Far beyond shock, Howard Stern keeps evolving

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Howard Stern is one of us. He’s an outsider who broke through to the inside. Now he’s got famous friends and a bank account loaded with zeroes, but he’s still just a guy who gets up and goes to work in the morning.

That’s what we love about him. He’s relatable. He’s honest about his life, his relationship with his parents, his trips to the psychiatrist, his visits to the bathroom. He’s tortured. But from that torture he spins gold, just like he’s been doing on radio dials for more than 30 years.

If the name Howard Stern makes you recoil in horror, you’re not alone. But that means you’re not a listener, and you’re missing out on what is consistently the best bang for your entertainment buck.

To many, his name is still synonymous with lesbians, strippers and lesbian strippers. It’s a reputation he earned, thanks to his envelope-pushing rise to fame in the 1980s and 1990s, which was fraught with battles with the FCC over his lewd content — immortalized in between censorship blurs on his late-night E! show — which often involved, well, lesbian strippers.

But that’s far from the whole story. Howard has always been about more than his “shock jock” antics, and since abandoning terrestrial radio in 2006 for the open airwaves of what is now Sirius XM satellite radio, he has been freed of the creative shackles that once weighed him down. He has flourished, reaching a new creative peak and becoming, perhaps, the “Greatest Entertainer of All-Time.”

It’s a title he’s given himself, along with “The King of All Media.” But he’s not wrong. He’s that good.

It’s not that he has the ability to curse on air or to play bits that are too racy for FM airwaves, though that was certainly part of the initial allure of his jump to satellite. It’s because he’s not only a gifted talker, but an astute listener, and those skills combine to make him a remarkable interviewer and conversationalist who is able to make anyone interesting, from members of his “Wack Pack” — the weirdo band of freaks and misfits that populates his show — to his celebrity interview subjects.

This week, Howard had on Steve Martin, and for nearly two hours Martin opened up about his standup career, “Saturday Night Live,” his movies, his relationship with his father and his friendship with Martin Short. It was fascinating, like being one table over from them as they spoke over dinner.

The 62-year-old Howard of now is a kinder, gentler version of the randy radio host whose rise was charted in “Private Parts.” He joined the cast of NBC’s summer variety series “America’s Got Talent” in 2012, which seemed unthinkable at the time — the raunchy Stern on a family program? — but showed his willingness to broaden his scope and soften his edges. His stint on the show ended last year.

The end of “AGT” coincided with a five-year renewal of his Sirius XM deal, which puts him on the air through 2020. His four-hour show airs three days a week, with constant repeats across his two channels. Howard is always on.

And he’s still driven by his outsider spirit. He was never the handsome kid or the popular guy in class. But that fueled him to work hard to master his craft, and it continues to push him forward.

He had to work his way through multiple markets — including an early stint in Detroit — and for bosses who tried to keep him down. Ultimately, he triumphed, and that’s what his audience — Sirius XM has a base of 30 million subscribers, up from around 1 million when Howard first signed with the company — sees in him. He’s a hero to the everyman who, deep down, is an everyman himself.

And when he gets up and goes to work in the morning, he’s just like us. With one exception: When we go to work, we get to listen to Howard.

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Twitter: @grahamorama