Who Is Howard Stern?
Howard Stern brought his signature "shock jock" radio style to New York listeners in 1982, and by 1986 his show went into national syndication. Repeated fines and interference from the FCC eventually drove the self-styled "King of All Media" to satellite radio in 2004. Stern has also written multiple best-selling books and served as a judge on the TV competition show America's Got Talent.
Stern was born on January 12, 1954, in New York, New York, the youngest of Ray and Ben Stern's two children. The self-proclaimed "King of All Media" spent the early part of his youth in the mile-square town of Roosevelt, Long Island.
Stern's early taste for radio and recording seems to have been inherited from his father, the part-owner of a recording studio who frequently taped his son and daughter on the holidays. The sometimes short-fused father frequently quizzed his children on current events, an open invitation to his young boy to get sarcastic when he didn't know the answers. "So when I asked him these serious questions, he ends up being a wise guy," recalled Ben. "And so I got mad and said, 'Shut up and sit down. Don't be stupid, you moron.'"
Stern showed an early love of not only performing but also the outrageous. In the basement of the Stern family's Roosevelt home, Howard frequently put together elaborate puppet shows for his friends. The performances had come at the urging of his mother, but Stern quickly gave them his own twist, his marionettes more than living up to his title for the performances: The Perverted Marionette Show. "I took something so innocent and beautiful and really just ruined it," Stern said. "My parents weren't privy to the dirty performances. My friends would beg me for puppet shows."
Stern's love for attention was coupled by his outsider status, an identity he's clung to for much for his career, which settled into his life at a young age. In the largely African American community of Roosevelt, Stern had trouble fitting in. Over the years, Stern has referred to a rough childhood that saw him the target of periodic school fights. One of his best Black friends, Stern once recalled, was beaten up for hanging out with him.
In 1969, the Sterns moved to Rockville Centre, a largely white community that seemed completely alien to the 15-year-old high school student. "It wasn't any better in Rockville Centre," Stern wrote in his 1993 best-selling autobiography, Private Parts. "I couldn't adjust at all. I was totally lost in a white community. I felt like Tarzan when they got him out of Africa and brought him back to England."
Howard dominated his high school years by staying close with a few buddies, playing poker and ping-pong. In the fall of 1972, Stern left New York and enrolled at Boston University where the first hints of his future "shock jock" career would make a showing. At BU, Stern volunteered at the college radio station and got his first taste of the business. After his debut program, a broadcast that included a racially charged skit called "Godzilla Goes to Harlem," BU canceled the show.
It was also at BU that Stern met his future first wife, Alison Berns, whom Stern had chosen to cast in a student film on transcendental meditation. On the couple's first date, Howard took Alison to a screening of the recently released Dustin Hoffman movie Lenny, about the late comedian Lenny Bruce.
Following his BU graduation, which saw him finish with a 3.8 GPA and a bachelor's in communications, Stern immediately set out to begin his radio career. His first gig came at a small radio station in Briarcliff Manor, New York, and it was here that it dawned on Stern that he would forever be relegated to a life of mediocrity if he continued on as a straight deejay. "So I started to mess around," he said. "It was unheard-of to mix talking on the phone with playing music. It was outrageous. It was blasphemy."
But it was exactly what Stern wanted to do. So the deejay moved to Hartford, Connecticut, and then Detroit. When the Michigan station changed its format to country and western, Stern fled to Washington, D.C.
In D.C., Stern made significant career inroads. There, he met Robin Quivers, a newswoman and former U.S. Air Force nurse, who became a part of the Stern radio team. Stern also began developing a reputation for his wild antics. In January 1982, following the crashing of an Air Florida flight into the 14th Street Bridge in D.C., Stern got on the phone and called the airline. "What's the price of a one-way ticket from National Airport to the 14th Street Bridge?" he asked. "Is that going to be a regular stop?"
Later that year, Stern moved back to New York after he accepted a job with WNBC-AM. But trouble awaited before he even got behind the microphone, as his new—and apparently nervous—bosses handed the deejay a long list of orders. The list prohibited Stern from using, among other tactics, "jokes or sketches relating to personal tragedies," as well as "slander, defamation or personal attacks on private individuals or organizations unless they have consented or are a part of the act."
At first, the neutered Stern tried to play nice and follow the station's mandates, but within a short time, the deejay openly went to war against the station. He began showcasing bits like "Sexual Innuendo Wednesday" and "Mystery Whiz," in which listeners tried to guess who was going to the bathroom. In 1985, Stern was fired, freeing him to eventually sign on with the New York City-based WXRK, better known as K-ROCK.
'The Howard Stern Show'
At the new station, Stern took his radio career to new, pioneering heights, confronting two of his favorite subjects—race and sex—in controversial ways. To the surprise of radio executives but not hardcore fans, Stern, seated in the station's morning slot, knocked off WNBC's Don Imus to claim the ratings mantle. A year after his arrival, Stern took the unprecedented step of syndicating his show, allowing him to break into other big markets like Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and eventually Los Angeles, New Orleans, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, Boston and Chicago.
Armed with an identifiable and talented on-air team that included Quivers, as well as producer Gary "Baba Booey" Dell'Abate, writer Fred Norris and stand-up comic/writer Jackie "the Jokeman" Martling, Stern proved to be a ratings force. By 1993, he was in 14 markets and claimed some 3 million daily listeners.
Much of it was tied to the show's fearless approach. In one memorable instance in 1992, Stern deployed correspondent "Stuttering" John Melendez to a Gennifer Flowers press conference in which she planned to take questions from reporters about her alleged affair with then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton. To the dismay of his "colleagues" at the event, Melendez didn't hold back, asking Flowers if Clinton practiced safe sex and whether she planned on sleeping with any other candidates.
'Private Parts' and 'Miss America'
Stern's popularity was taken to new heights soon after with the release of his autobiography, Private Parts, a detailed, funny look at Stern's life that also served to pay homage to his wife, Alison, and the job she'd done to raise their three daughters, Emily Beth (b. 1983), Deborah Jennifer (b. 1986) and Ashley Jade (b. 1993). With more than 500,000 copies in print in its first month, Private Parts proved to be the fastest-selling book in Simon & Schuster's 70-year publishing history. After taking the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list in October 1993, it remained there for a full month.
Stern followed in 1995 with another best-seller, Miss America. In 1997, Private Parts was turned into a successful movie starring Stern himself.
The increased success and salary (by 1995, Stern was reported to be earning $8 million a year from just the radio program), hardly constrained the deejay. Instead, it seemed to only unleash more of the very things that had made him successful. Following the death of Tejano singer Selena, Stern mocked the star by playing gunfire over the performer's music. In addition, Stern went to say that "Spanish people have the worst taste in music," prompting protests and a warrant for his arrest by the justice of the peace in Harlingen, Texas. Stern later apologized for the comments.
Another firestorm erupted in April 1999 when, just one day after the Columbine High School shootings, Stern questioned why the killers didn't try and have sex with some of the girls before they shot them. The Colorado State Legislature issued a censure against the shock jock.
Of course, Stern's behavior didn't just catch the attention of the radio-listening public. He also proved to be far from popular with the Federal Communications Commission, too. By 2005, the FCC had levied some $2.5 million in fines against Stern's employers.
Final Straw for Clear Channel
Stern, though, is a lesson in contrasts. For all his bravado and wild behavior, he is by his own admission an insecure person, whose self-deprecating humor factors greatly into his show. "Maybe it was the way I was raised, or something, but I always feel like I'm garbage," he told The New Yorker in 1997. "I think what it comes down to, and maybe this is a personality flaw again, a character flaw, but I could go to a book signing and see twenty thousand people out there and I don't feel great from that. Which is a shame. You'd think that that kind of adulation would make you feel on top of the world. And yet I don't. I don't know why."
In early 2004, Clear Channel, then the country's largest radio station chain, pulled the plug on Stern after an especially contentious show that saw the use of a racial slur from a call-in listener and featured Rick Solomon, Paris Hilton's ex-boyfriend and the man involved in her infamous sex video, describing in detail his relationship with the famous socialite. The resulting fines, and the further fights with the FCC over control of his show, set the stage for Stern to leave terrestrial radio for good. In 2005, he signed a $500 million deal with Sirius Satellite Radio. He began broadcasting exclusively on the subscription-based radio service on January 9, 2006.
Move to Satellite
Freed from the constraints of the FCC rules, Stern's show took his shock jock formula into new territory. It also made him wildly wealthy. In addition to his contract, Stern also helped catapult satellite radio's popularity. In 2005, Sirius boasted 2.2 million new subscribers, a 190 percent increase from 2004. The better than expected numbers netted Stern roughly $200 million in Sirius stock.
Stern, who said that his final 10 years under the FCC made him "hate" going to work, sounded refreshed after making the move to satellite and signed on for another five years in 2010. But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for the shock jock and the satellite radio giant. He engaged in a legal battle with Sirius, which merged with satellite rival XM in 2008, over stock rewards in 2010. He claimed that the company owed his production company and his agent $330 million. A judge threw out the suit in 2012, and Stern also lost the appeal.
'America's Got Talent' Judge
In 2011 Stern replaced Piers Morgan as a judge on the competition show America's Got Talent for its seventh season, joining returning judges Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel. Despite his reputation for harshness, Stern proved surprisingly supportive of contestants at times while showcasing his quick wit. He stayed on for four seasons before signing off from AGT in 2015, where he was replaced by executive producer Simon Cowell.
Remarriage and New Book: 'Howard Stern Comes Again'
Stern, who divorced Alison in 2001, is now married to model and actress Beth Ostrosky. They wed in October 2008 in a ceremony at a restaurant in Manhattan. The guest list included longtime friends Barbara Walters, Billy Joel, John Stamos, Joan Rivers, Donald Trump and Sarah Silverman. The couple later remarried on an episode of Ellen in October 2019, with Colton Underwood of The Bachelor officiating.
The disc jockey released his third book, Howard Stern Comes Again, in May 2019. A memoir, the book also contained collections of some his best interviews over the years, including those with Trump.
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