She's bright, articulate, well-educated--and she works as the sidekick to raunchy radio personality Howard Stern.
The question frequently asked of Robin Quivers is "Why?"
Why would she choose to be partnered with a comedian who has been accused of being sexist and racist? Why does she sit there and take it while Stern makes jokes about women, blacks and other minorities?
"I chose to jump on the bandwagon with someone I felt to be incredibly creative, and we do a comedy show," Quivers explains. "It was simply that he was incredibly talented. I knew he was different from anything else I'd ever heard on radio and I wanted to be around that. He was not the run-of-the-mill disc jockey. He was definitely not the kind of guy who just played records and told you the weather."
That was three stations and 12 years ago, in Washington, D.C. Quivers has been at Stern's side throughout his rise from obscurity to major media star, as the top-rated--and most controversial--morning radio host in both Los Angeles and New York.
Now she is basking in the reflected notoriety and hoping to parlay it into something of her own.
"I have been there for the entire evolution," she says proudly. "I helped him become who he is. I'm a partner in this--this crime." The latter remark is punctuated with one of her trademark raucous laughs.
Quivers' role on the broadcast, heard locally on KLSX-FM (97.1) and in nine other cities, extends well beyond simply laughing at the boss's jokes.
She delivers "newscasts" that provide the essential jumping-off points for Stern's provocative comments and often politically incorrect, sometimes brutally honest opinions about celebrities, public figures, criminals and the current state of society.
Quivers also joins in his merrymaking, reacting bemusedly to such trademark Stern features as "Lesbian Dial-a-Date" and "Butt Bongo" (in which women are spanked to the beat of a song), and chiming in on Stern's tirades about his detractors. And occasionally, she takes the wind out of his bluster with a good-natured rebuke.
"Oh, you're wacky," she told him one day recently when he was sounding off on why John McEnroe was right to split with Tatum O'Neal because she wanted to pursue her acting career instead of staying home with their three children. And when he took up the subject again the following day, calling O'Neal immature, Quivers quipped, "Here he goes again--like he's a grown-up!"
"I feel that I'm a cohort, an instigator, the audience," Quivers reflected in an interview. "It depends. I can take any number of roles depending on what the situation is. People say, 'Well, I like it because now you're challenging him more. I think that's really good.' I say, 'I was? I'd better stop. I didn't mean to.' It's simply however I feel that day."
It's less what Quivers does, however, than the fact that she is there at all that makes her a focal point in the debate over whether Stern's show is fun and frivolous or indecent and insulting. Stern's supporters contend that, as an African-American woman, her presence is proof that his outrageous comments aren't meant to be taken seriously. Critics argue just the opposite--that by being party to his act, she is validating it.
Stern was complaining about life in New York City. "It's like living in Africa," he insisted.
"Oh, you," Quivers interjected. "You don't even see any black people!"--a reference to the fact that he lives on Long Island and commutes in a limousine.
This, in the view of Stern's supporters, is Quivers' most valuable function--gently taking the host to task for his assumptions or his glib remarks or his inconsistencies in how he chooses to remember events. (Stern, who avoids giving interviews, could not be reached for comment.)
"At her best, Robin's role is that of the adult on the show and, as such, at times she serves as the surrogate for the people in the audience who skew somewhat away from Howard's point of view," said Dan O'Day, an independent radio programming consultant based in Santa Monica.
"I seriously doubt whether anybody said, 'Let's put a black female on to help soften the blow,' but it certainly helps to have that effect. If Howard is saying something that some would think was derogatory to blacks, it helps that a black woman is in the room to either counteract his remarks or at the very least to provide a perspective he doesn't have. It makes it a lot more palatable than if they had two white guys in the room."
But the National Organization for Women sees Quivers as aiding and abetting Stern's misogynist agenda.
"We're not gaining anything because this young woman is being lauded for talking back," said Tammy Bruce, president of NOW's Los Angeles chapter. ". . . Women are being bashed on a daily basis on that show regardless of their exchange. (Quivers) is portrayed as an onlooker, as a cohort, as a caretaker. That reinforces the message that this is not wrong, reinforces the attitude that women enjoy this and think it's funny."