Earlier this week marked the 30th anniversary of Howard Stern's move to WXRK-FM, where the self-proclaimed King of All Media reigned for 20 years. Stern, who grew up in Roosevelt and Rockville Centre, left the station in 2005 for a $500 million contract with Sirius Radio. In 1993, Newsday visited with Stern's Long Island family during a media blitz for the publication of his memoir, "Private Parts," which later became a movie with Stern starring as himself, chronicling the balance of building his controversial career while maintaining his relationship with then-wife Alison.
This story was originally published in Newsday on Oct. 7, 1993
BY MID-AFTERNOON there's a TV crew in the dining room, a magazine photographer in the living room, a reporter in the breakfast nook, another one just snooping around. There's a photographer taking pictures in the upstairs bathroom. The place is overrun, it's a zoo; the White House doesn't attract a crowd like this.
But as far as Ben and Ray Stern are concerned, it's another glorious September day, sunshiny and 70 degrees, a day designed for the counting of blessings. And what could be more of a blessing than to be able to open their Rockville Centre home to all the media who are showing such intense interest in their only son, Howard, whose comic memoir "Private Parts" is coming out tomorrow.
Sure, Howard's celebrity has its drawbacks. "I can't walk down the street with my son anymore," says his mom, Ray.
And then there are the people who just don't get it. They say, "I can't believe you're such a nice lady and this is your son."
But mostly, it's a positive experience being Howard Stern's mom: "Just last week a woman said to me, 'I want to thank you for mothering such a wonderful son.' That was so fulfilling to hear, because you realize that they understand underneath all the jokes -- and sometimes it gets a little raunchy or whatever -- they understand what Howard's all about, and they understand his sensitivity."
Seated on the couch surrounded by the dated-but-not-faded haute bourgeois furnishings of her living room, wearing pearls with a smart red blazer and a black dress, Ray Stern emanates a maternal pride and joy that would seem corny if it weren't accented by a distinct twinkle of the eye. And there's not a spin doctor in the universe who could hope to sell the idea of Howard Stern's "sensitivity" any more effectively than this dignified, gracious 65-year-old woman.
She allows that her son does get a little carried away now and again, like when he gloats about the death of an enemy. ("The friggin' idiot dropped dead. Cow-faced loser. I hope he died of cancer.") Then there are all those women coming up to the studio and getting naked so Howard can drum on their "butt bongos." And sometimes the talk just hits too close to home, like when his wife had a miscarriage and he joked about taking a picture of the blob for the grandparents.
That's when it's mom time: "If I don't like it, I will call him and tell him."
So then he puts her on the air and asks about her sex life, in graphic detail. ("You don't get up on all fours, do you?")
Not many moms have had this conversation with their sons over a mass medium. No problem for her.
"What are we all uptight about?" she wonders. "There's nothing to get excited about here . . .
"I don't think his sense of humor is vulgar, I don't find him vulgar at all. I never censored Howard at home, and yet he always had good taste and judgment."
Good taste and judgment? Hello? Is it possible there has been some big mix-up, and this is the mother of a Howard Stern other than the one who is routinely characterized as obscene, outrageous, sexist, homophobic and racist by people who are sensitive to what he says on the air? Or have we entered the Twilight Zone, a parallel universe where nasty is nice, and vice versa?
The question is: Is this nice lady Ray Stern in denial, or is she revealing an essential truth about her son when she says the radio show is a "spoof," and that the Howard she knows "is a different person."
Will the real Howard Stern please stand up?
'I know he always wanted to do something verbally," says Ben Stern, a hale gentleman of 70 years.
It all started with puppet shows. For the grown-ups it was Jerry Mahoney and "Fiddler on the Roof." Down in the basement it was another story, sailors and pirates and even horses being naughty with the nice little puppet girl.
"Anything he wanted to do creatively, I always supported him," says Ben. "I built him a stage for the marionette. He wanted to have a band, so I got him a keyboard and wired it up and made him an amplifier."
Ben was part owner of a recording studio, and he used to make tapes of the children on the holidays. (Their daughter Ellen, who lives in Merrick, is four years older than Howard.) He'd ask them questions about current events, the Kennedys and the UN. "So when I asked him these serious questions, he ends up with being a wiseguy. And so I got mad and said, 'Shut up and sit down. Don't be stupid, you moron.'"
Over the years, Howard has gotten a lot of mileage out of that tape. "My father's favorite sport was yelling," he writes in the book. "And he was pretty scary . . . And being called a moron to me was real. I thought I was a moron."
But name-calling is no big deal as far as Ben Stern is concerned. "We put too much credence on words," he says. "Actions are what count. I mean, people talk all day long -- it doesn't mean nothin'."
Living in Roosevelt gave the Sterns an important lesson in the relationship between actions and words. Their white friends and neighbors would have meetings about remaining in the neighborhood as more and more blacks moved in, and then they'd move out by cover of night. In one of the great backfires in the history of liberal social engineering, the Sterns decided to make a stand.
"Meanwhile," Howard writes, "I was beginning to get the -- beat out of me every day by the welfare recipients who are moving into my neighborhood . . . By the time I hit seventh grade there were only a handful of white kids left in the school. That's when the beatings began to get regular."
He felt like an outcast. White friends from other neighborhoods wouldn't come visit, and his best black friend was beaten for hanging out with a white guy. That was the last straw; when Howard was 15, they moved.
"I didn't know it was as bad as he made it out to seem," says Ben. For Howard's father, "It really wasn't that bad. I mean, I never had a robbery there."
"It wasn't any better in Rockville Centre," Howard writes. "I couldn't adjust at all. I was totally lost in a white community. I felt like Tarzan when they got him out of Africa and brought him back to England."
Walking into the foyer of his parents' living room, Howard still looks out of place, a refreshing shot of upset to the staid suburban decorum. He's an an exotic bird of a man -- tall, all arms and legs and long hair -- draped with with bracelets and chains and a loose sweater over a suede vest, sleeveless T-shirt, white jeans and big black boots. He keeps his circle sunglasses on indoors.
He's wilted from having put in a day's work already, so he goes upstairs to freshen up, with the help of his stylist, Ralph. Recently they've gone from the layered shag haircut he's featured for so long to the "one-length look."
"I work hard to make Howard look good," says Ralph soberly.
Not as hard as Alison, Howard's college sweetheart and wife of 15 years. "I think when people see me, it makes him look a little more normal," she says.
IT'S TRUE that she looks more regular than he does -- fewer eccentricities, but also stylish in a youthful way, dressed mostly in black -- but she's not just talking about visuals. She means the impression he creates with the way he treats women on the show, as if each and every one of them had volunteered for bachelor party duty. It's taken her a long time to get used to it -- their own sex life, of course, provides an endless source of raw material - but she's arrived at an understanding.
"He's being like Everyman, and saying things to men in general," Alison says. "The wife on the radio is a wife he's created. It's based a little bit on me, and some of it he twists and embellishes."
Alison and Howard, both 39, have three daughters, ages 10, 7, and a few months. The family lives in a very private home on the North Shore; Howard and Alison try to shelter the kids from the consequences of Howard's celebrity (they've had to move twice because of intrusions), and that's why the home is off-limits for interviews.
By all accounts, the Sterns lead a very low-key life that puts a premium on good old-fashioned family values, and if that comes as a shocker, maybe you just haven't listened long and hard enough. "I think you can hear the values he has and that he is a caring husband and a caring father," says Alison. "I think it's from things taken out of context that people tend not to understand the full picture of him."
Surely, though, no one is more responsible for that than Howard himself. The afterword to "Private Parts" is a psychological profile prepared by a couple of psychotherapists based on their reading of the book. The subject expresses these tendencies and traits:
Obsessive compulsive: bullying, voyeuristic, self-centered.
Narcissistic: exploitative, especially with women; adolescent sexual fantasies; lacks a sense of empathy.
Histrionic: must be center of attention; seductive, interjecting sex into nearly every conversation.
Passive-aggressive: argumentative and uncooperative.
Enjoys having power over people, is highly amused by the suffering of others . . . Sadistic tendencies based on his own sense of shame . . . needs therapy . . . .
As Howard's wife and a former psychiatric social worker, Alison is uniquely qualified to appraise this evaluation. "I thought it was pretty accurate based on what they know of him from the persona from the radio," she says. "How could you think differently?"
So what he does on the radio is a persona?
"He doesn't like to say that, but it really is," Alison says. "I think it's a part of him, but it's too draining to be a part of him twenty-four hours a day. He's very private. But he's a performer, so he goes to perform, and he pushes things."
IT'S EASY to see, especially here in the familial love nest, why so many people who know Howard, or feel that they do, are so fond of him. He's a combination of larger-than-life and down-to-earth; he exudes personal charm, in roughly inverse proportion to the obnoxiousness that is his stock-in-trade on the radio; in conversation, he's engaging, lively and just plain funny.
It's also easy to see why he is reviled by so many. He's extremely opinionated, and a great many of his opinions do not seem to be informed by fact-based logic, or generosity of spirit. Howard may be a comedian, but he talks on too many real issues to too many people -- some 15 million listeners a week in 14 markets (ranked number one in New York on WXRK [92.3 FM], Boston, Philly and L.A.) -- not to be taken seriously.
For instance, he must mean to be inflammatory when he says in "Private Parts" of Rodney King, "They didn't beat this idiot enough." Or when he says the sweetest fruit of the civil rights movement was "Porking white babes." When he says the L.A. rioters "all should have been mowed down right there and then."
"The people who are offended by those chapters are the phony white liberals who all moved out of Roosevelt and people like them who have never lived next door to a black person, have never tried to live in an integrated situation and wouldn't even try in the first place," he says in his parents' living room.
Howard's politics amount to a brand of splatter libertarian populism that intends to deflate sanctimony of any kind, and yet they're founded on a bedrock of law-and-order, middle-class conservatism. "The secret to life, as far as I'm concerned, is just follow the easy path: get a wife, have sex with your wife; you've got kids, pay attention to them. Go to your job, eat dinner, come home, go to sleep."
Yet Howard himself has hardly chosen the path of least resistance. He generates controversy, and when the FCC comes down with fines for stations that carry him on the grounds of indecency, he can't believe it.
"I'm shocked that there're people different than me that actually get shocked by this kind of stuff, by honesty," he says.
He's fully aware, however, that transgression lies at the source of his appeal. "We are probably the most repressed society in the world. It's a society filled with shame and guilt. That's why I'm successful."
Sometimes it seems he's defying listeners to have a conscience. Last week he read the headline that 21,000 people from India had perished in an earthquake, and called for a laugh track. He has spoken about having a dark side, and appealing to something evil inside of each listener.
"The dark side, if you will, is the fact that I have this compulsion to entertain. There's something in me that makes me keep pushing and going, you know? I don't know what it is. It's just my makeup. I wanna be successful, I wanna be funny. So I just keep going and going. And since I have no ability to assess what the hell I'm doing, I just keep going too far. I've already gone too far and I'm going further."
What is too far?
"I don't really think that you can go too far on the radio."
It takes a flexible mind to accommodate such seeming contradictions, and Howard Stern is full of them: family man and Fartman; sweetheart and master of sarcasm; loyal husband and pig-party emcee. He gets to have it both ways.
Q: Your friends, your parents, Alison, all say the radio persona is an act . . .
Howard: People say, "Who is the real Howard Stern? The guy we hear on the radio or the guy who's off the air?" And that's a good question. When I get on the radio, I think I'm more myself than at any time in the day; after four or five hours, I can tell you exactly how I feel about any given topic. I feel very much myself. And I feel in our real life we all have to play-act. I think there's a certain way you have to behave in reality.
Q: With your family?
Howard: Same thing. There's a lot of role-playing that goes on if you want to have any kind of life with other people, unless you want to be locked in a box by yourself for the rest of your life. So I feel very much that the radio Howard Stern is me; it's me the way that I can be on the radio, and in real life I have to play-act.
Q: Alison, how does that fall on your ears?
Howard: Alison's not supposed to be in the room!
Alison: I think it's interesting. I've never quite heard it like that.
Howard: Tomorrow I'll change my opinion. No. That's all right. You know, that's what I feel.
Alison: Hearing you say it, it sounds very harsh. Like I'm not married to the real person.
Howard: That's [expletive], though. She's married to Howard at home. And Howard at home is someone that she's happy with. So what's wrong with that? Whether that's really me or not? That's another aspect of me.
Alison: I guess it's just another aspect of . . .
Howard: I think I'm one big [expletive] schizophrenic. That's the, uh -- that's the problem. I'm not sure who I am. I said to Alison the other night, "You know, I don't know who I am."