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Wednesday, Nov 6 1996

The Stern Watch
Brace yourself for a big dose of Howard Stern. By early next year, barring interference from Justice Department antitrusters or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the only things standing between Bay Area radio listeners and a full-frontal assault by the abrasive, nationally syndicated NYC DJ are his bosses at Infinity Broadcasting/Westinghouse and, perhaps, Stern's conscience. Oh yes, and that ultimate arbiter of radio taste: your finger on the dial.

Of course, Stern already buzzes S.F.'s wavespace. He's the main moneymaker for KOME-FM (98.5), an Infinity-owned San Jose "new rock" station that bought his show three years ago -- and just renewed the contract for another three. However, through the physical limitations of FM radio signals, and the stingy marketing of Infinity, Stern, the self-proclaimed "King of All Media," hasn't created the impact that usually marks his entry into a major market. (Ours is considered fourth in the nation.)

Come January, though, Infinity and Westinghouse are likely to have cleared the final hurdles to their merger, which would give them a combined eight stations in the Bay Area, among them KCBS-AM (740), KPIX-AM (1550)/FM (95.7), KFRC-AM (610)/FM (99.7), and KYCY-FM (93.3). As an Infinity-syndicated personality playing at an Infinity-owned station, Stern could be shifted to a new Infinity-owned outlet "in a heartbeat," in the words of one highly placed local radio exec, who asked to remain anonymous, and Stern would likely shoot to No. 1 in morning talk -- if not dominate the entire morning segment.

For the record, KOME General Manager Jim Hardy insists, as does Infinity, that Stern is his property for the length of his contract. However, given the high stakes involved -- a successful morning show can earn a station one-third of its total revenues -- Stern's future has to be considered fluid.

He already enjoys a sizable following, about equal to his closest competitor, Alex Bennett, and his similarly formatted morning show on Live 105 (KITS-FM). But, as KITS Programming Director Richard Sands is only too happy to note, Stern is not "huge," like in New York. "You don't get that water-cooler talk."

Maybe. But with almost no promotion from KOME, Stern had gotten "big" enough to draw from 5,000 to 15,000 fans (depending on who's counting) to a book signing at the Virgin Megastore on Market Street a year ago.

A Stern-Bennett standoff would pit the NYC DJ against a childhood hero, according to biographer Paul Colford. Sands likes to see the similarity as Stern's "borrowing" from Bennett, who was among the first with an unscripted format, which Stern has taken to new extremes. Bennett's a Bay Area native with radio roots dating back 40-some years. After spending the '70s in New York City, he returned to S.F., where he's remained largely, joining KITS a second time in 1990. Sands is quick to put distance between his radio guy and KOME's. Bennett doesn't really compete with Stern, he insists. "Howard's the blue-collar version of Alex," he says.

Ask KPIX General Manager Blaize Howard the same question about Don Imus, KPIX's new syndicated morning talk show personality, also out of Infinity, and it's the same answer: "They're two completely different shows." Yes, but the two have been rivals for years, with Stern finally besting Imus in the mornings on their NYC home turf. (Imus' last stint in the Bay Area ended after less than a year, when he was dropped recently by San Jose's KUFX-FM [94.5].) Imus, Howard says, is "intellectual irreverence," as opposed to Stern's "bathroom talk, body parts."

He and Sands are right, to a degree, but it's dangerous and dishonest to dismiss Stern's show as nothing more than fart and penis jokes. Since he seems likely to be looming considerably larger on the local horizon in the near future, audiences might want to give Stern a closer listen -- albeit in snippets. His routines can be repetitive to a fault, dilatory, and studded with dirty talk for its own sake.

Stern is driven by a fundamental honesty. His admirers have included Frank Zappa and Abbie Hoffman. Stern and Infinity have fought numerous obscenity battles with the FCC, resulting in the highest fines in radio history. Just last month, a Richmond, Va., station was ordered to pay $10,000.

Although none of George Carlin's seven dirty words (made famous when they were broadcast over KPFA and starred in a subsequent 1974 Supreme Court case) were used, the bits were "patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."

"No one knows what ['community standards' means]," Stern wrote in Private Parts, his 1993 autobiography. "But I do know I live and work in a community where priests rape young boys ... where an angry black mob stabbed a Hasidic Jew and the mayor turned his back, where crack runs free like the River Ganges, and where movie directors fuck their wives' daughters. Now you tell me what I should talk about on the radio!! Somehow saying the word testicles pales in comparison."

Stern is no First Amendment saint. Self-promotion and ratings are what drive him. They've catapulted him into multimedia stardom.

Bennett, the first in the line of fire if Stern does make the move to a stronger S.F. signal, is a much smaller presence nationally. Local supporters play up the appeal of a home-grown show, but the real measure of radio talk is entertainment. Here's a point of comparison: Bennett is touted as "the most techno-savvy radio personality in the Bay Area," to borrow the words from a KITS promo sheet. He writes for Web magazine, runs his own Website, and can " 'walk the walk and talk the talk' with the high-tech community."

Stern, however, vastly outscores Bennett in a Web search. And Stern, who started programming his IBM Thinkpad to embellish his show's soundtrack years ago, happily gloats about his landmark experience with the Internet. Within weeks of signing up with AOL, he was thrown off -- for obscenity.

Trivia Matters
At the other end of the audio universe is KPFA-FM's Minds Over Matter, a quirky call-in quiz show patterned after the 1950s radio classic Information Please. This is radio like your grandmother knew it, gentle, intimate, and mercifully free of the excruciating political correctness that makes most of KPFA's programming so hard to take. Slick it is not.

We're talking three rumpled regulars -- trivia buff Dana Rodriguez, who anchors the show; former Chron theater critic Gerald Nachman; and Chron "Personals" columnist Leah Garchik -- sitting at a cramped table and asking each other silly questions, like which four words in the English language end in d-o-u-s? When the panelists have exhausted themselves trying to answer, they throw the question to the audience. When someone gets it right, they ring a little silver hotel desk bell.

It's cute, very, very cute. No Stern-esque rants on subjects scatological. No tittering Robin Quivers. No efforts to test the FCC's tolerance for references to genitalia or sexual acts. Unless you count last week's stumper on which five countries are populated by more sheep than people.

The audience, some modest slice of KPFA's total listenership of 30,000, also asks questions. Last week, a fellow called in to inquire what Dr. Kevorkian, Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Leopold and Loeb had in common. Some listeners call to correct the panelists. There was the time the panel pronounced a certain subdialect of Farsi the most recently extinct language, only to have a listener from Danville phone in and begin speaking it.

Occasionally, a whiff of Berkeley sensibility drifts in. Last Sunday, when the list of Hollywood's 10 biggest financial flops had already been well settled, a perfectly earnest caller phoned in simply to note how pleased he was to hear Inchon! among them, because it had been financed by the Moonies. One woman was sure that sheep outnumbered people "somewhere between Spain and France in an area that really should belong to the Basques." The correct answers are Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, and the Falkland Islands. We can't remember the fifth.

As for the other two questions, you'll have to call in and ask, 6:30 to 7:30 on Sunday evenings, (510) 848-4425, 94.1 on your radio dial. Eat your heart out, Howard.

About The Author

Phyllis Orrick

About The Author

Susan Rasky


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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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