Howard Stern's new book raises weird questions about the roles and value of satire

November 19, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Howard Stern may be the most disgusting human creature outside punitive custody in America. He would have it no other way. Nowhere is that made clearer than in his new book.

That volume, "Miss America" (Regan Books/HarperCollins. 482 pages. $27.50), may well outsell all other books in this intense book-buying season.

The publishing business is notoriously secretive and/or mendacious about numbers and dollars, but Mr. Stern's previous book, decorously titled "Private Parts," is said by HarperCollins to have sold 1.3 million copies. The publishers say they are putting 1 million copies of "Miss America" out in the first wave. It's selling well.

Who cares?

The book raises fresh questions about the boundaries of satire. It certainly brings fresh emphasis to the phenomenon of BBs - broadcast books, books that would not be sold were it not for the trademark presence of their authors in television or radio, sweeping from pop culture froths by Bill Moyers to fat-free

recipes compiled by a TV vulgarian's cook.

But Howard Stern stands at the outer limit, both as author and as trade name.

For those who have been spared, Howard Stern is a "radio shock jock." His daily broadcast is syndicated to more than 20 markets, including WJFK-AM in Baltimore, WJFK-FM of Manasas, Md., and WPGC-AM and FM in Washington. In most markets, he has top listener rating among all shows on "morning drive," radio's prime time.

Broadcast indecency

Infinity Broadcasting Company, which syndicates him and owns many of the stations he is heard on, says he has 15 million daily listeners. A single commercial on his show costs $10,000 for five days. Mr. Stern's personal income is estimated at $7 million a year. Infinity, which charges $300,000 a year for stations to use the broadcasts, is reported to get about $15 million of its annual ++ $234.2 million in revenues from Stern.

Since 1989, Infinity has fought off from the Federal Communications Commission more than 100 specific charges of broadcast indecency by Mr. Stern. A few weeks ago, the company agreed to pay $1.715 million to wipe out all pending complaints, the largest settlement in FCC history.

That establishes a market. So what about the book?

It is vile, by every measure:

The narrative style rambles like a herd of unwashed and diarrheic goats, undisciplined, directionless, unfocused, leaving unspeakable detritus. Its grossness begins as offensive, becomes nauseating and finally goes dead and boring.

It is impossible to tell when Mr. Stern is telling the truth and when he's lying, or what gradation in between is in play. The recounting and descriptions of actual people and events are closely related to the usages of the worst of the supermarket tabloids: little flicks and grains of fact, on which are built gross speculations.

The book's sprawling splattering of type faces can be taken as the taste gods' revenge for making multiple fonts too easily available. Lots of badly reproduced little pictures contribute to an overall look that suggests two 12-year-olds and one 11-year-old broke into an underfunded desktop publishing lab.

In his highly personalized narrative, Mr. Stern self-indulgently dramatizes mild neurotic tendencies. He elaborates personal quirks into Jobian afflictions: self-indulgent overeating, improving his tooth-brushing habits, life-maintenance trivia.

A noted example is his drama of "OCD" affliction: obsessive compulsive disorder. There is a lot of chatter about OCD, but in this book it is a superficial victim-culture concept: self-indulgent babbling about lining up pencils too carefully. Mr. Stern is the Emperor of Pathetically Preening Narcissism.

His explanation of his OCD cure, and for his professional success: "The OCD was distracting me from the anger and anxiety I had been repressing from this zany childhood. That also explained why I was able to function so well on the radio. In real life, I couldn't express the anger and the hurt. But once I got behind that mike, it was full steam ahead. Nothing was sacred or held back."

Hearts rise to him

Among Mr. Stern's fans, I am told, are many people who feel acutely alone and without assertive voices of their own. The quality their hearts rise to is his unrelenting outspokenness. "Just imagine," one celebrated, "here's somebody who can say and is saying absolutely anything, breaking every taboo - social, political, racial, sexual - and not only getting away with it but

being hugely rewarded. He's a success doing everything I can't do. I love him."

Weird love. Openly, Mr. Stern is a bad winner, a heartless, vicious competitor who celebrates not only winning, but totally humiliating, professionally destroying, his competitors. His vituperation leaves no weak or wounded unpunished.

The core of what he declares he stands for is a sort of sewer anarchism. Part of it is unresolved infantilism, flinging pabulum from high chairs - although pabulum is too unvulgar a missile for Mr. Stern. For many people, there are so few public problems that impact their lives that they look to the political process as a sandbox to make mischief in. Stern treats that sandbox as a cat would.

But another element of Howard Stern is pure commercial exploitation of humankind's eternal appetite for satire. Satire is a great cleanser. History instructs us that mockery of the pompous, the established, the powerful serves truth and justice far more often than not. But this stuff is nobody's burlesque. Mr. Stern's work is to "Saturday Night Live" what a platoon of chain saws is to a nail file. Any potential for cleansing is drowned in scatology.

Swift weeps. Voltaire retches.

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