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.
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.