Radio’s reigning ravers dominate the dial ---- But, are
Howard Stern & Rush Limbaugh secretly dittoheads in denial?
NE IS A FAT, BALDISH, OLD-FASHIONED MIDDLE AMERICAN GUY with a delivery like Robert Preston in The Music Man, a conservative ideologue who has never owned a pair of jeans, gorges on $250 meals of caviar and steak, revels in drinking “adult beverages” and gets embarrassed when a friend makes a bawdy crack about a female reporter interviewing him.
T he other is a skinny, 6-ft. 5-in, longhair who wears jeans, dark glasses and five ear-rings, a teetotaler who eats no red meat and whose radio shows inevitably include stretches of Butt-head, uncensored sex raps.
One is a cracker-barrel commentator descended from the Great Gildersleeve, Paul Harvey and Ronald Reagan, whose often arch, sometimes tiresome rants about “commie libs” have the propulsive fluency of parliamentary debate; the other, a radio vérité comedian who is an odd fin-dc-siècle hybrid of Joe Pyne, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, whose rambles about himself, show business and the world in general are at once appalling and exhilarating. They seem antithetical generational caricatures—even though the commentator, Rush Limbaugh, 42, is a baby boomer only three years older than the foul-mouthed comic, Howard Stern.
At first glance—and to hear both the Limbaugh camp and Stern tell it—they are utterly dissimilar. “He hates to be compared to Stern,” says Limbaugh’s TV pro-ducer, Roger Ailes. “Stern is a pure entertainer. Rush was invited to have dinner with Anthony Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher last month.” Says Stern: “My biggest fear is being lumped in [with Limbaugh].”
Limbaugh is a more or less conventional pundit whose agenda is the standard public agenda: government programs vs. free-market solutions, self-reliance vs. entitlements. He has real influence—”the power, says Clinton White House consultant Paul Begala, “to put something like Zoë Baird on the radar screen.” Stern doesn’t seek power or influence, and doesn’t have any. He is smart and often sensible but intellectually lazy. He will never appear on a Washington round-table program, but his wildly, unwholesomely eclectic agenda is actually very much like that of an average Joe who doesn’t tidily segregate his thoughts on sex from his thoughts on health-care reform, and who doesn’t see politics as the primary vehicle for his hopes and fears.
Sure, one’s a prurient, free-associating rocker manqué and one’s a tub-thumping right-winger, but how much more illuminating to see Limbaugh and Stern as flip sides of a single brassy, very American coin. They are not just analogous but kin- dred phenomena, each man rising on adjacent zeitgeist updrafts. “They’re both ambassadors in the culture of resentment,” says Newsday media critic Paul Colford. Their core audience is drawn from the broad American middle class: small-businessmen, taxi drivers, working stiffs who unapologetically enjoy action movies, who feel besieged by (and may secretly enjoy feeling besieged by) the nuttier extremes of political correctness.
These days, in fact, America can pretty much be divided in two: on one side are Rush’s people and Howard’s people, and on the other the decorous and civilized who tend to be uncomfortable with strong broadcast opinion unless it comes from Bill Moyers, Bill Buckley or, if pressed, Andy Rooney. The Rush and Howard people—who, like their avatars, have more in common than they know—seem to be winning, or certainly proliferating.The array of forces can be reckoned roughly. Limbaugh now claims 20 million listeners on radio, of whom, his TV producer Roger Ailes figures, two-thirds largely agree with his ideological conservatism —the “dittoheads,” as Limbaugh calls his fans. More than 3 million “Dittoheads” bought his first book in 1993, and his second, See, I Told You So, had a first pinting of 2 million, the largest in U.S. history. On his syndicated TV show, which is broadcast mainly late at night, he draws a bigger audience than Conan O’Brien or Arsenio Hall.
As for Stern, somewhere between 4 million (according to the rating company Arbitron) and 16 million (according to Stern) listen to him on the radio, where, like Limbaugh, he broadcasts live for several hours every weekday. Two weeks after Stern’s book Private Parts came out, there were 1 million copies in bookstores. His interview show on cable’s E! is often the highest-rated program on that (smallish) entertainment-news channel. Limbaugh and Stern are popular because their audiences consider them uniquely honest, commonsensical, funny and a bit reckless (more than a bit in Stern’s case) at a time when most people on radio and TV seem phony, impersonal, dull, dis-embling, hedging. Both are irreverent, acute, bombastic, iconoclastic, and outlandishly populist rabble-ousers. They are national ids, gleeful and unfettered. Howard is Rush’s evil twin, Goofus to his Gallant.
Yet both Limbaugh and Stern are closer to the rough center, and closer to each other, than almost anyone customarily imagines. They were both born on Jan. 12, Lim-augh in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Stern on Long Island, New York. Limbaugh’s father owned a piece of a local radio station where Rush III got his start, and Stern’s father was a Manhattan radio engineer Limbaugh tried strenuously to please his father, and, according to his brother David, “echoes of my dad reverberate through everything my brother says.” Stern says his father continually screamed that he was a “moron’ Neither dated much in high school. Both work very conscientiously and don’t pursue hobbies or very active social.lives. Both are shy and charming in real life. On the air, Limbaugh half-jokingly boasts he is “the epitome of morality and virtue” and Stern half-jokingly calls himself “King of All Media7
Both complain about being misrepresented. Both sometimes make ugly cracks about blacks, and both could be considered pigs, happily unenlightened. “I love the women’s movement,” Limbaugh has written, “especially when I’m walking behind it.” Both interlard their radio talk with bits of hard rock. Each believes, with some justice, that he is being made a special target by the Federal Government. Lim-baugh says he feels persecuted by Democratic Congressmen who want to re- establish broadcasting’s Fairness Doctrine in order to pressure TV and radio stations to cancel his shows. And the FCC is going after Stern vigorously, during the past year fining Stern’s employer $1.1 million for his unremitting vulgarity.
Stern is at heart a deeply perverse jester, and looks and sounds like the pedal-to- the-metal performance artist one expects. His unedited riffing can often be, as charged, disgusting: his jokes several years ago about his wife’s miscarriage were inexcusable, his now defunct TV show’s low-rent T&A spectacle a depressing glimpse into a New Jersey heart of darkness. Limbaugh the humorist, on the other hand, is a curious new species. “The political turf of satirists has almost always been left,” ABC News analyst Jeff Greenfield says. “It’s one thing to attack liberals. But to be laughing at them—that’s when some people get crazy. Limbaugh calls the grandly elegant Secretary of the Treasury “Lord Bentsen Stern graduated with good grades from prestigious Boston University; Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State after a year and had a nondescript disk jockey and p.r career getting fired from five jobs during his 20s and 30s. Howard met his wife in college in 1974, married her four years later and proudly says he as been faithful to her. Alison Stern, the very picture of the cheerful, wholesome middle-American housewife, raises their three daughters, ages 9 months to 10 years, at the family home in a conservative well-to-do Long Island suburb. Limbaugh has been married twice, the first time for 18 months, the second time to a Kansas City Royals ush- erette; he is childless and lives alone in a small apartment on Manhattan’s ultra- liberal Upper West Side.
Which is not to suggest that Limbaugh’s ideological sincerity and coherence are anything less than total. He plainly believes what he says and mostly argues his cases lucidly, particularly by radio standards. He harps on liberal straw men in a way that seems more properly circa-1973 (“long-haired, maggot-infested, dope-
smoking peace pansies”), and his logic can be unforgivably specious (against the pro-choice argument for abortion: “Can a woman choose to steal, using her own body?”). But in fact his views on abortion are relatively nuanced. Nor is it kooky or even wrong to assert, as Limbaugh has. that increased school expenditures don’t necessarily produce better education, that means testing for Social Security would be a fine idea, that taking responsibility for one’s own life is all-important.
Limbaugh and Stern exist in parallel universes, but in symbiosis. Stern was successfully raising the threshold of provocative radio performance for years before Limbaugh came along. And certainly Limbaugh’s unbudging commitment to free speech helps make Stern possible. “Stern and Limbaugh make radio a more inter-active, more vibrant medium says Everette Dennis of Columbia University, the executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. “It’s the triumph of the individual” Love ‘em or hate ‘em—and there’s no middle ground—radio’s reigning ravers make the circus-cum-marketplace of ideas quirkier, livelier, more bracing, more free, more American.
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