By Jonathan Tilove
Newhouse News Service
April 13, 1997
WASHINGTON — Just above Georgetown, in a non-descript brick office complex that is home to insurers and lawyers and Latin American military attaches, there is a place known as the African American Media Incubator, dedicated to training black men and women in every aspect of the radio business.
It could also be called the Howard Stern School of Broadcasting because it was created entirely with money paid by Stern’s employer to settle a complaint, lodged by a local black business group with the Federal Communications Commission, charging that Stern’s hugely popular radio show was ‘virulently racist.’
That $750,000 of Stern’s profits should be used to train black broadcasters is, to be sure, ironic. But to those who defend Stern from the charge of racism, irony is everything.
In a nation that seems forever bollixed about how to talk about race, let alone joke about it, Howard Stern has in recent weeks made the leap to a new level of national celebrity without ever having to seriously confront the questions debated, and ultimately sidestepped, in the musty confines of the FCC a few years ago: When it comes to race, is Howard Stern a savage satirist or a shameless panderer?
‘Howard Stern doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,’ says Steven Lerman, counsel to Infinity Broadcasting Corp. and now (since Infinity’s purchase by Westinghouse-CBS) for the CBS Radio Group for whom Stern works. ‘Stern is a satirist.’
And Lerman, a regular listener adds, ‘Most people who complain about Stern don’t listen and don’t know what they’re talking about.’
But Al Westcott, an obsessive listener from Southern California who is most responsible for the indecency complaints against Stern that eventually led Infinity to pay $1.7 million in 1995 to the Treasury, dismisses the notion of Stern as any relation to Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor.
‘Just because Stern says it’s satire doesn’t make it true,’ says Westcott, himself a long-haired, expletive-undeleted character, whose day job is managing a plant that sells ostrich meat (‘the other red meat’).
‘This man is a racist, period,’ says Westcott, who provided the African American Business Association with the 488 pages of radio transcripts of Stern’s riffs on race it needed to press its case against Infinity. ‘This man is a menace to society.’
However, based on Stern’s most recent press, one might conclude that Pat Boone in his leather heavy metal getup poses more of a menace.
Amid a hailstorm of friendly interviews and critical praise in the weeks surrounding the March opening of his autobiographical move, ‘Private Parts,’ Stern’s image was respun. He was transformed from the rude and raunchy enemy of minimal decency, to the bad boy with the sweet center and family values.
His movie is Woody Allen meets Frank Capra, as Stern becomes a populist hero making the radio waves safe for naked women over the small-minded objections of network executives who would place standards before profits.
While his radio show so far remains much the same, the new Stern of the movie and mainstream media appearances has shed the raw racial humor.
‘It would have been embarrassing,’ says David Honig, the civil rights lawyer who pressed the case against Infinity. ‘People are capable of growth. Hugo Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.’
For the first time in his career, Stern is not just popular. He is exalted.
‘His persona is a raw parody of the modern id,’ David Remnick writes of Stern in The New Yorker. ‘Particularly the modern id, male division, circa Long Island, 1972.’
That would be the year Stern, then, as now, a Long Islander, graduated from high school.
Of course, for that id, sex comes first. But race ranks too, and no popular white entertainer since the demise of blackface has played with black stereotypes with Stern’s abandon.
Stern, 43, grew up at a time when reruns of ‘Amos and Andy’ and ‘The Little Rascals’ played against the same psyches contending with the civil rights and black power movements. He came of age on the cusp between Farina and Buckwheat and Malcolm and Martin.
Now, when Stern plays ‘Black Jeopardy’ on his show, the contestants have names like Buck Wheaties, Malcolm Excrement, Tyrone Shoelaces, Highly Salami and Marcus Welfare. One can fairly hear the Stern’s Long Island rec room, circa 1969, erupting in adolescent laughter.
In Howard Stern’s radio world, blacks (his beloved black sidekick Robin Quivers notwithstanding) are usually lazy, stupid and criminal. Rodney King got off easy.
In his radio world, whites hate blacks, and anyone who wears a cowboy hat — he calls them ‘nigger hatin’ hats’ –or listens to country music is de facto Klan.
When Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, died last September, even as rapper Tupac Shakur lay dying from gunshot wounds, Stern imagined a bluegrass posse chasing the likes of Shakur.
‘Bluegrass equals hang your black ass,’ said Stern over a recording of Monroe picking and singing overlaid with the sounds of gunfire.
On another occasion, he surveyed the landscape of the white supremacist communities that inhabited the TV prime time of his growing up — places like Mayberry, Hooterville and the Green Acres the Douglases left New York City for.
‘Running from the niggers,’ said Stern.
Long Island, of course, was premised on white flight from New York City, but Stern’s parents moved the infant Howard from Queens to Roosevelt, one of the only integrated communities on the island.
Stern would grow up and go to school in a community that, in an era of enormous racial tension, rapidly went from more white than black to more black, and then much more black, than white. He was, he writes in ‘Private Parts,’ ‘a pawn in my mother’s little social experiment in integration.’
In a scene at the beginning of the movie version of the book, Stern is driving with his mother and two white friends as they repeat their parents’ disparagement of Roosevelt’s changing demography.
‘I’m half Negro and Howard’s half Negro and anything bad you say about Negroes you say about us,’ Stern’s mom scolds them. ‘Do you understand?’
In the spring of 1969, after finishing the ninth grade in Roosevelt, the Sterns moved to a mostly white town nearby. It was the same year that Carlton Ridenhour, who as Chuck D would found the rap group Public Enemy, moved into Roosevelt.
Stern left Roosevelt, as he told Remnick, ‘traumatized.’
But ever since the experience seems to have informed his disdain for ‘phony’ white liberalism, and licensed what he considers his ‘honesty’ about race.
‘It’s the racists who are uptight about talking about race,’ he told Geraldo Rivera in a March interview.
Lerman says in the last dozen years he has received more complaints that Stern, who is Jewish, is anti-semitic rather than anti-black. ‘I can count on the fingers of one hand the numbers of complaints we’ve had from the African American community about Howard Stern, because they understand what he is doing.’
Altogether, according to Interep Research, a national radio sales firm, only about 5 percent of Stern’s national radio audience of about 5 million is black.
Some of his bits do seem to have a more clear satiric edge, like the Marge Schott Choir, or the Klansman he regularly allows air time to expose himself as a hateful fool.
But the cumulative effect is still to provide listeners a lot of on-air racism to sift for meaning, and even some black listeners who enjoy Stern think it is too much.
‘I think you’re the funniest man on radio, and I think you should be off radio,’ said a black caller on a recent Best of Stern rebroadcast.
In an extended dialogue with Stern on an April 1993 show, a black caller worried about a white father listening to Stern in a car with his family. ‘And then his little daughter, his little son is saying, ‘Daddy, what is that ‘N’ word he keeps using? Why do you keep laughing when he says that ‘N’ word, daddy?’
”Oh my dear, it is just a funny term for black people.”
‘Wait, wait, wait,’ Stern replied. ‘Say the ‘N’ word, ‘nigger,’ ‘kike,’ ‘wop,’ ‘guinea,’ all these words that disturb you. Make fun of them and not only that, make fun of all these situations. I take umbrage with you when you say that I support this line by playing it. I think it is just the opposite.’
But on a show in June of 1993, Stern acknowledged that the ‘nigger hatin’ hats song’ he was about to play ‘could be misconstrued as a racist song.’
‘I think it’s an indictment of people who wear nigger-hating hats,’ he said. ‘But let’s face it. A majority of our audience likes to hear any song with the word ‘nigger’ in it.’
‘That’s right,’ said Quivers.
Indeed, when Stern opens the show to jokes from the listeners, they are frequently basely racist and irony-free.
The ultimate impact, of course, is in the myriad ears of the beholders.
Ellen Willis, who runs the cultural journalism program at New York University, says many of her students enjoy Stern, ‘but I think it’s all hedged around with all kinds of feelings of irony and distance.’
But Edwin Diamond, a media critic who also teaches journalism at NYU, believes Stern, using his Roosevelt background and his black sidekick for cover, is feeding a pervasive white distaste for blacks. ‘He puts down black people and all those white guys in their cars on the Long Island Expressway are grooving on it,’ he said.
It was when Infinity in 1993 wanted to buy the station, WPGC, with the largest black listenership in the Washington area (at the time it was owned by a corporation representing Alaskan natives), that the African American Business Association, citing Stern’s racial rants, petitioned the FCC to block the sale.
Eventually, Infinity, while conceding nothing, decided in 1994 to clear the decks for the sale and strike a deal. Among other things, they agreed to contribute $725,000 to create the incubator, as well as another $25,000 to an existing program for training black talk radio hosts in Cleveland.
And Infinity’s president, Mel Karmazin, along with brass from the New York station, WXRK, from which Stern’s show originates, would attend a half-day symposium on racism in talk radio conducted by a leading child psychiatrist, a historian and a social ethicist.
As for Stern, his take on the deal came toward the very end of his second best seller, ‘Miss America.’
It was ‘blackmail’ he wrote. ‘Infinity had to shell out $2.75 million for ‘programs’ that would aid minority businesses in the Washington area.’ ($2 million of that total is the estimated value of discounted advertising for black businesses, that has yet to be worked out.)
But, says Pearl Murphy, who with her husband, Ed, was the moving force behind bringing the FCC complaint and is now executive director of the incubator, ‘I think if he came here and had an opportunity to visit, I think he would be very pleased.’
Those who have benefited from the school also seem to bear Stern no ill will.
‘As a talent, he’s phenomenal,’ says Edgar Dews, part of the first graduating class of eight last spring, who is now working as an engineer and producer at WPGC.
On race, Dews says, ‘Sometimes he crosses the line. But I don’t know if I could throw the book at him because I know why he’s doing it. The reason why I’m turning him off is the reason why other people are tuning him in.’
Carl Lewis, part of the second class of 20, graduating this spring, agrees. ‘Ratings and revenues are the name of the game,’ says Lewis, and if he sometimes finds Stern offensive, ‘he didn’t stick a dagger in anyone,’ and ‘maybe some morning he will wake up, say, ‘Why did I say that?’ and be a new man.’
‘I think he’s really genuinely fascinated by African Americans,’ says Pearl Murphy. ‘I feel it has a lot to do with his growing up. I think it’s almost like a borderline love-hate relationship. I think there is some level of adoration there, as sick as it may sound.’