Stern split makes for real radio; Separation: Until now, the shock jock's marital fidelity had provided a moral cushion against critics.


Lucy and Desi. Sonny and Cher. Prince Charles and Di.

Now, Howard and Alison.

Shock jock Howard Stern outdid himself yesterday by shocking his 10 million listeners with the news that he and his wife of 21 years, Alison, have separated. More than any freaky sideshow in the circus that is Stern's radio show, his marriage has remained the subject at the heart of his best-selling books and movie "Private Parts" -- which has been called a love letter to his wife.

"It's just so sad -- and it's pathetic. Pathetic because I shouldn't care, but you feel you know Howard, and you feel he's a friend," says a Stern fan, Nilda Kerr, vice president of the Leffler Agency in Baltimore. Everyone she's talked to this week "is in ruins" over the news of Stern's separation.

"My husband joked, 'What hope do I have when even Howard can't make it work?' " Kerr says.

It's been Stern's old-fashioned devotion to his wife and children that has served as as moral cushion against his legal battles with the Federal Communications Commission and his skirmishes with listeners who think he's a racist, a pornographer, a misogynist or all of the above. Even people who hate Stern give him his dues as a family man.

For his fans, Howard's libidinous act is allowed because underneath was a faithful husband and a solid citizen, they believe. Every time he propositions a starlet on the air, we know he's only kidding. Every time a woman undresses in his studio for her 15 minutes of fame (or for one of Stern's favorite prizes -- free breast enlargement surgery), we know Stern is just this middle-aged (and very rich) radio dude who goes home to his wife and three daughters and then to bed at 9 p.m.

"Him being married made him safe. He could always bluff," says Howard Halpren, an avid Stern fan by early morning and by day a senior account executive for Brennan Advertising in Hunt Valley.

Now, without the safety net of marriage, will Howard fall into a pit of promiscuity? And, more important, will we care enough to listen when a stripper dares Howard to sleep with her?

"He's faced now with, 'Put up or shut up,' " Halpren says. "This separation could change his schtick."

Granted, only Stern fans sat parked in their cars yesterday morning trying to decide how they feel about Stern's announcement about his separation. Everyone else: 1. could care less, 2. believes Stern deserves a dose of reality as payback for a career spent savaging and capitalizing on the misfortunes of others, 3. thinks it's blasphemy to mention Stern in the same bad breath as Princess Di.

Is it sad? Is that the right feeling? Since when has Stern cared about anybody but himself and his career? Serves him right for having all that "fun" when Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford, for example, struggled with their very public situation. How can anyone feel sorry for an aging jock who still parades out porn stars and mud-wrestling lesbians and still ridicules an outcast of show characters that include alcoholics, dwarfs and the mentally retarded?

"He's still a pig," said one non-fan in a packed "Howard Stern" chat room on America Online yesterday.

"He's sure changed his tune. No bimbos today," said another. Stern's official Web site was so hammered by surfers we couldn't raise it.

Not to be scooped, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" had issued his own press release late last week. "We had to get it out," Stern told listeners yesterday. The New York tabloids pounced on the story. "Howard Stern covered up his marital woes so well that even neighbors in his posh Long Island community were stunned by the shock jock's split from his wife of 21 years," read yesterday's New York Post.

On yesterday's show, heard on WJFK-AM (1300) in Baltimore, Stern spent nearly his entire four-hour show somberly discussing the separation. He spoke of his children, who were in tears when they were told. He spoke of Alison as still his best friend. He sounded genuinely sad. And to hear real pain in Stern's voice was not only a novel experience but awkward. We almost wanted to turn off the radio -- almost.

"Have we talked about this enough?" he asked at one point. No, he hadn't. It was the news of the beginning week. He was the news. And, despite his pain, it was good radio.

"It was real radio," said WJFK sales manager Dave Carberry, who fielded calls yesterday morning from not just inquiring and stunned listeners. "I got calls from clients, saying 'why didn't you tell me?' "

Stern's life has been an open and best-selling book, and his home situation won't close the book on his private parts. His fans have grown accustomed to his life with Alison, their arguments, their sex life, their rock-hard marriage built on what Stern called yesterday "great communication."

Now, we will hear about his life without Alison. Stern promised listeners he'd keep them informed, perhaps daily updates on the state of his separation. No details barred, of course.

"A closing thought," said one Stern fan on AOL. "We survived Lennon. We'll all get over this, too."

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