern splutters, hollers. "You're telling me that, like ... no! Oh my God! Fantastic! Jesus Christ!" He is beside himself, he is in ecstasy, feasting on the stupendous imbecility of it all. He wants more. "Hey," he asks, settling himself down, "can you call your sister up and see if she'll come on the show tomorrow?" "Huh, sure." "We'll fly you both up to New York." "OK."

Exchanges like these are the bread and butter of radio's enormously successful Howard Stern Show, broadcast Monday to Friday during morning "drive-time" in more than 30 cities the length and breadth of the United States. If it is not an incestuous couple it will be a threesome of transvestite bisex-uals; or a porno actress whom he will spank live on air; or a female caller whom he will interrogate at length - inquiring as to the size of her waist, hips and bra cup - before inviting her to the studio to take her clothes off, an invitation she will often accept.

STERN'S raw material is the American freak show. The added value he brings is ridicule, rudeness and an indiscriminate impulse to offend, qualities fearsomely exacerbated in the mind's eye by the real-life image of Stern, a scarecrow of a man, 6ft 6in tall with hair like Alice Cooper and dark glasses perennially perched over a large hooked nose.

He will ask heterosexual male callers the size of their "peckers", homosexual male callers whether they have ever introduced "wild life" into their backsides, female callers of whatever persuasion whether they are into anal sex. When Alec Baldwin, the Hollywood actor, came on as a special guest Stern began the interview by asking him to describe what it was like to have sex with Kim Basinger, his no-less-celebrated Hollywood wife.

With black callers or studio guests he will invariably assume an exaggerated black street accent. Once he asked an African immigrant caller if his uncles wore bones through their noses. He told the Pointer Sisters he wished slavery could be brought back so that he could be the trio's "Massa Howard" and have the freedom to abuse them sexually.

Little wonder that when Chris Evans ventured into Stern's studio one morning last week Britain's pale apology for a "shock-jock" was embarrassed and overawed by the real thing. "Who is this guy?" Stern railed. "He's supposed to be some big deal in England. Who cares?" When "motormouth" Evans tried to interject Stern bawled him out. "Shut up! Shut up! You are annoying me!" Irritated at having to waste his time with a "rinky- dink" British celebrity, Stern shooed Evans out of his studio.

The purpose of Evans' visit was to tape some material for a programme about Stern's first movie, Private Parts, which opens in Britain this month, following its release in the States in March. If Evans feels hard done by he might draw comfort from Stern's response on learning that a group of German media critics had emerged from a screening of his film in Cannes laughing in appreciation: "Then why did they throw us in the ovens?" asked Stern. (His own background did not stop him running a quiz segment in his show a few years back called "Guess the Jew". Listeners were given the names of three celebrities and asked to identify the one who was Jewish.)

Needless to say, Stern, who is 43, has come in for some criticism since embarking on his radio career 20 years ago after obtaining a degree in communications at Boston University. The Christian right has been up in arms; the Federal Communications Commission has fined him for obscenity; radio stations have fired him for stretching the boundaries of public taste.

Private Parts, based on his sensationally successful autobiography of the same name, tracks the rise of our hero - played by Stern himself - from obscurity through adversity to fame and fortune. It is an irreverent Rocky, a bawdy Forrest Gump.

Why has Stern been so successful? Why has his film turned a profit in America and why, in the morning market glut, does his radio show have the country's highest ratings? Why, for that matter, does Chris Evans seem tame next to Stern, when America is a far more conformist and moralistic country than Britain?

Church attendance is higher in America than anywhere in western Europe. So is belief in God, in heaven and hell. Abortion and gay rights are major political issues, as is the question of prayer in school. The advertising industry has found that coyness and euphemism are what the public want. Heaven forbid, therefore, that an ABC television talk-show host should use the word "hell" instead of "heck" on air. Wal-Mart, the vast national hypermarket chain, refused to stock Private Parts, the book, after judging that Middle America would not be amused.

Stern's success is explained in part by the simple fact that America is a huge country in which 18 million people - the maximum estimate for daily Stern listeners - may plausibly be defined as exceptions to the rule. Another explanation may be that what people tell Wal-Mart's market researchers reflects more where they feel they ought to stand than where they really want to be.

Either way, a market exists in the US for the vicarious thrill of listening to an individual who stands up in public and, like a child reared in the wild, says whatever comes into his head without the customary restraints society imposes: what oft was thought but ne'er so crassly expressed. If Stern is more shrill and outrageous than Chris Evans it is because the target of his brutish satire, the hypocrisy of conventional morality, is more pervasive and restrictive in America than in Britain.

Stern's public persona provides Americans with their national symbol of vulgarity and rebelliousness. But he is far less of an iconoclast than most believe him to be. He challenges the Puritan inheritance so many of his compatriots have proved incapable of shaking off, but he worships at the altar of the dominant ideology - free market capitalism. Egalitarianism, individualism, liberty, laissez-faire, optimism are the commandments of the American creed, all of which Stern celebrates through his every pronouncement on the radio, through the reassuringly conservative message of his film and through his high-achieving, money-driven, American Dream life.

On air his instinct is ever to value people on the strength of the money they have made, to praise those who have made millions (he is reported to be pulling in $7m a year), to scoff at "losers". He has candidly acknowledged that he is "in it for the money". He boasts, with no self-irony, that his success in print, radio and film has earned him the title "King of all Media".

But as Private Parts reveals, and the keen observer will detect, he is a tormented soul. Sounding at times like Woody Allen's lanky younger brother, he confesses that in his student days he was a "geek", bullied by other boys, scorned by the girls. "For a long time I wanted to prove to every woman who ever rejected me and every guy who ever goofed on me that I could be Superman," he said in a recent interview. "And my way of being Superman was talking into a microphone."

He began his Superman career aged seven when he discovered his vocation for the microphone at home playing with a tape recorder owned by his father, a radio engineer who owned a recording studio. He had a typical middle- class upbringing in Long Island made interesting by the fact that he went to a predominantly black school and by a father who called him a moron and whose approval he admits he craves to this day. He also had an overprotective mother, but the most obvious Freudian spur to his hysterical ambition would seem to be that, by his own obsessively repetitive admission, he has a small penis. A day does not go by without his radio listeners being informed that it is so small it looks like a raisin, or a light switch. Which, whether true or not, perhaps helps explain his exuberant sexual fantasies on air and his seemingly exemplary uxoriousness in private life.

"She was the first, like, down-to-earth normal girl I ever met," he has said of his wife, Alison, "that was willing to take up with me and didn't want to dump me after she slept with me." College sweethearts, they have been married for 19 years and have three daughters, all of whom are under strict orders from their father not to tune in to his show. Rarely out on the town, unless he is on a publicity mission, he is a homebody who enjoys nothing more than watching television with his family. Stern claims, and no tabloid has come forward to refute him, that he has never been unfaithful to his wife.

Stern's domestic alter ego is as American as apple pie. And so, in a sense, is his professional life. For he competes fiercely in the free market and, given that the commodity he peddles is what society at large considers to be bad taste, he succeeds with extravagant, frequently obnoxious and sometimes (whisper it) refreshing brilliance.

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