Howard Stern was a personality that radio would not soon forget. But in 1982, listeners in the New York City area could only imagine what the hype was about.
And then August 30 happened.
Thirty years ago, Stern arrived in New York at WNBC Radio (clip below), complete with sidekick Robin Quivers, who first worked with Stern in Washington a year earlier. Of course, with his roots in rough and tumble Roosevelt, Long Island, this was Howard’s homecoming.
As characterized in his book and film, Private Parts, Stern dealt with internal clashes from day one at WNBC. Specifically, his verbal barrages with program director Kevin Metheny, not-so-affectionately called “Pig Vomit” in the film (“Pig Virus” in real life). Stern slightly altered the immortalized version of Metheny, changing his name to “Kenny Rushton,” played exquisitely by Paul Giamatti.
“The book and the script are fascinating, engaging, and entertaining,” Metheny tells FishbowlNY. “I think [there’s] a fair and appropriate amount of artists’ liberties taken with factual elasticity in order to make a more interesting project.”
In one memorable scene, Giamatti’s Rushton attempts to teach Stern the key to success, announcing the call letters properly (W-N-N-N-N-B-C). (See clip after the jump)
“I’m certain that I was a pain in the tush with respect to putting the emphasis on the “N” in WNBC,” Metheny says.
The movie showcases the battle between Giammati’s character and Stern. In the film, NBC brass charged Rushton with reigning in the perceived problem child.
“Howard [was] very clear on what he wanted to create, and that it defied convention.” Metheny says. “Most conventional terrestrial radio management, me included, struggled to comprehend the thing Howard did that didn’t sit with conventions we had previously experienced, and arguably mastered.”
While Metheny worked for a Cleveland radio morning show about 10 years ago, he met his “alter ego” on a phone interview.
“[Giamatti] had no idea that there was an actual character,” Metheny recalls “He thought that was all composite and script writing.”
Separating fact from fiction, Metheny compares his WNBC role with the pop culture version.
“That character was largely clueless, simpering, and pathetic,” Metheny admits. “I would argue that I might be pathetic, but I’m probably not clueless and simpering.”
While Stern was a radio rebel giving fits to the conservative RCA suits, Metheny claims to have finally come to an understanding.
“Once he got in the chair, his footprint would be so big that all that non-compliance would just be extraneous and irrevelant,” Metheny says. “To a certain degree that was true.”
Metheny says the battles with Stern led to “great discomfort” on both sides of the show. After the struggles, Metheny opted to follow the proverb, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” becoming receptive to Stern’s on-air antics.
“I converted, and attempted to become an advocate for Howard’s work,” Metheny reflects. “He needed a great deal of advocacy inside of the bureaucracy that was RCA. But he wasn’t going to do it the way it had always been done. That was not an option.”
Metheny points out that by the time of his own firing in 1984, the working relationship with Stern was “quite cordial.”
“That, however, doesn’t make for an interesting movie,” Metheny says.
In retrospect, the delay that it took in getting on board with Stern is Metheny’s biggest regret 30 years later.
“If I could change one thing, I would hit it from the beginning, as opposed to hitting it after we’d already torn up a fair amount of interpersonal road.”
So with Metheny gone, the burden to tame Stern now fell on Dale Parsons. Long before Stern documented (or embellished) his run-ins with WNBC management in Private Parts, though, Parsons knew what to expect from his outrageous star.
“I have always felt that if you hire someone because you like their act, then you don’t try to change that act into something else,” Parsons tells FishbowlNY. “NBC knew what they were hiring when Howard was brought to WNBC. It was disingenuous for them to act surprised or disappointed by what Howard did on the air.”
Parsons points to the hiring of Randy Bongarten as GM at WNBC when the tide began to turn for their afternoon “product.”
“I think he understood and appreciated Howard’s schtick and Howard’s show was the better for it,” Parsons says.
Unlike the infamous Metheny regime, Parsons’ plan was to act as a buffer or liaison between Stern’s show and upper management, in turn, allowing as much creativity as possible.
“Howard was constantly stretching boundaries, which was what he was supposed to do. If a line was crossed, I spoke with him. Sometimes he agreed and sometimes he didn’t, but there were never any big confrontations,” Parsons admits. “I never took anything personally because I knew Howard the character as well as Howard the person. When Howard called me on the air, I understood the joke.”
Ultimately, Parsons had enough of the “joke.” He fired his star on September 30, 1985, a top-rated afternoon program in New York. But he says the decision was not his, nor even anyone’s within the radio division. And in his dismissal, Parsons contends, Stern got the last laugh.
“It cost me money, because the ratings suffered. And it turned out to be the decision that destroyed the NBC Radio Division,” Parsons says. “WNBC Radio never recovered from firing Howard and both ratings and revenue suffered greatly. The losses eventually led to selling the NBC Radio Network and all of the NBC owned and operated radio stations.”
Another scene highlighted in Private Parts sheds light on Stern’s demise at WNBC less than two weeks later. While live on-air, Stern went to VP/GM John Hayes’ office (the program director’s office in the movie). The classic Stern bit proved to be contentious with his boss. After speaking to Stern for a few seconds, Hayes slammed the door as millions listened intently.
“You idiot scum!” Stern fired back. “Never talk that way to me. You work for me. You’re an idiot!”
While Stern was just discovering his King of All Media status, the one-time King of New York Radio was being put out to pasture. Parsons completely understands the listeners’ mass exodus when Stern was shown the door.
“When Howard was on staff, we had built a whole advertising campaign around the outrageousness of Imus and Stern and how we knew that people might be offended, but that we didn’t really care,” Parsons recalls. “One slogan we used was ‘If we weren’t so bad, we wouldn’t be so good.’ The audience considered us hypocrites when we fired Howard.”
The AM dial was already losing listeners to Top 40 powerhouse Z100, started in 1983, and WPLJ, which the same year became its leading rival with a flip to CHR. That, according to Parsons, did not lead to Stern’s ouster.
“Numbers and billing for WNBC were continuing to rise. However, we were talking about moving the format over to the FM [WYNY] side,” Parsons recalls. “We were also planning to rebuild the on-air studio to accommodate a studio audience for Howard’s show and for the Soupy Sales show.”
Stern threatened to quit during his last shift (September 27, 1985) at WNBC. A fuming Stern vowed to resign if anyone at WNBC got syndicated through the NBC Radio Network. Sales apparently told his listeners the week before that a deal was in place.
“If he has a signed agreement, I’m just getting up and walking out,” Stern said on the air.
The Stern faithful was a loyal bunch, even stepping over the line to make its voices heard. (Sound familiar?) Parsons was caught in the ugly crosshairs with distraught fans. Just prior to axing Stern, Parsons moved into a new Manhattan apartment with what he thought was an unlisted number. Instead, it was published in the latest phone directory for all of the borough to see.
“When I got home on the evening of the day we fired Howard, I noticed 30 messages on my answering machine. All of the messages were death threats from irate Howard Stern listeners, complete with graphic details about which of my body parts were going to be severed and shoved into which orifices,” Parsons remembers. “I thought it was actually quite funny, but my boss suggested that I play the tape for the head of NBC Security. He didn’t laugh. I wound up being escorted to and from work for a while.”
Furthermore, Parsons’ mail sent to the station (before the days of email) was rerouted to security. That’s because one package that the program director received was full of dog excrement.
“I even had my apartment’s electricity turned off a few times a couple of years later, and the electric company blamed it on a disgruntled former employee who was also a rabid Howard Stern fan,” Parsons says.
Parsons isn’t just siding with Stern today. When he debuted at K-Rock/WXRK-FM in November 1985, Stern invited his former boss to chat on the air, “for which I caught a lot of grief from NBC corporate,” Parsons reflects. “I didn’t really care because I liked Howard and I felt I owed it to him.”
Unlike his WNBC predecessor, Parsons recognized the talent that Stern embodied.
“Howard’s creativity was, and still is, unsurpassed. If all Howard had going for him was outrageousness, he would have burned out long ago,” Parsons says. “He’s funny, intelligent, and the best interviewer in the business.”
The mega-deal with Infinity Broadcasting gave Stern his familiar afternoon slot at K-Rock. But his career went to the next level when the station moved him to mornings just three months later. National syndication followed, first in Philadelphia. By 1992, Stern had attained a remarkable achievement–the number one morning show simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles.
For 20 years, Stern was one of the top radio personalities in the country. His show, though, was also the most fined in FCC history. That crackdown on Stern’s creativity led to a tough choice: should he walk away from terrestrial radio for the burgeoning satellite radio world? In the end, FCC regulations and beaucoup money won out.
Longtime radio manager Walter Sabo, while running his Sabo Media company, was the on-site executive on-demand for Sirius. He played a key role in bringing Stern to Sirius.
“Why wouldn’t I? Any programmer would,” Sabo tells FishbowlNY. “It was the game changer that drove audience and credibility among advertisers to the medium. Howard’s presence made it simpler and more efficient to recruit talent off and on the air. The level of professionalism increased on and off the air. There is no one more professional than Howard Stern.”
The battle to acquire Stern started in February 2004. Clear Channel yanked the powerful broadcaster from its stations. As John Hogan, CEO and president, said at the time, “Clear Channel drew a line in the sand today with regard to protecting our listeners from indecent content and Howard Stern’s show blew right through it.”
“I called Don Buchwald, his agent. I believe that it was an appropriate moment,” Sabo recalls. “Joe Clayton, the [Sirius] CEO, investors Leon Black and Marc Rowan, plus other executives closed the deal.”
Having Stern in place meant Sirius would have an easier time acquiring new subscribers.
“It put the company in a position of rapid growth, investor attractiveness and gave it the clout to merge with XM,” Sabo admits. “In other words: It meant everything.”
As for a longevity that most only dream about, Sabo says Stern deserves everything that he’s attained, making it happen himself.
“He has 30 years of focused, studied, experience. No one prepares as meticulously as Howard. No one studies his craft as rigorously as Howard,” Sabo contends. “No one makes it sound easier when in fact doing a radio show without songs is the hardest form of entertainment to master. The hardest form of entertainment to master! Period!”
FishbowlNY was denied a request to interview Stern for this piece. In trying to reach others in the Stern camp, we were unsuccessful.
Stern, 58, has come full circle in his extraordinary career. He recently returned to NBC, now on the TV side, as a judge on the summer hit, America’s Got Talent. He received the ultimate accolade in June, in learning he’d be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame November 10.
While the Stern show has always been about sexual topics, Metheny argues that defiance is the driver of the program.
“Howard is a great storyteller,” Metheny says. “…He was playing that game. He was developing the play of that game at a previously inexperienced level.
“Did I as an individual as part of the team of managers who green-lighted this thing get [the idea] that he was something very special? Yeah. Did we get how much and how so? Probably not,” Metheny admits.
Today, Stern is a master of his craft, which has led to an indirect setback for the industry.
“Howard’s arrival in New York led to a lot of bad copycat radio throughout the industry. Station managers believed if you hired a host with a female sidekick, put a couple of extra people in the studio to laugh and clap and said the word ‘penis’ enough, you would get big ratings,” Parsons says. “Howard made it look easy. I believe everyone after him has paled in comparison.”
Photo credit #2: toptenz.net