Stern landed his first professional radio job while at Boston University, performing on-air skits, news casting and production duties at WNTN in Newton, Massachusetts from August to December 1975. He also hosted a show with three fellow students on WTBU, campus radio station, named The King Schmaltz Bagel Hour which was cancelled during its first broadcast for a sketch called "Godzilla Goes to Harlem". After his graduation, Stern landed some cover shifts in December 1976 at WRNW, a progressive rock station in Briarcliff Manor, New York where he was subsequently hired full-time working middays. He produced more creative commercials by calling the owners of businesses on the air, which he wrote "was mind-blowing to everyone there."
In 1979, Stern responded to an advertisement for a "wild, fun morning guy" at WCCC, rock station in Hartford, Connecticut. He produced a more outrageous audition tape, playing Robert Klein and Cheech and Chong records mixed with flatulence routines and one-liners. He was hired for the job, his first in a large radio market. As the station's public affairs director, Stern also hosted a half-hour interview show on Sunday mornings, which he favored as it contained no music. He would ask more unusual type questions to his guests, such as their dating habits. Stern held a two-day boycott of Shell Oil Company during the summer of the 1979 energy crisis, which made Stern and the station make national news. Stern also began his "Dial-a-Date" routines at WCCC, and met Fred Norris, the station's overnight disc jockey who provided Stern's show with various comedic impressions of celebrities. Norris would join the show as Stern's writer and producer in 1981.
After Stern left WCCC for being denied a raise in salary, he began a new morning shift at WWWW, a struggling rock outlet in Detroit, Michigan on April 21, 1980. He learned to become more open on the air and "decided to cut down the barriers...strip down all the ego...and be totally honest...I still sounded like an FM announcer". Stern held a bra-burning event and wrestled women outside the studios, and invited listeners to confess the most outrageous places where they had sex, and record their calls for the air. A stunt in which listeners paid $1.06 (the station's FM frequency) to hit a Japanese car with a sledgehammer earned Stern national mention. For his performance, Stern won a Billboard award for "Best Album-Oriented Rock Disc Jockey" and was featured in the Drake-Chenault "Top Five Talent Search" contest in the AOR category. Published in January 1981, the fall Arbitron ratings showed that Stern trailed his three rock competitors with a 1.6% market share of the listening audience during an average quarter-hour. It was the final straw for management, who turned WWWW into a more successful country music format on January 18. Much to his dislike, Stern left the station soon after and declined offers to work at CHUM in Toronto, WXRT in Chicago, and WPLJ in New York City.
On March 2, 1981, Stern began his third morning job at WWDC, a rock station in Washington, D.C. He was determined to become a success, and noticed the importance of news segments for satire. He wished for a news person to riff with him in the studio. Management paired Stern with Robin Quivers, a news anchor and consumer reporter from WFBR in Baltimore, who agreed to meet Stern after hearing him interview a prostitute on the air. Quivers at first "thought I would come in and do the news...but it wasn't that way...he wanted someone to play off of...he wanted a real live person there with him". The show began to break format, and Stern held a lesbian edition of "Dial-a-Date" in May 1981. He formed the Think Tank, a cohesive trio of male listeners who conversed with Stern and played along with quizzes and routines, which helped the show sound more natural. By January 1982, Stern had the second highest-rated morning program in the city. On January 14, one day after the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, Stern made believe he asked Air Florida the price of a one-way ticket to the 14th Street Bridge, the location of the disaster. "Is that going to be a permanent stop?" asked Stern. On June 29, 1982, Stern's contract at WWDC was terminated. He writes that the Air Florida segment was not the reason for his departure, nor did anyone complain about it. He had signed a contract with WNBC in March, and began to berate management and other DJ's on the air. Quivers, who left the show early on June 17, worked at WCBM in Baltimore until rejoining with Stern on October 18, 1982. Stern presented a farewell show two weeks later on competing station WAVA-FM. He had more than tripled the station's ratings during his stay.
Stern began his WNBC program in September 1982, working from 4–8 pm. Concerned about its corporate image and his risque personality, management told Stern to avoid discussions of a sexual and religious nature. Within his first month at the station, Stern was suspended for several days for a controversial segment known as "Virgin Mary Kong." The skit featured a new video game by God in which a group of men chase the Virgin Mary around a singles bar in Jerusalem. In February 1983, comedian Jackie Martling was hired to make weekly appearances as a comedy writer. With his on-the-fly style, he provided jokes for such show bits like "Stump the Comedian" and "The Match Game". Martling assumed his role full-time in August 1986 when he replaced Al Rosenberg, a comedian and writer at WNBC who could no longer commute from Washington, D.C. Also hired was Gary Dell'Abate of the station's traffic department, who started as the show's assistant in September 1984 and went on to become executive producer. Stern continued to break out of the station's strict format. He had a naked woman on the show for the first time and attempted to make another reach orgasm through her radio speaker, both of which were reenacted in his 1997 film Private Parts.
The Arbitron ratings released in 1984 showed a rise in Stern's popularity. Having moved shifts to 3–7 pm, he attracted audience shares of 3.8%, 4.2%, and 4.6% that year. The show was popular among males aged between 18 and 34, a highly-marketable demographic for advertisers. Stern acquired a 5.7% share in 1985, the highest rating at the station in four years, pushing the station's ranking in afternoons from eleventh to first place in three years. Among the success, tension between management and Stern grew further. On September 30, 1985, the show was cancelled due to what management termed as "conceptual differences" between themselves and Stern regarding his show. "Over the course of time, we made a very conscious effort to make Stern aware that certain elements of the program should be changed", said program director John Hayes, whom Stern had nicknamed "The Incubus." "I don't think it's appropriate to say what those specifics were." In 1992, Stern believed that Thornton Bradshaw, at the time chairman of RCA which then owned WNBC, was driving in his limousine having heard his "Bestiality Dial-a-Date" segment and ordered his firing.
1985–1994: WXRK and start of syndication
Stern returned to the New York airwaves on rock station WXRK, where he began his 20-year residency at the station in afternoons from 2–6 pm on November 18, 1985. Following his move to mornings from 6 am on February 18, 1986, Stern entered national syndication on August 18, 1986 when WYSP in Philadelphia first simulcast the program. In the 18-plus male demographic, WYSP rose from eleventh to second place in three months. Stern began a rivalry with the number one host John DeBella of WMMR, and was determined to beat him in the ratings. He achieved his goal in April 1990, and held a celebratory "funeral" for DeBella on May 10 in Rittenhouse Square which aired live. By early 1987, Stern had almost completely stopped playing music during the show and was reaching almost 800,000 listeners each week in the New York area. Between September 1986 and February 1987, Stern hosted a three-hour Saturday morning program with a live audience which was syndicated to 45 markets across the country by DIR Broadcasting. The show added two new staff in 1988—impressionist Billy West and intern "Stuttering John" Melendez, who would achieve notoriety by asking celebrities awkward questions on the red carpet and press conferences. That year, Stern returned to the Washington, D.C. market after a six-year absence when he was syndicated on WJFK, his third affiliate.
In July 1991, the show began to air on KLSX in Los Angeles. Listeners jammed the station's switchboard during the first simulcast with mostly negative calls about the change. Stern rivaled with the KLOS morning team of Mark and Brian, who for three years had the area's top-rated program. In January 1992, Stern reached the number one spot in New York by overtaking the news station WINS, who had enjoyed a ten-year reign. He was reaching over one million listeners a week there, and hosted a live victory parade in Times Square to celebrate. In October 1992, Stern became the first person to have the number one show in New York and Los Angeles simultaneously, as he acquired a 9.5% market share in New York and 6.4% in Los Angeles. His victory funeral for Mark and Brian was held in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Palace Theatre in November 1992. By this time, advertisers in New York were charged as much as $3,000 per minute, and $1,500 in Los Angeles, for a one-minute commercial on the show. Following his 1992 debut on WNCX in Cleveland, Stern took the station from thirteenth in mornings to first place in under two years. On June 10, 1994, during the city's funeral broadcast William Alford, an engineer of competing station WMMS, cut a wire used for the show's satellite feed which stopped the broadcast temporarily. Alford was later sentenced to ten days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
In June 1994, robotic cameras were installed in the WXRK studio to film the radio show for a condensed half-hour program on E!. Howard Stern ran for 11 years until the last original episode aired on July 8, 2005. In conjunction with his move to satellite radio, Stern launched Howard Stern on Demand, a subscription-based video-on-demand service, on November 18, 2005. The service was relaunched as Howard TV on March 16, 2006.
On December 7, 1994, Stern made national news by preventing a man from committing suicide who was to jump off the George Washington Bridge. Caller, Emilio Bonilla was kept on the line for five minutes until Port Authority Police, whose tour commander was listening to the show, took Bonilla into custody. Bonilla was charged with cocaine possession, reckless endangerment and was taken to the hospital. Senator Al D'Amato and Ed Koch, former-Mayor of New York City, called in to congratulate Stern.
On April 3, 1995, three days after the shooting of singer Selena, a rift in the Hispanic community occurred after Stern commented on her music and Spanish people. After a song of hers was played with gunshot sound effects, Stern said "Spanish people have the worst taste in music. They have no depth. Alvin and the Chipmunks have more soul." He called one of her records "awful music that could only be popular with that segment of society." Callers to KEGL in Dallas, Texas jammed the station's switchboards. The League of United Latin American Citizens attempted to get Stern off the air, while listeners called for boycotts against his advertisers. Stern responded to the reaction with a statement in Spanish, arguing that his comments were not intended to cause pain to her family, friends and loved ones. Justice of the Peace Eloy Cano of Harlingen, Texas issued an arrest warrant on Stern for disorderly conduct, which remained in place for a year after the incident.
The Howard Stern Show was syndicated to 26 stations nationwide by the end of 1995, and was the subject of two Billboard awards for Network/Syndicated Program of the Year in the modern rock and mainstream rock categories in 1996. In February 1996, Stern announced the Howard Stern Radio Network, an agreement that let him form a network consisting of radio personalities that he approved. Stations would be able to choose shows from a 24-hour menu or carry the network's programming around the clock. In November, the show relocated to a new studio in New York City, four times the size of its former location that housed space for bands to perform. Live performances increased then on, including those by Bush, Stone Temple Pilots, Cheap Trick and White Zombie, in the first four months. By the end of 1996, the show aired on 34 stations.
The show aired on Canadian airwaves for the first time on September 2, 1997 to CHOM in Montreal and CILQ in Toronto. Stern's comments about French people and their language caused a rift with some listeners. "There is something about the language that turns you into a pussy-assed jack off. Anybody who speaks French is a scum bag. It turns you into a coward. Just like in World War II, they would not stick up for us. Screw your culture and we're invading you all." Ratings for the two stations increased nonetheless by 62% and 47% respectively. Following listener complaints and censorship enforced by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the show was cancelled in Montreal in 1998 and in Toronto in 2001.
A day after the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999, Stern's comments regarding the incident drew criticism from some listeners. "There were some really good looking girls running out with their hands over their heads...Did [the suspects] try to have sex with any of the good looking girls?...At least if you are going to kill yourself and kill all the kids, why wouldn't you have some sex?...If I was going to kill some people, I'd take them out with sex." Hundreds complained to KXPK, the show's affiliate in Denver. Stern argued his comments were taken out of context, and accused critics of being overly sensitive. "I dared to ask if kids had sex. So what? That's how I think. I had zero intent to make fun of the situation. The point in making that comment was an attempt to try to understand a motive. We didn't know anything about motives [the morning after] and were trying to consider all possibilities."
Stern made headlines after former child star Dana Plato committed suicide one day after visiting the show. Plato had been living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, surrounded by rumors of her sexuality and drug abuse, which became the biggest topic of the interview. After telling Stern she had been sober for over a decade and denying rumors about her lesbian relationship, some callers accused her of lying. At some point Stern suggested that Plato do a urinalysis to prove them wrong, while Plato agreed to give a hair sample for analysis. Plato was crying several times, mostly while offering her gratitude to callers who believed everything she had said. Stern also asked her if she had ever considered suicide to which she replied, "Hell no. I've got a beautiful boy. I'm OK in my skin. I'm OK with who I am." Plato died of a drug overdose the next day.
In December 2000, Stern renewed his contract with Infinity Broadcasting to continue the radio show for five years. Industry analysts questioned Stern's relevance as the show's ratings had declined since 1998, including a 20 per cent drop in listeners in Los Angeles. Broadcasting & Cable reasoned the decline to Stern's separation from his wife in late 1999 which made him "considerably less intriguing".
In March 2001, Stern announced the departure of Martling, who was unable to reach an agreement over a new contract with WXRK. A "Win Jackie's Money" contest began where comedians auditioned for Martling's spot by sitting in on shows. Craig Gass, Doug Stanhope, Richard Jeni, Jim Florentine, A.J. Benza, and Ron Zimmerman were among the participants. In October, comedian and actor Artie Lange joined the show full-time.
Stern aired live during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and continued to broadcast with most of his staff until around 12:15 pm. The live reporting was one of the first for those listening across the country, with callers sharing their own experiences. In September 2006, a 90-minute special featuring the staff and their recollections of the day aired on Howard TV, titled 9.11.01: A Retrospective.
In September 2003, the FCC declared the show a "bona fide news interview program", making it exempt from equal-time requirements placed for political candidates.
On February 27, 2004, John Melendez left the show to become the announcer on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Stern accused Leno of stealing his segments such as goofy red carpet interviews and booking Kenneth Keith Kallenbach, a member of the show's Wack Pack. On March 17, a "Win John's Job" contest was announced that allowed regular contributors and callers the opportunity to replace Melendez. Richard Christy, a former electrician and drummer of various death and heavy metal bands including Iced Earth and Death, won with 30% of the listener vote. Former stockbroker Sal Governale, the runner-up with 24%, was also hired in September.
On February 26, 2004, Stern was cancelled on six stations owned by Clear Channel Communications after a caller used the word "nigger" when asking Rick Salomon if he ever had sex with a black person the day before. Following the issue of a $495,000 fine to Clear Channel by the FCC, which cited sexual discussions on a show from 2003, Stern was removed permanently on the six stations. Stern returned to four of the six markets that he was suspended from, including five new ones, on Infinity-owned stations on July 19.
On October 6, 2004, Stern announced his five-year contract with Sirius Satellite Radio, a subscription-based satellite radio service, free from the FCC's regulations. A contributing factor in the decision was the aftermath of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show controversy which began the tightening of censorship and regulation in broadcasting. The deal, worth approximately $100 million a year for all costs, included a bonus stock payment of $83 million for Stern in January 2007 for surpassing subscriber goals set in 2004. Promotion of Sirius met with controversy as Stern mentioned the service on air, instructing listeners in purchasing receivers and subscriptions. In one incident, Farid Suleman of Citadel Broadcasting billed Stern $200,000 for the continual advertising mentions. On November 8, 2005, Stern was suspended for one day for excessive promotion of the service.
Stern hosted his final show on terrestrial radio on December 16, 2005. A stage was built outside the studio for Stern, his colleagues and Wack Pack members to make their farewell speeches. In his closing speech, Stern thanked the New York City Police Department, dedicating the show to Sergeant Keith Manning, a friend who at the time was serving in Iraq. When off the air, Stern traveled to the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square on an open-top bus and met Martha Stewart, who was broadcasting on her own Sirius channel, Martha Stewart Living Radio. Stern's contract with Infinity Broadcasting expired at midnight on December 31. The show was syndicated to as many as 60 markets across the United States and Canada, and gained a peak audience of 20 million listeners. In the New York market the show was the highest-rated morning program consecutively for seven years between 1994 and 2001. Stern's successor in various East Coast affiliates, The David Lee Roth Show, attracted a market share of 1.8% in January 2006, which was down from 7.9% that Stern acquired a month previous. Stern was replaced with The Adam Carolla Show on numerous West Coast affiliates, and the still airing Rover's Morning Glory in mostly Midwestern markets.
The Howard Stern Show made its debut broadcast on Sirius on January 9, 2006. The show began with Also sprach Zarathustra with added flatulence sound effects. George Takei then introduced himself as the show's new announcer. 180,000 Sirius radios were activated a day before. Stern read out the list of revelations for the show's "Revelations Game", where staff told an unknown secret about themselves.
In May 2006, Stern claimed he had received offers from three major companies to return to terrestrial radio. Although he would never return, Stern did mention that it would be "cool to go back and kick their asses." Although the names of the companies were never revealed, media organizations announced that Stern was considering a return. To clear up the rumors, the Associated Press were called on-air on May 10. "The story is I wouldn't do terrestrial radio for any reason", said Stern. Rumors once again arose in September 2006 that Stern would be returning, and were once again denied by Stern and Sirius. Sirius representative Patrick Reilly told United Press International that there were never "any discussions of Howard Stern in any way, shape, or form being anything but exclusive to Sirius. Published reports suggesting otherwise are wrong."
Stern announced on June 7, 2006 that the lawsuit settlement with CBS Radio finally gave Sirius the exclusive rights to his entire back catalog of broadcasts from WXRK, totalling almost 23,000 hours. It was reported that Sirius agreed to pay CBS $2 million for the rights, equating to around $87 per-hour of tape. On December 2, 2009, it was announced that every tape had been digitized on a server taking up multiple terabytes of data.
After a suicide attempt in January 2010, Lange left the show.
On December 9, 2010, Stern announced the signing of a new five-year contract with Sirius XM which ended in December 2015. In September 2013, Howard TV's contract was not renewed and the service ended.
On December 15, 2015, Stern announced he signed a new deal with SiriusXM to continue his radio show until December 2020. The agreement includes a 12-year deal giving SiriusXM the rights to his radio and video archives for an upcoming streaming video app tentatively called Howard 360.
In 2015 and 2016, The New York Times and The Washington Post addressed changes in the show's direction, with an emphasis on celebrity interviews and change in tone. The New York Times wrote: "Scattered among the gleefully vulgar mainstays are now long, starkly intimate live exchanges — character excavations that have made Mr. Stern one of the most deft and engrossing celebrity interviewers in the business and a sought-after stop for stars selling a movie or setting the record straight." Amongst the changes to the show, some Wack Pack members have been given less offensive names; Wendy the Retard was renamed Wendy the Slow Adult. During an interview with Madonna, Stern said of his earlier years in radio, "I used to say bad things about everybody ... I was an angry young man." Former staff member Jackie Martling commented, "Howard has become a lot of the things that he always told people not to become", while John Melendez said, "There’s nothing wrong with change, but the old Howard would probably goof on the new Howard now."
In February 2017, Judith Barrigas filed a lawsuit against Stern, his production company, and the US on the grounds that include unlawful invasion of privacy and negligence for allegedly broadcasting a 2015 phone call of her talking to Jimmy Forsyth, an agent of the IRS, which which involved the exchange of personal information, including her phone number, without her knowledge. Before taking Barrigas's call, Forsyth had called into the show and was placed on hold by one of the show's producers, only to have Stern take the call and unable to get Forsyth's attention.
From 1990 to 2004, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined owners of radio stations that carried The Howard Stern Show a total of $2.5 million for indecent programming.Timeline
The Wack Pack are a group of people featured on the show that tend to be unusual in some way, such as a skill, disability, their personal appearance. On February 24, 2015, Stern and crew voted on an "official" list of Wack Pack members; there are 33 living and deceased members.Opening
"The Great American Nightmare" by Rob Zombie and Howard Stern (since 1999)
"Tilt a Whirl" by Jimmie Vaughan (1994–1998)
"In a Mellow Tone" by Duke Ellington (~1987–1994)
"H.O.W.A.R.D S.T.E.R.N." by The Double-O Zeros (~1985)
"They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" by Napoleon XIV (~1982)
"Tortured Man" by Howard Stern and The Dust Brothers (since 1999)