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Letterman had his Stupid Pet Tricks; Stern, Lesbian Dial-a-Date. Letterman had Larry "Bud" Melman; Stern, Stuttering John and Fred the Elephant Boy. Stern introduced Letterman to the joys of ridiculing Richard Simmons, and in return, Letterman helped make Stern a national star. But where Letterman aspired to make great television, to become part of his medium's rich heritage, at first Stern just wanted to fart on the radio.
Now he's not so sure he hasn't become part of the very institution he claims to despise so much -- radio, which he often refers to as a couple of steps below circus clown on the entertainment food chain. He is enamored of the medium's possibilities, hateful toward those in it.
"At some point, it's just, 'Gee, I just want to be able to make a living and be in radio, and I don't want to lose my job,' " Stern says. "I've talked to Letterman recently about this topic. Here he is about to turn 50 still doin' it, and there's something driving him as well. He's miserable doing it, and yet he's driven to do it. I don't think anybody [starts out looking] at it like you're part of a legacy or this or that, but I guess I do want to prove something. Who knows? I truly don't have an answer why I still do it. I just need to do it. I don't want to walk away from it.
"Maybe it's because [you] work so long, and you get the shit beaten out of you for so long. Like [when I was] at NBC, you assume they know what you're doing, but they don't, and they undermine you and try to get you to lose your job and ruin your career. The people you're working for are trying to ruin your career!" As Stern's voice rises, so does he -- almost out of his chair.
"It's frightening. So maybe now, when you've got some control and power, you go, 'Wow, I finally got here. I don't want to give this up -- not yet.' I'm just coming into my own, really, when you think about it. Now I'm in a different situation. I can ... well, am I really? I got the government on my ass ... it's always something. There's always some sort of battle being fought, and I guess if you get tired of the battle you just fade out. You just leave."
Maybe the reason Howard Stern does not trust success is that each time he accrues a little, he can't quite wallow in it. Something always stands in his way -- something more powerful even than this Thing of All Media.
Indeed, when Stern came to L.A. on July 25, 1991, KFI-AM's then top talk man, Tom Leykis, predicted Stern would die in the market. "People in Los Angeles do not like insult humor, for one thing," he told the L.A. Times. "And for another, folks here don't really like New York or New Yorkers."
And yet, by October 1992, Stern was No. 1 in L.A., marking the first time a radio jock was at the top of the ratings charts in both of the nation's biggest cities at the same time. (He went to No. 1 in Dallas two years later, and he tops most of the 35 markets he's currently in.)
But just three weeks after Stern hit No. 1 in L.A., the FCC hit him with a $105,000 fine. It was one of many he'd get -- not the first, not the last, not even the biggest. In December 1992, Stern -- through his stations in New York, Philadelphia, and Manassas, Va. (Washington, D.C.) -- was fined a total of $600,000, which was then a record for the largest fine ever imposed.
"They timed it just so because I was getting real heat when I went to Number 1 in Los Angeles," Stern says. "It was a big statement for me to go Number 1 in L.A. within a year. Then the FCC socked me the next day. They were gonna teach me a lesson, and they won. They did. They just keep coming."
On Sept. 1, 1995, the FCC announced that it had settled the complaints against Stern: Infinity Broadcasting Corp. -- which was sold to Westinghouse Electric Corp. in December 1996 -- had agreed to pay $1,715,000 to the U.S. Treasury to get the government off its back. In exchange, the FCC agreed to wipe the slate clean: Any subsequent fine against Stern would be dealt with as a first offense, which carried a significantly lighter fine.
When the settlement was reached with Infinity, FCC Chairman Reed Hundt issued a statement proclaiming victory: "The settlement ... represents the largest amount ever contributed to the U.S. Treasury by a broadcast station licensee."
Commissioner James Quello -- a former newsman and a self-proclaimed regular listener who, four years ago, said Stern had "tamed" his act -- issued a statement through the agency that hinted Infinity had acknowledged Stern's licentious actions by paying up. "On a personal level," Quello wrote, "as a longtime champion of indecency rules to guide responsible broadcasters, I am pleased that the settlement is premised upon the validity of the FCC's rules against the dissemination of indecent materials by our licensees."