Howard Stern

The shock jock in winter.

Howard Stern, who needs every media tempest he can muster these days, waded into a big one last Tuesday. Stern was interviewing Rick Salomon, the auteur behind Paris Hilton’s sex video. At some point during the interview—accounts vary—Stern took a phone call from a listener. The listener proceeded to spew invective, asking Salomon if he had slept with black celebrities and liberally using the n-word. Within hours, anti-Stern forces had mobilized. John Hogan, president of Clear Channel networks, banished the show from six markets. “It was vulgar, offensive, and insulting,” he said, “not just to women and African-Americans but to anyone with a sense of common decency.”

It was a classic Stern brouhaha—sex! racism! censorship!—except for one thing: It had almost nothing to do with Howard Stern. Clear Channel’s Hogan was really responding to the furor created by Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl—he wanted to show congressional regulators, before whom he testified, that his network wouldn’t follow the path of CBS. Stern told his listeners, “Janet Jackson’s breast got me in a lot of trouble. I hope the irony isn’t lost that I look like Jesus being persecuted.” The moment was truly heartbreaking. America’s premier shock jock, its true arbiter of bad taste, had become less vulgar than the Super Bowl halftime show.

These days, Stern is a shock jock in winter. TheClear Channel dis won’t hurt him: The axed markets are mostly small (Louisville, Fort Lauderdale, Rochester); the financial loss, according to the New York Post, only about $1 million. But Stern’s trademark brand of public lechery—alternately focusing on strippers, porn stars, and dwarves—has been swallowed up by a wider culture of public lechery. Stern’s problem is too much success: He helped create a shock culture that makes him seem harmless by comparison. He’s a provocateur whose time has passed, a shock jock who shocks no one.

Stern rose to fame with shtick that was brilliantly lurid. Fifteen years ago, when television would venture no further than The Newlywed Game, he played “Lesbian Dial-a-Date.” He dispatched his minion, “Stuttering John” Melendez, to pose horrifying questions to celebrities at public events. (Melendez to Dan Rather: “Do you check after you’re done wiping?”) Stern moaned about the size of his penis and the state of his sex life. As he put it, “I decided to cut down the barriers and just go into being myself on the air. Strip down all the ego. I mean, what prevents an announcer from talking about the fact that he has hemorrhoids?”

As Stern’s audience grew, he dragged the art of shock-jocking into the mainstream. Even talkers that scoff at his raunch have appropriated his vitriol, his swagger: Dr. Laura (domestic shock jock), Jim Rome (sports shock jock), Art Bell (paranormal shock jock), Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Michael Savage (GOP shock jocks), and, coming soon, Al Franken (liberal shock jock).

Stern’s show still packs a filthy wallop. But he’s no longer the sleaziest man on the dial. He wasn’t even the sleaziest shock jock last week—that would be Bubba the Love Sponge, a Florida-based crank whom Clear Channel’s Hogan fired. (The Love Sponge’s crime, apparently, was having his characters talk dirty.) Two years ago, Infinity canned a duo named Opie and Anthony after a sex stunt in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Stern should recognize this trick. Before he rose to prominence, Don Imus and Bob Grant ruled the New York airwaves. Stern outwanked them. His competition now does the same to him—working bluer and chipping away at his cachet.

Stern loves to roast his enemies—rival disk jockeys, fire-breathing ministers, the Federal Communications Commission. As Paul Colford notes in his book Howard Stern: King of All Media, Stern spends hours on-air bemoaning the forces arrayed against him. When New York’s WNBC fired him for lewdness, Stern railed that network brass had conspired against him. When the FCC pelted him with fines—a record $1.7 million in 1995—he staged giant protest rallies around New York City. In 1987, he appeared in a prisoner’s outfit and shrieked, “Is it spelled FCC or KGB?”

Last week, Stern whined: “They are so afraid of me and what this show represents.” The problem is, Stern is no one’s idea of a First Amendment casualty. Three years ago, he signed a new radio contract that reportedly paid him $18 million per year. He wrote two best-selling memoirs, and his biopic grossed more than $41 million. When David Remnick wrote an admiring profile in The New Yorker, dubbing him “Sophie Portnoy’s other son,” Stern forever lost the right to claim victim status.

Indeed, the mainstream media have embraced Stern—perhaps too much so. Stern’s favorite target these days is Jay Leno. His beef is not that Leno has marginalized him but that Leno has stolen his best material. Stern says Leno’s “Jaywalking” bit—where he quizzes hapless pedestrians—was lifted directly from his radio show. “Stuttering John” Melendez, the Stern player, was just hired as the new announcer of The Tonight Show.

The great provocateurs all had second acts. Imus climbed out of Hazelden and became a switchboard for the political and media elite. Larry Flynt became a presidential candidate, and Al Franken morphed into a left-wing apparatchik. Stern remains stuck in the same gear: filth. He rarely ventures far from his beloved strippers and porn stars. He ran for governor of New York in 1994, on the Libertarian ticket, but dropped out of the race rather than disclose his income. He has offered endorsements to politicos like Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki but never used his audience to become a national powerbroker. He seems hesitant to stray from his raunch act, or at least refine it, to make himself stand out.

The shock jock’s act is premised on greater honesty: I say the things everyone else is thinking, he says, and by daring to say them I am the more honest man. How long, then, can Stern affect the pose of a bedraggled victim? How long can he pretend that his act shocks anyone but the most timid souls? Stern has threatened to leave radio forever when his contract expires in two years. He should leave. There’s nothing more pathetic than a provocateur waving his arms and saying, “See—everybody still hates me!”