A strange new sound has been crackling over the nation's radio airwaves, the same airwaves that have been dominated by Rush Limbaugh and other specialists in right-wing Sturm und Drang. Suddenly, in the thick of an election year, a left-leaning equivalent has emerged, riling a mass audience with scathing, eloquent attacks on the Bush administration.
The biggest surprise of all? The long-sought liberal talk radio hero isn't Air America's Al Franken, but that walking, talking wedge issue, Howard Stern.
Fittingly, the politicization of Stern began with a woman's bared breast. The Federal Communications Commission crackdown on broadcast indecency that followed Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction" hit Stern hard. The FCC proposed fining broadcast giant Clear Channel Communications $495,000 for several of Stern's raunchy utterances; Clear Channel promptly dropped Stern from its six stations that had carried him.
Stern has been at odds with the FCC for years, but these latest proposed fines, and the looming threat of more, have driven Stern to a new level of apoplexy — and to broadcasting the most pugnacious anti-Bush vitriol anywhere in the mainstream media. In Stern's view, he is the victim of a witch hunt, singled out by an administration in the grip of fundamentalist Christian ideologues bent on morality regulation.
These days, Stern's broadcasts are divided between his usual schtick — interviews with strippers, off-color song parodies, jokes about celebrities — and rants against the president. Stern will never be mistaken for a policy wonk, but tune in to his show and you'll hear him cogently attacking administration positions on an impressive range of issues: stem-cell research, abortion rights, gay marriage, media consolidation, the handling of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Stern's revamped website looks more like Mother Jones magazine than Maxim: It features articles about the administration's trade violations in Myanmar and includes a link to the contributions page of the John Kerry for President site. Indeed, Stern has become an ardent Kerry advocate. "I call on all fans of the show to vote against Bush," he said on a recent broadcast. "We're going to deliver the White House to John Kerry."
Some might dismiss this as bluster, but Stern's words should send a shiver up Karl Rove's spine. Stern has a record of successful election-year activism; political observers in New York and New Jersey remember how his on-air endorsements delivered key votes to George Pataki and Christine Todd Whitman in past gubernatorial races.
What's more, although Stern's approximately 8.5 million listeners are often dismissed as overgrown frat boys, they might more accurately be called swing voters. They are overwhelmingly white and male, many are well educated and well off, and they vote. And millions of them listen to Stern's show in battleground states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Florida — where the election will be decided.
Like his audience, Stern has always been broadly misunderstood. Calling Stern a "shock jock" does him an injustice, lumping him in with his lesser imitators and with the gross-out inanities of reality TV. In fact, Stern is a provocateur and comic talent in the tradition of Lenny Bruce. Whether his subject is sex, scatology, show business or his own failures and insecurities, he has brought unprecedented frankness to the airwaves. The real "shock" — and appeal — of Stern's show is how, with wit and brutal honesty, it punctures the phoniness of so much media chatter.
That means he tackles subjects that no one else would touch. Where else but on Stern's show would you hear an avowed atheist mocking the Taliban-like religiosity of the president, whom Stern has nicknamed "Mr. Jesus"? (Welcome to the true "No Spin Zone.")
By all indications, Stern's message is getting through. Since the FCC crackdown, his ratings have been going up. For example, Arbitron says he's now No. 1 in Los Angeles in the 25-to-54 age group, a spot he last occupied in 1995. And among entertainer websites, his was rated second (behind Oprah's) in mid-April.
If Kerry wins a close election in November, he may well owe a debt to the man who calls himself King of All Media. And political analysts may find themselves enshrining another crucial voting bloc, alongside soccer moms and NASCAR dads: Howard Stern fans.
Jody Rosen is at work on a book about Benjamin Franklin's glass harmonica.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times