Looking back on his early career, Howard Stern remembers being “petrified” that he wasn’t going to be able to make a living. “All the sexual antics, the religious antics, the race antics — everything that I talked about, every outrageous thing that I did — was to entertain my audience and grow my audience,” he says. “Whether you liked it or not, or the person down the street liked it or not — I didn’t care as long as I kept growing that audience.”
Stern ultimately grew an audience of millions over a four-decade career, first on terrestrial radio and now on satellite radio. At 65, Stern says he’s not the raunchy shock jock he once was. “If I hadn’t grown and evolved and changed … I don’t know that I could still be on the radio,” he admits.
Stern’s new book, Howard Stern Comes Again, is a collection of some of his most memorable interviews with celebrity guests, including Madonna, Mike Tyson, Jerry Seinfeld, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.
With two years left in his contract at SiriusXM, Stern says he’s not sure what’s next for him. “I’m kind of afraid of retirement,” he says. “It’s like on any given day I don’t know — and this disturbs me that I don’t know myself well enough. … I don’t really know what it is I want, and what I want to do.”
For now, Stern is the happiest he’s ever been in radio: “I think where I’m at now is the perfect place,” he says.
Editor’s note: This Fresh Air interview will air in two parts over two days. You can read highlights below — edited for length and clarity — or click the audio link above to hear the first part of the conversation.
On how therapy changed his interviews
Gross: Your interviewing approach has changed over the years — you go deeper, you have more empathy. You’ve said when you think of the interviews you did during the first couple of decades on your show, that you cringe … [and] that therapy was a turning point for you. You started therapy, what, 20 years ago?
Stern: I remember the first day very clearly. … What was so profound for me — and why I signed on — I sat there with the psychoanalyst, the psychiatrist, and I said, “Oh, I guess I’ll tell you about myself,” and I started to go into a fabulous routine that I’d done many times on the radio. I would start talking about my parents and complete with impressions. … I’m going into this elaborate thing, and he stops me cold, looks at me, he says, “I don’t find any of this funny.” I was like, hey, what the hell is he talking about? … I mean, I get paid a lot of money to do this stuff! He goes, “No, I find it rather sad. And why are you telling me stories? Why are you not talking to me about anything real?”
I had no clue what he was talking about. I had never sat alone in a room with any human being on this planet and been listened to in a real way. Everything with me was shtick and funny, and that’s how my family related.
On how therapy helped him focus his interviews on the guests
Stern: I began to contemplate. … How about bringing in a guest here and there and really having a real conversation? … What if I could let the other person shine? What if I could shut my big yap and not make it about me?
Everything started to change. … My policy was to be pure id … Let your brain just dump every bit of feeling and information out — but mostly what would come out was anger; it wasn’t fully dimensional.
In therapy I began to explore other ways of communicating, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been on the radio. And it’s not to suggest that the radio show isn’t completely insane still — which it is. There’s a lot of outrageous humor in things, but what I also began to guard and protect are certain things in my personal life, that some things became precious and off-limits. There became a better balance.
On feeling lost as a kid, and looking for attention and approval in his audience
Stern: I grew up in eventually what became an all-black community. And I was one of a few white kids, and I never once said to my parents, “Gee, I’m feeling estranged here. All my friends have moved away … I’m having a hard time with this.” There wasn’t that kind of discussion. My feelings and my difficulties were not on the table, and so I buried them. I think when I eventually got on the radio and I was roaring loud and certainly had everyone tuned into me, I couldn’t get enough of it.
There was a point in my career where we did research [that] one out of every four cars on the Long Island Expressway in the largest market in the United States, New York, were listening and tuned into me. And when I heard that I was massively depressed that three of those four cars were not listening to me. … So when you want everything and nothing satisfies you and you only want to be — in a narcissistic kind of way — the center of the universe and the focus, I was clearly a starved person who only would believe that the focus needed to be on me. …
I realize now, my father was a radio engineer and he looked at those broadcasters with such reverence. He was so kind and loving toward them and worshipped them. I said, “A-ha! So that’s what you do. You get behind a microphone and you get everyone listening, and then everyone loves you!” Well, that’s a sad way to live your life, because nobody really genuinely loves you. They appreciate what you do … the entertainment you give them, but that’s not the kind of love I was looking for.
On his mother’s trauma and depression
Stern: My mother was a depressed woman — suicidal. She had a horrible life — terrible, terrible life. Lost her mother at 9, [and she] was sent away from home. … I was raised by a traumatized woman. She had terrible, terrible trauma and overcame a lot in her life. But she became very sad when her sister died — who was really her only family. … And I’d come home from school and my mother was just distraught. Didn’t know what to do with her. I’d come home from school and she’d be sobbing.
Gross: What was it like to have a mother who put the idea of suicide on the table?
Stern: In my family, words meant nothing. … We didn’t have real, serious conversation. I thought it was all kind of for drama. I didn’t know how real it was. … You know, sex we could talk about, race we could talk about, homosexuality we could talk about — you name it, we could talk about it — but it was always in a joking way. We could talk about the news of the day in a joking way. But to really address something in a serious way? That was difficult. …
This is a terrible burden on a kid — to have to cheer up a mother. I remember doing very, very elaborate impressions of all the mothers in the neighborhood. … Not only was I doing impressions of them — but I was also ripping them apart. And my mother loved it, because what it meant was: She was the best mother. … What was really cheering her up was: You see? I’m the best mother. And I knew that on some level. Now, that’s too much for a kid to know.
On the “unleashed id” of his radio show
Stern: On my radio show there was so much sex and so much wild behavior. Listen, I was in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s, and this was all fascinating to me. … It was like punk rock. It was like, “What can I do that will freak everyone out? Oh! Everyone’s uptight about sex. Sex, sex, sex.” … I wanted to decriminalize sex. I want to go on and celebrate sex and say, “Who cares? We’re talking about sex. We’re all animals and we all have sex.”
Gross: OK, I really like the idea of celebrating sex. The part I didn’t like about your show was talking about the size of women’s breasts and how much you’d like to have sex with them and rating women 1 to 10 — or asking guests to. And you had such a large following of young men — and I’m specifically referring here to like the ’90s, the early aughts — and it’s like you were teaching young men how to leer at women, and be really crude, and judge women according to their breast size. That always really troubled me, and I know you cringe about a lot of things when you look back at your early career — do you cringe about that?
Stern: This was my thinking back then: Hey, I am not going to hide what men are thinking. I’m not going to BS the women in my audience. … Let women hear what real guys sound like. … So I thought I was performing a public service. I thought I was like, “Hey, guys are jerks and you need to know it!” But hey, I’m a jerk, too — and I was a jerk.
Gross: I felt like you were going like, “If you want to be cool, if you want to be like Howard Stern, this is how you treat women, this is how you talk to women.” And I found that really upsetting.
Stern: I don’t think I had the wherewithal to really analyze it. I just was doing my thing, and then, you know, as I got older and wiser I started to look at that, and I said, well, it troubles me. That’s not who I am anymore. I don’t really care about any of that. It’s not to say I wouldn’t be on the radio today commenting on somebody who wore an outrageous outfit to the Met Gala or something, but it’s done in a different way with a different approach.
And a lot of that stuff I can’t stand now. It’s too harsh. And if I hadn’t changed, if I had become a 65-year-old guy fawning over women, it would have been pathetic and sad, and I would have ended up an oldies act. My audience would’ve aged out with me.
On having obsessive compulsive tendencies
Stern: It was magical thinking. Let’s say I was listening to your radio show and I would be like, “Oh my God, I have to be better than her.” So I would tap on the radio three times above the speaker so that I was better than you. It was my attempt to control the world.
My world was so chaotic and so freaky and so really unexplained. … I didn’t control the ratings. There’s this weird kind of vague notion of who’s out there in the audience. Who’s out there? I don’t know. And they’re coming out with a ratings book, and if I don’t get a certain amount of ratings? I’m gonna be fired. They’re not going to put up with me. And having that loss of control, I think, overwhelmed me. I became literally paralyzed, except when I was on the air I could ignore it but … it was tough to ignore. … So I would think this magic would control it. … It keeps you very distracted from all of your problems.
On a recent health scare
Gross: One of the things you reveal in your book is that … you actually had a really big health scare. … You had a body scan and there’s a little shadow on your kidney, so you had to check that out and have exploratory surgery. Everything was fine, but … do you feel like that made you think more about like, gee, what if I were dying?
Stern: Oh my God. That’s why I wrote the book! I did not react well to being told by a doctor that [it’s a] 95% chance you have cancer. I freaked out. You want to know how unrealistic, again, and unprepared I am for life? I somehow assumed because my parents were 96 and 91 and have experienced very good health that I’m entitled to this, that nothing bad should happen to me.
But, man, if that doesn’t rock your reality and get you into a frame of mind where you’re like, wow, how much time do I have left? And what is it I’m really trying to accomplish with that time? … I paint now, and I want endless hours to paint. I wish I could go back in time and start as a young child and learn to paint. I have so many things that I’m interested in learning about, and I wish I had more time.
I suddenly realized my age. I realized that I’m not invincible, that things like this are going to occur. And that also influences: Am I going to stay on the radio? Is that how I’m going to end my life — that I’m just going to be on the radio and not have time for all these things I want to do? And what is it I really want to do? The whole thing is mind-blowing.
Editor’s note: The highlights above have been edited for length and clarity. Stern also talked about why he doesn’t use drugs, his early experiences with porn, and how he used to be self-conscious about his voice. To hear those conversations and more, click the audio link at the top of the page, and tune in for the second part of this conversation, airing Wednesday on Fresh Air.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, Beth Novey and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.