It’s time for the King of All Media to relinquish his throne.
This New York native followed Howard Stern from his early days at W-NNNN-BC all the way to his current perch atop SiriusXM Satellite Radio. But it becomes more clear every day his best broadcasts are behind him. He's done all he can to promote satellite radio, and his impact on the culture, much to the dismay of social conservatives, is secure. The longer he lingers, the more his legacy fades. Stern may have precious little in common with “The Tonight Show” legend Johnny Carson, but the silver-haired talker knew how to exit show business gracefully - near the top of his game.
It's odd that a man who talks about lesbians, sodomy and bodily excretions can stain his own career simply by talking, but that’s what’s happening on the days Stern is heard live via satellite. Being King must have its perks, since in addition to taking every Friday off Stern’s current vacation schedule would make Carson blush.
The modern version of “The Howard Stern Show” reveals a performer far more concerned with navel gazing than skewering sacred cows. When Stern savages a subject now, it’s more often because he or she dared to cross his path. Today’s Stern seems disinterested in lampooning the powerful. Yes, he still swats Oprah Winfrey whenever the chance appears, but he barely lays a glove on a vulnerable president or the stars in his expanding inner circle.
The young Stern gained our trust because he was one of us, a workaday father and husband who understood what it’s like to sit in traffic, deal with inept co-workers and field complaints from an irate spouse. The modern Stern is part of the media power structure, and he knows it. That air of entitlement seeps into every monologue, distancing himself from us in ways that can’t be mended.
The loss of sidekick Artie Lange dealt Stern's show a serious blow. Lange not only brought a nonstop barrage of humor to the broadcasts, but he took the spotlight off the increasingly self-obsessed Stern. Would you rather hear Lange’s take on “American Idol,” or listen as Stern rants about how much money he’d need to “save” the show? Now, with Lange in an extended break to recover from a suicide attempt, there’s no forceful personality to counteract Stern’s shtick. And it shows.
The program’s best comic bits now come from Stern’s “Dumb and Dumber” sidekicks Sal Governale and Richard Christy. The duo generate brilliant prank phone calls, the kind that both reinvent the tired genre and leave listeners gasping for air between laughs.
The phoniness in Stern’s shtick is tough to take for longtime listeners. Remember how he used to blast the likes of Cousin Brucie, Jay Thomas and Bubba the Love Sponge, radio personalities he deemed unfit to shine his oversized shoes? Now, they're part of the big, happy SiriusXM family, with Bubba even sharing a channel alongside Stern.
Stern’s contract is set to expire at the end of the year, and already listeners have had to suffer through retirement threats. Pit bulls have nothing on Stern when it comes to biting onto something and not letting go. So consider the next few weeks to be tortured with hints of his future plans and threats to leave his radio gig.
The Long Island native could always attempt a career overhaul, bringing his R-rated romp to a new medium. Stern still has the clout, in theory, to launch an Internet-based radio show and bring tons of attention to the new venture. Or, he could team up with some whiz kids and launch an iPhone app to let fans hear the show on their terms.
But does Stern have any fire left in his belly for such a task? His rigorous vacation schedule reveals a man who can’t wait for the weekend - or Friday, in his case.
Stern thrived for decades not because he pushed the envelope or aired naughty bits, but because he spoke with candor and humor on issues too many broadcasters wouldn’t touch. His critics never understood his true appeal.
Those who discount Stern’s legacy do so at the risk of ignoring a game changer. Experts kept predicting he would fail over the last 20-plus years. So it will be fitting if he goes out near the top, on his own terms, and leaves said critics as wrong as they ever were.
There’s still no one else like Stern on the dial - or podcast. Listening to him chat up Billy Joel recently proved he can still tease nuggets out of even the most jaded celebrity. But the misses of late far outweigh the hits, and that’s not like Stern at all.
So let’s pay tribute to the King by wishing him a healthy, happy retirement - and a legacy fitting a man of his gifts.