"They said, 'You know what? We don't want you, and we're not gonna pay you. Go fuck yourself.' And I'm not gonna let them get away with it. I am not gonna let them get away with it. That's horseshit. I've honored all my deals. There have been times I would have loved to have gotten out of my contracts. When I was with NBC, I would have loved to have left NBC, but I was in a contract, and I lived up to my end of it. I signed an awful contract with NBC. I wasn't making a lot of money there, but I lived up to it. I mean, I'm honorable. These guys are not honorable."

He sort of half smiles, the hurricane reduced to an exhausted, resigned breeze. "This is just another case of: Fuck it, it's just Howard Stern."

Gary Dell'Abate is perhaps the best known of Stern's associates. The producer of Stern's radio show, the man who actually keeps the runaway train if not on the tracks then at least near them, the large-toothed Dell'Abate has become sort of the show's mascot -- "Baba Booey" he is called, so named because he once mispronounced the name of cartoon character Baba Looey, and the name stuck. "Baba Booey" has become something of a mantra among the show's die-hards: Whenever Stern fans crank-call television programs such as Donahue or Today, they almost always spout "Baba Booey" as code.

Dell'Abate recalls the moment he realized Stern had transcended stardom and become a true celebrity. It occurred during the 1993 Private Parts book signing in Manhattan, when Stern closed down an entire Manhattan block. "I rode over with Howard to his very first book signing," Dell'Abate says. "And Howard had no idea. We got stuck on Fifth Avenue six blocks before the bookstore, and we're thinking there must be an accident up ahead. And when we got two blocks away and we saw the crowd, that's when it started to hit him that that's what was going on. As we got closer, as we got about a block away, everybody surrounded the limo and started pounding on the roof. It was like the Beatles! I got scared because they were out of their minds."

But now there is no one around Stern save for his coterie of writers and the ever-present Robin Quivers. It is Valentine's Day, and Stern is sitting in the Manhattan studio of WXRK-FM talking to comedian Pat Cooper, a once-forgotten Italian comic from the 1960s whose career was resurrected when Stern began booking him as a guest several years ago.

The studio itself is much larger than it appears on the E! show: Dozens of lights hang from the ceiling, and there appear to be at least six cameras stationed at various angles.

Contrary to the chaos overheard by radio audiences -- the dissonance created by Norris' pistol-quick sound effects and Martling's whinny and Stern's own tenor -- the studio seems almost calm this morning -- surprisingly serene. Until Cooper opens his mouth. On the morning of this most romantic day, Cooper starts yapping about how a woman's vagina is more like a "Brillo pad," a "hairbrush" men bust their balls to get at for even a moment. But Cooper growls he doesn't need what other men crave: "I've got my right hand," he snarls. This is a man who does not whisper sweet nothings -- or anything else. "Kiss my ass, you vagina."

Stern agrees -- but of course. This is his gambit too, the lament of the tortured man who insists he wants to cheat on his wife but is too guilt-ridden to go through with it. That and, he laments, some "loudmouthed broad" will rat him out to the tabloids, thus giving his wife half his hard-earned millions. Better he masturbate than do the deed with a stripper.

"He happens to be right," Stern says to his microphone. "He's like a sage. You get crazy and make crazy decisions. What do ya think O.J. killed over? Not a penis."

And then Stern rolls his eyes. He wiggles his eyebrows. He flashes a grin. It's the one that says, "What the hell did I just say?"

A moment such as this one occurs in the film Private Parts, when Stern goes on the air to talk about Alison's miscarriage. It has since become a classic Stern moment, one that took place during his tenure at DC-101 in 1982. Stern, speaking as "God," phones to blame Howard for Alison's miscarriage: "A real man would have done it right the first time," God tells Howard, who then shouts back, "I don't think this is funny!" But Howard does, dragging the bit out for two days even though it infuriated his wife and nearly destroyed his marriage.

Yet there's a moment in the film immediately after that bit when Stern looks genuinely sorry for what he has just said. The smile turns into a frown, the laugh gets swallowed. It's the look the radio audience cannot see, the moment when Stern realizes he has crossed that imaginary line separating the absurd from the inexcusable.

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