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Howard Stern
Now on Sirius, Howard Stern, free of his corporate enemies and the rules of regular radio, is as entertaining as ever. (The Boston Globe) The Boston Globe

A year after getting Sirius, Stern's entertaining as ever

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / January 7, 2007

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In one of the great, triumphant moments of Howard Stern’s 1997 biopic ‘‘Private Parts,’’ our geek hero conducts an on-air phone sex session with a woman straddling her stereo speaker. It’s more than ridiculous — the long-haired radio misfit purring into the microphone to stimulate the subwoofer.

Cut to Stern’s listeners. Middle-aged women look up as they hear the exchange from a radio blaring at a sidewalk stand. An old man on a park bench holds a transistor to his ear. A crew of policemen huddle around their squad cars. These are Howard’s fans. In other words, everyone.

Until last year, that is. Stern’s decision to quit his national show for a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio gave his 12 million listeners a choice. Pay $13 a month for the service or find an alternative to the self-described ‘‘King of All Media.’’

On Tuesday, Stern will mark his one-year anniversary on Sirius. For those who followed — I’m one of them — the shift to satellite has been nothing short of a revelation. Howard Stern, free of his corporate enemies and the rules of regular radio, is as entertaining as ever.

He’s also responsible for the massive growth of Sirius.

It has taken time. ‘‘Can millions of listeners just disappear?’’ the Los Angeles Times asked last year, noting the failures of Stern’s FM successors and his inability to draw his old audience to satellite. But last week, Sirius announced it had just over 6 million subscribers, up from the 600,000 when the Stern deal was announced in 2004.

I suspect I’m a perfect case study of the slow flow to Sirius. For much of 2006, I was one of the ‘‘disappeared.’’ Instead of forking over $60 for a Sirius receiver, I listened to former Van Halen singer David Lee Roth’s uncomfortable, failed attempt to serve as a replacement on WBCN (104.1-FM). When Diamond Dave got canned, I clicked around the dial, searching for commuting companionship among the bland, contrived sports chatterers and the talk-by-numbers AM hacks. I would like to say that I considered National Public Radio a viable option, but as a guy who reads three newspapers every day, I already get my fill of ‘‘important stuff.’’ In the car, I want entertainment.

Then my wife bought me a Sirius subscription. And I found Howard again.

He hadn’t really changed. Sure, he can use profanity, and he’s let go of his Lenny Bruce-worthy obsession with federal regulators. But he remains the same old Howard. He hates authority. He likes to play out his sexual fantasies. And he loves mocking celebrities.

If you haven’t listened to Stern over the last year, you’ve been missing out. Though his detractors love to call him names — ‘‘a mean little pornography-addicted freak,’’ Virginia Heffernan wrote in The New York Times last year — Stern is actually a master interviewer. He disarms his subjects by being upfront and finds a way to ask questions far beyond what’s become standard in this universe of Entertainment Tonight-inspired suck-ups.

In the last year, I listened as he grilled Barbara Walters on whether she had ever slept with Richard Pryor, noting the intensity of the interviews she conducted with the late comedian. (For the record, Walters said ‘‘no.’’) Stern’s chat with former ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ head writer Tina Fey produced this nugget about onetime ‘‘SNL’’ host Paris Hilton: ‘‘She’s so unbelievably dumb and so proud of how dumb she is. She looks like a tranny up close.’’

And then there was the interview that never was. Stern lined up The Who’s Pete Townshend for a heavily promoted appearance last fall during one of two days Sirius offered the show for free to lure in new listeners.

Moments before he was set to come on the air, Townshend, listening in a studio in England, heard Stern’s sidekick, Robin Quivers, refer to the guitarist’s arrest for suspicion of child porn. (He was cleared of the charges.)

Townshend stomped out, leaving lead singer Roger Daltrey to lecture Stern that he’s only interested in ‘‘sniffing dirty underpants.’’ Then Stern coaxed Daltrey into singing a few verses of ‘‘Baba O’Riley.’’

Stern’s show continues to work because the formula remains. He plays phony phone calls and features an assortment of pseudo-celebrities, including Star Trek’s George Takei and Gilbert Gottfried. His life remains an open book. As part of a new shtick called ‘‘The Revelation Game,’’ Stern confessed to having had plastic surgery on his face. Staff member Fred Norris admitted he has a half-sister he doesn’t want to meet. Disclosures from other cast members can’t be printed here.

Stern’s whole crew joined him at Sirius, including Quivers, Norris, Artie Lange, and producer Gary Dell’Abate. To listen to the show over the last year has been to follow every drama, from interoffice squabbles to Lange’s battle with heroin, his seesaw relationship with girlfriend Dana, and a yearlong eating binge that has him pushing 300 pounds.

But while he’s kept his cast, Stern has been able to take advantage of his new medium. He programs two channels on Sirius, and has given members of his ‘‘wack pack’’ chances to host shows. In a glorious display of self-obsession, Stern created Howard 100 News, hiring a staff of reporters to cover —what else — the daily events and characters on his show.

While he still runs commercials, Stern’s breaks are not nearly as long as when he ruled the FM airwaves. Some episodes have run past the five-hour mark.

What’s more, when he’s not doing a new show, he’s reintroducing us to his classic material.

Last summer, Stern’s settlement with CBS Radio, his former employer, granted him 20 years’ worth of old shows on tape. He’s been able to replay the programs — which feature discontinued bits like ‘‘Lesbian Dial-a-Date’’ and ‘‘Guess Who’s the Jew’’ — uncensored for the first time.

Is Stern’s Sirius perfect? Far from it. At times, he seems to have too much freedom. Do we really need a program dedicated to how much excrement one member of his crew can produce in 24 hours, or to hear a naked woman throw up on a man, who claims the act as his fetish? And what of the ‘‘Sybian,’’ a vibrating chair he keeps in the studio so that willing guests — usually porn stars — can moan for his audience?

That aside, I’m glad to have Howard back. More days than not, I find myself stuck in an old habit. When I get to work, I sit in the parking space for a few minutes with the radio on. I need to hear Artie’s latest weigh-in, or Howard finish the story about his awkward exchange with Al Roker at a holiday party.

Maybe I’m one of only a fraction of Stern’s old listeners sharing in the moment. But that’s enough.

Howard’s back, and he’s making me laugh.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on arts, visit boston.com/ae/exhibitionist.