Paul McCartney, Billy Joel & More on Radio's 'Coolest' Jockey
Stern's thirst for knowledge and a penchant for not taking himself too seriously have fueled a career unparalleled in radio, or elsewhere for that matter. Considered in his early days as a PD's nightmare known for risqué bits and less than full adherence to the rules, his overwhelming ratings success proved his model valid. The eventual syndication of "The Howard Stern Show" brought him national acclaim and prominence, aided a pair of million-selling books, his box-office blockbuster and multiple network TV versions of his radio broadcast.
This month, the host of "The Howard Stern Show" will celebrate his 60th birthday with a star-studded birthday bash set to air live on SiriusXM on Jan. 31 (19 days after his actual birthday). The party is a gift to his loyalists—open only to active SiriusXM subscribers lucky enough to win their way in for a night of music, comedy and Stern interviewing special guests—with the festivities to be hosted by ABC late-night host and friend Jimmy Kimmel.
Ahead of the bash, Stern sat down with Billboard to discuss not only his first eight years at the satellite broadcaster but also all the media over which he's reigned in a career that led to his induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2012.
The Business of Baba Booey: Q&A w/ Stern's Right-Hand Man
Billboard: You've had two great years at "America's Got Talent," SiriusXM is throwing you a big birthday special, you have a happy marriage, your staff is stable, and your co-host Robin Quivers is healthy after battling cancer. Is it safe to say that this is the most content you've been, personally and professionally?
Stern: That's absolutely fair to say. And thank God for that, because it's all been such an emotional roller coaster my entire career. Also, we're big on meetings and collaboration. I never say that I'm the show by myself.
The relationship with SiriusXM is great. [Editor's note: In 2011, Stern and his agent, Don Buchwald, filed a lawsuit against SiriusXM for allegedly failing to pay promised stock bonuses for helping the company exceed targeted audience growth. The suit was dismissed in 2012.] I keep a journal. About a year before I was going to Sirius [which would later merge with rival XM], I had just signed, and I said, "Sirius is at 400,000 subscribers," and I wrote down, "I can envision a day where there'll be 30 million subscribers." I told my crew and they said I was crazy. Now it's happening. We're up to 25 million paid subscribers.
A lot of my fellow broadcasters were so angry with me when I left terrestrial radio. They were like, "Don't talk about him." But I said, "Guys, there are more jobs for us. If satellite takes off, the Internet takes off, we're in the driver's seat—content is king!" I knew if satellite could be developed, it would be a great tool for all broadcasters.
At this point in my career, I feel more like a mentor than anything. The first day I got to Sirius, they brought me in and they stood up and applauded. They were applauding because they knew that I represented a future for the company. It was really debatable, but I said I will work to make this thing work because I believe in it.
This is my dream, and I feel like we've created a new home for broadcasters. I'm doing radio the way I wanted to as a little kid. Language isn't an issue. I don't have the government up my ass. It's fantastic. It's a great place to broadcast.
You seem appreciative that not only did your audience follow you to a subscription model, but that it's a template that can work for other broadcasters.
I'll give you an analogy. When I was in high school I was a really shitty student. But my father said, "If you go to college, I'll pay for it." I graduated [from Boston University] magna cum laude, and you know why? Because someone was paying for school. How dare I be that arrogant? The idea that the audience pays to hear it, I feel more of an obligation to deliver a great show and to evolve, to make my show new every day, and to find new talent and create new channels.
Let's get more specific: How do you see broadcasting evolving?
In my mind, I've got it all figured out, and I've got smart people who talk to me about it. I didn't come up with it on my own, but I really do see where broadcasters will be king. In 10 years, it will be so different. Every broadcaster who has real drawing power will control his own destiny, will be the actual medium.
We have a lot of ways we can go, and I don't know what the best way is, so I'm seeking the advice of experts. We're in a very aggressive discussion. People with real jaws are going to have an app, an environment. They're not going to need anything. Your fans are going to be able to talk to each other. You're going to have your own universe. We're so close.
Your contract with SiriusXM runs out at the end of 2015. Where do you see yourself in two years?
I don't know. There's no reason to leave. It's pretty fucking great. They're adapting. They understood from the beginning that content was the thing that was going to drive this model.
It's not enough to be a music service. The guy who I had my first meeting with about Sirius was Leon Black. Leon's a real bright guy, and not a radio guy. I was attracted to that immediately. Radio guys have a very limited range and view. We're saying, "Come to the party, we'll give you football, music, and more. Could you, after having Sirius XM, go back to listening to terrestrial radio? Could you ever go back to listening to all of the commercials?
I knew I could do a lot of business with satellite and that we could really change things. I got extra bold and said, "I think we'll take XM. We'll gobble their ass up, too." When I met with XM, I said, "I think whichever one of you hires me will end up winning." Sirius believed me, and I don't think XM did.
How much satisfaction do you get not only with XM, but also with the wake you left on the terrestrial side, going back to WNBC New York disappearing after you left, and later heritage stations WXRK New York and WBCN Boston?
Who could've imagined? I swear to God on a stack of bibles, when I first got into radio, I was this guy just trying to make a living for $250 a week. That was my goal. I never thought I'd ever have any money. I just wanted to do a really wild show.
It was such a slow process, and I'm a big believer in a slow process. If I had an intern who wanted to be on-air, I'd tell them to not work for me anymore, stop, go out, find a small market, and do that, none of this big-market thing. It's getting harder and harder to do that in terrestrial radio, but if you're able to go out and get an audience . . . see the ratings come back, see where you fucked up and see where you did it right. All of that is the testing ground for what you're going to be doing.
I feel so completely gratified that when I've left radio stations, they've crumbled. I don't care what anyone says; when you leave, you hope they don't do well. The idea that all of the Viacom stations melted down in the morning—and they tried everything—I love it.
I've always managed to make a lot of money for my employers. I've always worked with the sales department. Those people put in so many hours. Any broadcaster who doesn't have respect for their sales department is a fool, and you will not succeed. You have to work in tandem with the sales department. And, from getting to be friendly with sales departments, they are some of the funniest people. I'm convinced radio has it backwards. I'd fire all the DJs and make them be sales people, and let the sales people on the air. That's where radio is going: real conversation, real people, it's completely morphed.
Well, you're the one who started the notion of "real" people on the air. You're a trailblazer in terms of revolutionizing the talk radio format.
That all came out of listening to a lot of radio as a kid. When I'd hear a noise in the back of the room—probably a cart falling or somebody coming into the room—I was like, "Why don't they tell us what's happening? I want to know!" It killed me that they didn't bring it in.
Why were you the one to bring that in?
Again, I think a lot of people don't think outside the box. "We have to sound professional!" God forbid we hear something human going on. The best moments on the radio are when we're human: arguments, laughter. When I'd hear a broadcaster laugh because they couldn't control it, that was just great.
Next: Howard On Late-Night TV, 'America's Got Talent' & Miley Cyrus' Music
Was your early fascination with radio due to the personalities you heard?
I didn't listen to a lot of talk radio. The guy I listened to growing up was Bob Grant, who to me was probably the best broadcaster. [Editor's note: Shortly after this interview, Grant died at age 84.] The reason I got turned on to Bob Grant is my father, a big fan of talk radio, would be listening in the car—my father didn't want to talk to me, he wanted to listen to Bob—and he'd complain. Top of the hour came on and they did a five- to 10-minute newscast on WABC. He'd go, "Why do we want to hear this dopey news?" Bob was who we wanted to hear. That was a lesson that registered with me.
You got fired, however, from your very first radio job, at Boston University's WTBU.
I was at WTBU, and I sent my dad a tape, and he was very harsh. He said it's like the clown car. Those guys learn to be acrobats first. He said, "Why don't you learn to be a straight broadcaster?"
So, I went out and got a job at a progressive radio station and really tried to be an announcer, which I wasn't very good at. And, a lot of what I did was in reaction to not being a very good straight broadcaster. What I would do is if I would fall behind with the records, I'd start to bring the audience in. If I was having a nervous breakdown, I'd tell the audience I was having a nervous breakdown.
I was always fascinated by radio, and my father was a radio engineer first. He was the engineer at WHOM. [The New York station later became WXRK, Stern's last terrestrial home base. It's now WNOW.] When I saw my father as a recording engineer, standing there hitting the button so that Don Adams and Larry Storch could do a "Tennessee Tuxedo" cartoon, I was enamored. Looking at how my father was so reverential to those people, I thought that maybe he could look at me with that kind of respect if I could get behind a microphone.
Is it safe to say you've proven yourself?
I still feel like I have a lot to learn. I still look back and say, "I fucked that up." You've got to care. It would be very easy not to care, but it was never for me to get into radio for the money—it's because I really cared about it, the medium. I thought I could be my funniest, my best on the radio, not anywhere else.
Years ago, I was sitting with Rupert Murdoch. I was at [WXRK] and it was when Fox was getting rid of Joan Rivers' TV talk show. Rupert asked if I wanted to take over that late-night slot. And I was thinking, "Not really," because radio is so fucking great. Radio seemed like security to me. TV seemed like a tricky game where they bail on you in one second. Look at what they did to Chevy Chase. [In 1993], they gave him a talk show and, nine weeks later, they're badmouthing him. Nine weeks earlier, they were saying that Chevy was the savior of late night.
One of the things about radio is that people probably don't realize the work that goes into it. It's not considered as glamorous as TV or movies. Why doesn't radio get that respect?
A lot of radio broadcasters don't respect themselves. I know some guys who are really content. They got into the business because they wanted to party, they wanted to get laid, they wanted to do coke, and they wanted a job where they show up for four hours and play records. There are some guys who can do that. I don't get how it's satisfying. It's hard to respect people who don't put in the hours. I respect show prep.
My dream was to syndicate my radio show. I knew our show would be successful wherever it went. That was the struggle: getting management to believe, like with Bob Grant and the news at the top of the hour.
Did you think that the late-night TV medium was restrictive for the kind of interviews you wanted to do?
Yeah, I did. My dream was to syndicate my radio show. So, saying no to [Fox] was very difficult. All of a sudden, I could've become the man, everyone would've seen me all over the country.
Eventually you set the syndication model for talk-intensive personalities on music-formatted stations.
And every market was a struggle. They said, "Well, you won't do well there." I couldn't believe it. You have to know how to talk to management. You can't come in like a bull in a china shop. That's what people think I did, and I didn't. You have to work with these guys and respect what they do. They've got their own asses to watch out for, too.
I used to take a lot of things personally. I'd treat the GM like my parent, fighting back. He's the GM and he's running a business—he's not worried if you're good at math. He's not going to punish you. He just wants to make money.
Why was it always such a struggle to syndicate?
When you really come up with some new, fresh ideas, a lot of people get frightened. And who could blame them? I'm the GM of a station, making a shit-ton of dough, and here comes this asshole who tells me how to do radio. I remember at WNBC, this guy wanted us to change the news so that Robin and I would sound like the rest. We had the highest ratings of the whole station. I was like, "Why don't you change your news to be like ours?" It didn't make any sense to me. When you're coming up with something new, it's threatening. It really is. And some people in business fear success. They're comfortable where they are, not wanting to cause too many waves.
And those non-risk-takers are responsible for radio finding itself having to compete with so many other options now available to listeners.
I came up with some guys who were non-risk takers, and I don't know where they are now. They're not in radio, for the most part. And that's not a putdown. Not everyone has to be a renegade.
I didn't earn the right to go into a GM's office and tell him what I thought about how to run the radio station until I had put in a bunch of years. You have to earn that respect.
Let's talk about your interviewing skills. They've been honed through the years to where now you bring in guests for 90 minutes with no breaks. With the freedoms of satellite, you're able to provide a forum that can win guests of all walks new fans, due to the way that you open them up and show them in a new light.
Specifically with musicians. I have tremendous respect for musicians. I always saw myself as a useful tool for advertisers because I try to sell product and keep people interested, and a useful tool for the music industry or the film industry.
I like that Lady Gaga chose to come to me when promoting ["ARTPOP"]. She said to me afterward, "Thank God for a good interview. I've done so many dumb ones. Thank you."
People come in and what we do is a really in-depth examination of their life. Again, we do a tremendous amount of research. A lot of publicists come to me in confidence, warning that their clients are introverted. Afterward they go, "Wow, it can be done."
I see our show as having become a place for musicians to walk in and be treated with respect. One of the musicians I respect the most is Billy Joel. I remember Billy was on Oprah [Winfrey's] show one time, and she was just not treating him with respect, and I was like, "Why the fuck is she doing this? Does she know who he is? How difficult it was for him and his career path and how many thousands of hours he put into his career?"
He came into my studio, sat down at a piano and started talking about the process. He said, "The first time I heard the Beatles and they did this riff"—and he starts playing it—"I wanted to do a song that's just as good." He showed how he does it. It was just magic. I didn't have to ask if it was good. I just knew it was.
Jerry Seinfeld, too. He said after an interview recently, "I can't ever come do your show again." I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because we can never top that." It was the best hour-and-a-half. He said, "I didn't know you were so interested in the process of stand-up." I said, "I'm fascinated by it." I can sit there for as long as the artist is willing and we can explore them and jive. It doesn't have to be rushed.
It's an exciting time to be on the radio. I was always wondering if I would leave radio, but not now. I'm having too much fun.
How influential has music been in your life?
Music saved my life. I wasn't a particularly happy kid. I was a lonely kid. I can remember every album I bought, when I bought it and sitting in my room and listening to it. I remember getting a Band album and the record was warped. I mailed it back to the record company. Music meant everything to me. I wrote a paper in high school about George Harrison and the rest of the Beatles being prophets. To me, that was religion.
Does it frustrate you that, according to Nielsen ratings and SiriusXM's subscriber data, late-night TV shows have a small fraction of SiriusXM's audience, yet they seem to have favored status?
Thank you for saying that, because so many artists go, "Oh, we get to go on 'The Tonight Show'!" We have an audience of paying customers. Talk about motivated people, people who actually have to pay for this. We have an incredibly upscale audience, and people don't realize that. We have seen a shift, though. Artists are getting the message.
Metallica just came in—not just playing, but sitting and bullshitting. On our show, for some reason, people do forget that the microphone's there. That's the trick.
There is a give-and-take. You've got to want to. I don't want anyone in my studio who doesn't want to be there. We have such great interviews with Paul McCartney. You can ask "What did you say to John?" at a certain time, and he has that recall. He remembers everything. I remember playing "Ooh You" from his first solo record. He goes, "You know that song?" Of course I do!
What an incredible situation to sit with Paul McCartney and get to speak with him. He's been on three times now, and whenever he has a new project, he comes right in. I feel so good that he feels comfortable. He's very open. He gets a lot off his chest. I take a lot of pride in that.
Which living musician would you love to interview?
I've always said Neil Young, but who knows if he'd be a good interview or not. I'm just a big fan. Prince is another one. It would somehow be really interesting.
I had David Bowie on my show, and I'm a super-huge fan — this was years ago when I was on terrestrial radio. He came and played but he didn't want to be interviewed. That was a big disappointment to me. I would have loved to talk about his career. I could do two hours on his fashion and what a brilliant guy and artist he is.
Is it true that you read Billboard when you were first starting in radio?
My mind was blown when I discovered Billboard. I didn't know anything about broadcasting, how people got on the radio, or anything. At a college radio station, I saw a Billboard magazine. I was looking through it, and there were a couple ads in the back that said, "Apply if you want to be on the air." I was like, "This is how people find out about it!" I was so naive. I knew nothing.
God bless Billboard. Billboard was really important to me. Reading it, I felt like I was in the industry.
How did it feel to have a No. 1 Billboard 200 hit with the "Private Parts" soundtrack?
It was a crazy week, not only being No. 1 on Billboard, but I had the No. 1 movie in the country and the No. 1 book.
Thanks, by the way, for running down the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 on the air each week, including chart facts and stats that we write about.
It brings out my inner Casey Kasem.
Do you stay current with pop music?
Yeah. We had Katy Perry on the show and she was really great. I love her music. Miley Cyrus has committed to come on the show. I would love to interview her. She's making really great music. I love pop music. My tastes go all over the place.
Is there anything you won't ask people in your interviews? And do women get more nervous to come on because it might get too personal? Are there any boundaries?
Women do get nervous. People have conjured up this image of me that I'm going to attack them. My own sister was coming down to watch one of my birthday shows one year and she said to me, "You're not going to ask me to take my top off, are you?" I said, "First of all, you're my sister. Second, if I said something that bizarre to you, couldn't you say no? You think I'm some sort of Svengali who tells you what to do and you do it?"
The perception of me is that I'm some kind of madman—and there are things that I've done that would support that—but when it comes to our guests, the reason we're having them on is that I genuinely like them. I wouldn't bring anyone on that I hated. That just wouldn't work.
Has "America's Got Talent" softened that image of you? Was that something you were seeking when you took the job?
I took that job because I thought it'd be fun. I thought it was a goof. I used to say I'd be a good host on a show and Robin would go, "Yes, you'd be wonderful," and I was just sort of blowing myself up.
A woman at NBC, [alternative programming executive VP] Meredith Ahr, is a big fan of our show and she had Paul Telegdy [NBC president of alternative and late-night programming] call my agent and ask if I was interested in being a judge. I said, "I love this show." It's so much fun, like if "The Gong Show" really had a meaningful prize and they treated it seriously. And it wasn't like "American Idol," because it had this looser vibe, like the Golden Globes vs. the Academy Awards.
So I said I'll have a conversation with them, and I did it because I thought it'd be funny to see Howard Stern on a network, kid-friendly show. What would be left to shock the world with? Everyone was like, "Are you kidding?" My biggest criticism of broadcasters is that they don't evolve. They just stick with their ways.
A lot of people thought it was beneath me, and I said nothing is beneath me. I was Fartman! Who am I, the prime minister of England?
Well, if you're going to mention Fartman, can you relate to acts like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus and, really, all kinds of attention-seeking stunts?
I've learned a lot. Sometimes I look at that and I know that pressure to feel like you have to pull your pants off in front of the world. What I've learned is, you don't always need to do that if you have something to say or you're a real artist. But when you're young you don't know that and you feel this pressure to succeed. That kind of pressure sucks away your creativity. You're so consumed with yourself that you can't hear anything else.
If I had any advice for anyone, it would be that you might not need all of that attention-grabbing.
What's your biggest regret?
Sometimes I've gotten on the air and attacked some people pretty viciously and I don't think it was all that genuine. I don't know that that's fair. It's got to be real.
If there's anything I've stood for, it's truth and honesty. I was tapping into my own aggression and inner demons and I thought it was interesting, and sometimes I look back and wish that maybe I didn't have that compulsion. Maybe I could've cut back a little.
As you celebrate your 60th birthday, is there a part of you that looks back at that kid who wanted to make it in radio and marvels at where you are now?
I know guys who get tattoos at certain points in their careers, and I respect that. But I never feel like going, "Oh, look at me, they made a movie about my life!" I wish I could enjoy those moments more. It's probably a personality defect.
Well, it keeps you driven.
That is the one good thing about it. But this feeling that you're always still a beginner is not a good thing. I went on [David] Letterman's show recently. I should've earned the right to go on and be an elder statesman. But I go on and I feel like a kid broadcaster again . . . I've got to please the audience, I've got to please Dave, and I'm like, "What's that all about?" It does give you a certain push, but there's also a certain desperation in it.
I just want to have a place on the radio that can be spectacular for guests. That's the direction I want to keep moving in. I want them to come in and talk about how they create.
People love it. They love to hear the struggle and how someone gets somewhere in life.
Everyone is a good interview.