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The Shocking Truth About Howard Stern

September 13, 1993|PETER J. MARSTON | Marston is an associate professor of speech communication at Cal State Northridge. and

Howard Stern, Shock-Jock. The words are almost inseparable in any media description of the now top-rated morning radio host. And although the expression may be a convenient (and by now, conventional) shorthand for describing the complex Stern, it obscures a deeper, more noble truth about Stern and his broadcast.

If I had never listened to Stern, and I heard him repeatedly described as a "shock-jock" whose topics focus on masturbation, breasts and the inadequacies of cultural minorities, I too might have dismissed him as a nasty, vile hate-monger ("FCC Delivers a Stern Warning," Calendar, Aug. 13). Certainly, there is much that Stern says that--if taken out of context--can support this viewpoint. But the Howard Stern Show is nothing but context: four hours of talk with no music and with no purpose other than to be the Howard Stern Show.

This exclusive focus on Stern and his interests is not essentially egotistical nor is it intended to indoctrinate listeners with Stern's beliefs and values. Quite the contrary, for underlying all of Stern's bravado and bad taste is the repeated message: It's only a show.

With some other "shock-jocks" I have heard, this message would be, at best, a cop-out. I don't want to be responsible for what I say, so I will hide behind its purported entertainment value. But, for Stern, this message is a fully developed ethos--perhaps even a philosophy.

Frequently, Stern puts a listener on the air who is protesting or complaining about some perhaps insensitive remark. On these occasions, Stern repeatedly asks the listener, "Why would you listen to me? What do I know? I'm just some jerk with a radio show. Make up your own mind. Be responsible for your own beliefs. " In this way, Stern doesn't hide from the responsibility of what he says, he simply expects the same of you, the listener. It is a challenge that I believe is frightening to many of us.

The postmodern critic Jean Baudrillard, in his book "Simulations," argues that we live in an age where people no longer produce or create their own opinions, but rather, where people reproduce opinions presented in the media.


Of all figures in the media, Howard Stern is the most resistant to this trend. He wants you to listen to and enjoy his show, to be sure, but he wants you to think for yourself and, in turn, to let him think for himself. The outrageousness of his commentary only underscores the futility of letting others do your thinking for you.

It surprises me that the liberal media and entertainment community--the direct descendants of the '60s--are not more supportive of Stern, especially as he faces repeated assaults from the Federal Communications Commission. For in our vast and varied media markets, only Stern truly embodies the cornerstone of '60s dogma: Don't follow leaders. How this dogma evolved into the restrictive political correctness currently in vogue is beyond the scope of my argument here. But I, for one, am glad to have Howard Stern on the airwaves, fighting the good fight.

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