Howard Stern speaks, which comes as no surprise to the millions of people who listen to him, and last weekend he was speaking to me, saying, “Twenty years ago I had so much more energy and my narcissism was so strong that I really enjoyed talking about myself. But now I realize that I don’t like talking about myself so much and that there is great value in listening to other people.”
The most successful and influential radio personality of his generation and arguably in the history of the medium, Stern has been talking into microphones for most of his life, which in now in its 65th year. He shows no signs of shutting up.
So, there he was on the telephone from the large Long Island, New York home he shares with his wife Beth and a large number of cats (more on this later), saying, “I now have a chance and the freedom to explore my own curiosity and allow my guests to be heard.”
The next day, he would be talking with correspondent Tracy Smith on “CBS News Sunday Morning,” telling her, “Donald Trump asked me to endorse him but I couldn’t.”
On Monday, he said to his close friend George Stephanopoulos on “Good Morning America,” “George, I never think of you as a sex fiend.”
All of this talking — on television, radio and for print — is part of the promotional blitz for his third book. “Howard Stern Comes Again” (Simon & Schuster), published earlier this week, is a gathering of 50-some lengthy and dozens of shorter portions of the hundreds of interviews he has conducted on his radio shows.
A lot of the media attention has focused on the president of the United States, whose interviews with Stern from 1995 to 2015 pepper the book in 11 short “And Now a Word from Our President ...” chapters.
Trump is so prominent because, as Stern says, “Donald is one of the best radio guests ever. Why? Because he says whatever pops into his head.”
That’s not exactly news. But vastly more interesting, entertaining, self-revelatory, shocking, honest, provocative, surprising and sometimes sad is what comes out of the mouths of the others in the book, a vast panorama of famous and talented people such as Bradley Cooper, Billy Joel, Ringo Starr, Sharon Osbourne, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Barbara Walters, Tina Fey, Robert Downey Jr., Kid Rock, Lady Gaga, Rachel Maddow, Hugh Hefner, Paul McCartney, Courtney Love, Bill Murray, Madonna, Amy Schumer, Harvey Weinstein … This list is long.
“Some people I didn’t even remember interviewing, let alone remember what was said,” said Stern. “But in rereading the transcripts I saw a lot of wisdom and humor that I had missed.”
The book was born a couple of years ago when S&S’s Jonathan Karp presented Stern with a bound copy of a finished book, saying, “We want a book of your best interviews and we took the liberty of putting it together. … You don’t have to do a thing.”
Stern was flattered but soon realized that “what was collected weren’t even my favorite interviews.” So he gathered and edited those that were his favorites. He wrote lively introductions for each interview. He also composed an introduction that is detailed and charming, autobiographical but also self-reflectively honest.
“And that,” said Stern, “is why it took two years to finish the book.”
Stern and I have talked before, a long time ago.
In 1993, I spent time at his Manhattan studios and attended a wild party for his first book, “Private Parts,” which was to become the fastest selling in Simon & Schuster’s long history. It was 446 pages in which Stern wrote of his sexual habits; skewered those he considered phonies (Oprah and Johnny Carson among them); praised those he admires (Bob Hope, Richard Simmons, Sylvester Stallone and Dick Cavett); chronicled his career, family life and world view.
At the time, he told me that writing the book was "the hardest thing I've ever done. My editor wound up moving into the house on weekends to help me pull it together. To a degree, [the book’s success] might have something to do with a backlash against political correctness.”
Stern’s morning radio show was No. 1 in New York and syndicated to 15 other markets, reaching an estimated 3 million listeners daily. (His Chicago radio experiences were short and bitter).
He was riding high, assailed by some, adored by others and fined lavishly by the FCC for various on-air transgressions.
I next talked to him in 1995, in New York again for events surrounding the publication of his second book, “Miss America” (Simon & Schuster), which was riding atop the New York Times bestseller list with 1.4 million copies in print. It was, much like his first book, a compendium of sexual fantasies, personal stories, transcripts from the radio show, hundreds of photos, and biting examinations of American celebrities, done up in varying typographic styles.
Sitting in his cozy office, he said, “I don't know why I touch base with my audience. I guess that it's because I'm honest, brutally honest. I appeal to the cynic in all of us.”
Some saw his four hours on air every weekday morning as threat to the nation's morality, his radio show a dangerous feast of crude, racist, sexist and untoward comments. To others he was an often-hilarious voice. Deep-thinkers deemed him a new Lenny Bruce, pushing the bounds of what some consider good taste by frankly exploring life's conventions, problems and obsessions.
I asked, “What is the one thing you have in mind when you sit behind the microphone?”
“To entertain,” he said.
Since last we talked, a lot has happened to Stern.
Where to start?
Well, as his lengthy marriage to college sweetheart Alison Berns and the mother of their three now grown daughters began to disintegrate in the late 1990s, he began seeing a psychotherapist, eventually visiting four days a week. The pair divorced amicably in 2001 and in 2008 he married longtime girlfriend Beth Ostrosky, about whom he writes in this book, “We’ve been together for nineteen years, and every day I thank God she wanted to be with me. … I call her ‘Sweet Love’ … Howard Stern, me — I call my wife ‘Sweet Love.’ She is a saint. Mother Teresa … well, like Mother Teresa in a bikini.”
Well, in 2005 he left terrestrial radio for Sirius XM, the then-new subscription-based satellite radio service. He signed a five-year deal worth $500 million. There are now two live channels, Howard 100 and Howard 102, as well as an new app featuring his interviews. His latest contract will expire in 2020.
Well, his being a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” from 2012 to 2015. The job paid $15 million a season but, Stern writes, “My principal motivation for joining the show was to shift the American public’s perception of me. In just one summer, I went from being America’s nightmare to being Santa Claus.”
Well, in 2017 he was operated on for what doctors suspected was cancer. It wasn’t but this experience gave him a hard taste of his own mortality. As he writes, “As you start to get older and your body begins to break down, it does get you thinking about your legacy, what you’ll leave behind, what you’re proud of.”
The cumulative effects of these events has been transformative.
“The hard-ass pose I’ve tried to maintain just doesn’t work for me anymore,” he writes. “It was a safe world but a lonely one — a kind of prison.”
His first two books are not on the shelves of any of the homes he owns (yes, more than one).
“It’s like looking at old photographs. I don’t like the way I looked,” he said. “I don’t listen to myself on old radio shows. I don’t like the way my voice sounds. I almost don’t recognize myself in the previous book. I am not proud of them. But I love this new book so much.”
It is, on a number of levels, a terrific book. Only two of its interviews (one with Trump and another with Ozzy Osbourne) are from the pre-Sirius era, when his obsession with ratings combined with his self-absorption “didn’t lend itself to doing serious interviews.”
They are, as you will read, serious now. He deeply researches all of his guests and he is able to get honest emotions and genuine insights from most of them. Yes, his radio shows can still dip into tawdry territory and he remains wildly funny and provocative. His interviews sparkle.
There is a great freedom in being able to talk for an hour or more with no commercial interruptions and he has come to realize that interviews are not inquisitions intended merely for a saucy soundbite or “gotcha” moment. At their best, interviews are conversations.
On the phone last weekend, he talked a bit about Trump; mentioned that he regrets long ago interviews with Gilda Radner and Robin Williams; spoke of his deep affection and respect for his radio sidekick Robin Quivers who, “more than anyone is my courage on the air”; said that his interview with Conan O’Brien is the best he’s ever done; and he talked about cats.
His wife is an author and animal right activist. Over the last six years, the couple has opened their homes to nearly 1,000 foster cats and found families to adopt each.
“This has really been a passion and pleasure for my wife,” he said. “We have fostered so many cats here in our house and I have gotten way, way into it.”
You can often see and hear Howard talking to cats on his wife’s Instagram feeds (@bethostern and@bethstern). Earlier this week she posted on the latter a photo of a cute cat named Yoda, paws resting on a photo of Howard in the New York Times magazine.
This was the caption: “Yoda Stern is so proud of his dad.”