Stern Fan in Recovery
Hello everyone. My name is Serge, and I am a recovering Howard Stern fan.
I feel like I'm at an AA meeting when I say it, but it feels oddly good to get it off my chest. Howard Stern has been a significant figure for roughly half of my life, and only in the last year or so have I really begun to understand the influence of the show on me, the kind of person Howard Stern really is, and how that plays into my own past trauma and pathology. This has allowed me to understand myself better and heal in new and significant ways. But I'm getting ahead of myself- let me start at the beginning.
I had a pretty lonely childhood. I didn't have siblings. I went to “special school” (ie “Special Ed”) and my parents did a number on me emotionally. Both my parents learned early on that they could use fear of abandonment as a tool to control me, so they both cultivated it. At age eight, my father threatened me that he would quote “Come to my school and tell the other students all of my secrets”. As an adult now, I don't know what kind of shameful secrets my father would have told my third grade classmates, but at the time the idea was scary and filled me with shame.
This type of threat was commonplace in my home. Mirroring it, when I was seventeen, my mother said that she hoped my girlfriend would quote “Find out what a terrible person I really was” and leave me.
I grew up being told that no one would want to be my friend and that friends I did make would “learn who I was” and wouldn't want to be around me anymore.
At around age 16, I first heard Howard Stern on the radio. I now know it was during “The News”, a segment on the show when Howard's assistant Robin would read out the day's news and Howard would comment.
“Adopted kids will kill their parents.”, I heard the deep, manly voice on the radio exclaim.
“Not all adopted children, Howard.”, I heard the woman on the radio respond, chuckling.
“Yes Robin, all of them. All adopted children will kill their parents.”
It was so extreme as to be absurd. It was trolling, years before I would know the word.
On an interview I saw on the news, Howard made a similarly absurd statement about cybersex on Prodigy chat rooms, explaining to the interviewer that in his new book, he had transcribed his experiences with online sex chatrooms, but that if the interviewer asked his wife, Howard would tell her that this was all fiction, quote “a bit for the radio”– but that we, the audience, knew the real truth.
As an Andy Kaufman fan, I saw it as an extension of that style of comedy- of breaking the fourth wall and provoking a response.
I was in love.
I stayed in love as I continued to listen and heard radio bits such as when Howard punished received low ratings in Dallas and in retaliation, decided to “punish his audience” with bad music, or when he went on the air after supposedly “saving a suicidal man”, Howard planned a press conference on the air, planning out each word and even the responses of others around him. We, the audience, were in on every moment, and so when Howard then held his press conference live on the air and we heard the press conference go off exactly as planned, including a seemingly impromptu conversation between Howard and Robin about whether or not he should be called a hero. I was infatuated.
Howard played a huge role in my life from then on. I would wake up at 5:45 in order not to miss the show. In college I programmed my computer to tune the radio to the local Stern station, record the show onto my hard drive and then encode it into an mp3 that I would sync to my portable mp3 player. This was in 1998, three years before the launch of the iPod and six years before the term “podcasting”.
I kept this setup throughout college and beyond. I listened to the Howard Stern show almost every day. On the day he left terrestrial radio for satellite, I listened live at work and had to excuse myself to the bathroom not to let my coworkers see me cry.
I moved with him to Sirius radio and just as Howard had promised, the show was better than ever. Not only did Howard seem invigorated, but the program director, Tim Sabean, had transformed the Howard Stern show from a single show to an entire galaxy of programming, including The Wrap Up Show- a show by Stern show staffers about the day's show, the Intern Show, a show about the Stern show from the perspective of show interns, to wackier shows like the Riley Martin Show, a radio show about space aliens hosted by an occasional guest who claimed to have been abducted by aliens and brought back to earth to share a message of both peace and warnings, and to sell crudely drawn pictures that would be used as tickets to get the owner on an intergalactic space ship.
Howard had created a larger version of what his show had been to me- a way of feeling like I was part of a group- of being on the inside, and now there was more content than even I could consume.
For a lonely kid who didn't feel safe at home or have many friends, the Stern Show felt like more than home, it felt like family. And that's no wonder, as I was listening to the show nearly every day, absorbing each morning discussion of Stern and other staffer's personal life, show bits, celebrity interviews, wack pack segments, and the news. I listened to the show far more than I spoke with my actual family, and in turn I felt like I'd learned life lessons from the show, especially as they related to early Stern bits such as remaining faithful to one's spouse, virtues around not being hypocritical, and speaking truth to power, even if it made you less popular.
I didn't always agree with everything the show did. I didn't care for the strippers and I didn't like that Howard made fun of people who were different or disadvantaged such as black people, homosexuals or transgender people, but I explained away those problematic bits as being either about the times the show aired, satire, or an artifact of Howard's age and generation. Like a favorite uncle, I didn't have to agree with everything he said to love him.
One day my boss asked me how many hours a week I listened to Howard Stern. I did the math and calculated that I listened around twenty or twenty-five hours a week. He said “...That's got to affect your mind.”
He was right. It did.
The show felt /good/. It felt fun and even loving in a way.
I saw myself in Howard- a geeky Jew who was misunderstood and rebelled against the system. I didn't think Howard would necessarily like me if he met me but I could at least have someone to look up to.
When long time show writer Jackie Martling left and Artie Lange came in, it felt strange in a way that I imagine it feels when a mother brings home a new boyfriend. But in time I came to accept him into the family as well, a lovable lug from New Jersey, the same state as I was from.
Similarly, I felt odd when Star Trek's George Takei became the show's guest announcer and sit-in guest, talking in candid detail about his past and present sexual activity, his sexual schedule (Sunday is sex day) and where and how he preferred to masturbate. It was odd, but I knew more about this actor's sexual life than I did about my neighbors or even many of my friends.
Once Artie left the show in 2009, the tenor of the show changed. It felt emptier and slower. I thought that just as the show had gone through a lull after Jackie left, that the show would bounce back once again once it found its rhythm and pacing, or possibly a new cast member to fill the role.
But that didn't happen. Instead, the show just became slower and more repetitive, more structured and less spontaneous. Staff drama had always been a staple of the show, but now it felt more over-hyped and manufactured.
Some time around 2015 or 2016, I realized I didn't care any more and I stopped listening to the show. It wasn't a conscious decision at first. I would go days without listening and then listen to a show. At some point I just stopped listening and didn't really start up again.
I still listened to old shows. I enjoyed “Classic Stern”. I found old shows online and replayed them.
Every once in a while I would find a copy of a new show someone had posted online and give it a listen. Sadly the luster on the show had worn off and I retreated back to old clips from classic moments on the show.
But something changed in the last year.
After the pandemic hit, I was alone. I found myself isolated from my fiancee and my pets by a national border. I was alone in my apartment for about fifteen months. During this time, I also had a very bad ending to something that spanned friendship, collaborator, and planned business partner. The word relationship is often used to mean a romantic relationship, but this relationship felt as close as it could be without any romantic or sexual feelings.
The relationship ended because I became that the person I was collaborating with was a narcissist. As I began to ask for solid commitments in exchange for my free work and began to assert boundaries, the interactions became more toxic until I had to end the relationship altogether.
This was sadly not my first time at the rodeo. My childhood has left me with a lot of scars and codependency, or what psychologist Ross Rosenberg calls “self-love deficit”. Simply put, I am always afraid of being rejected, and especially susceptible to people who are affectionate. This makes me especially vulnerable to people with Cluster-B personality types, including Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
But back to Stern...
I'd been interested in the experiences of other listeners and also looking for updates about Artie Lange, who was no longer part of the show. Through that journey, I began to hear about horror stories such as when long time Stern show engineer Scott Salem asked Howard if he could raise money to try to cure his wife's cancer and in response, Stern had him first demoted, then fired.
More than that, other former staffers began coming out to talk about their experiences working on the show including draconian rules such as not being allowed to greet Howard in the hall, no communication with, or even about ex-staffers, having their jobs kept in limbo for extended periods, as well as a pattern of severe underpayment accompanied by insults or humiliation about the notion of leaving. While on-the-air humiliation was a staple of the show, I'd always assumed it was countered with a positive working environment off the air, but the pattern of mistreatment of staffers was consistent and complete- Howard mistreated his staff, and always had since the early days.
As I learned more about the show's inner workings, my feelings turned from disappointment to anger. How could Howard treat his staff so badly? How could he humiliate them both on and off the air? And how could I have been either blind to it or make excuses for it all of these years?
All of this has lead me to “Quite Frankly: A Howard Stern podcast”, hosted by two former Stern fans, Jim and Samantha. These two hosts, sometimes joined by guests, take apart old Stern shows and analyze them critically. They deconstruct the show's contents and show Howard's truth distortions, lies and manipulation. They also bring on expert guests to analyze the show through lenses such as psychology, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder and how we as an audience can identify these traits.
I've listened go nearly a dozen of their shows, which now number nearly a hundred, and while I don't always agree with the hosts or their presentation, I understand it. Both Jim and Samantha seem angry, genuinely angry at Howard and at the show, which is understandable...
Howard garnished not just listeners, but superfans, people like myself who would listen to the entire show, start to finish, buy not only his books, but those of his staffers as well, and continue to do so for years, even decades. It makes sense that when faced with such fanaticism, those same people don't turn the show off, when they realized they've been suckered, they feel angry and betrayed, and that is exactly how it is with the two hosts. The two hosts clearly know their Stern history as only superfans do and yet there's dismissiveness and derision in their voice when talking about the man himself.
Listening to this pocdcast feels like therapy, or at least catharsis, not only for the love I had for Howard Stern and his show, but also for the ways that Howard used his show and his image to pull the wool over our eyes.
Through it, I feel myself healing from the experience of a twenty year relationship that came at a vital time in my life and shaped who I am and how I saw the world. I see not only the patterns in Howard, but also the patterns in past relationships, of a former colleague who still uses their fame and persona to garner a fan base, and even sometimes in ways that I see myself reflected in Howard's behavior.
I asked my therapist once why we talk about the past in therapy. He said that while we can't actually go back in time that we can use therapy to find a new way to relate to past events and bring an awareness and understanding that we didn't have the first time. Listening to Quite Frankly feels like therapy, and I feel like I'm gaining a deeper awareness of myself than I ever have. The old Stern show bits still have a place in my past and my heart. Like my dysfunctional childhood, I'll always love them, but now I cringe at the way that Howard bullies and humiliates his staff, manipulates the callers and railroads his guests. The show makes me cringe. This mix of affection and cringe is good. It's healthy. It lets me know that I'm healing and learning. It's all anyone can do.
If you're an ex-Stern fan, I hope you are joining me on this journey of understanding. If you still love Stern, then the words I've said probably have no impact. And if you're someone who never liked Stern, I hope that this has given you insight onto why I did and the way that he and his show gave me a sense of belonging when I needed it most.
Now, at 42, I'm moving on and making my own family and community.
Here are some links that have opened my eyes:
Timeline of the Stern Show Decline
An article in the New York Post about the quality of the Howard Stern Show
What Happened to Howard Stern?
Artie Lang goes on Opie and Anthony and talks about what happened between him and Howard
Jackie, Billy West and Stuttering John talk about their experiences on the Stern Show