Howard Stern: Mike Segar/Reuters/Newscom
May 25, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Why Howard Stern’s ratings are falling

Lately, news reports have detailed a downturn in the ratings for Howard Stern’s syndicated radio show, including his fall to second place in both L.A.’s and New York’s morning drive slot. Those stories have also advanced a number of theories as to why. Some suggest that the recent China crisis and stock market instablity sent listeners scurrying to all news stations; others blame disappointment over the loss of longtime cast member Jackie ”the Joke Man” Martling, boredom with the limited entertainment value of LISTENING to women get naked on the air, or frustration at the exhaustingly long commercial blocks that interrupt the comic action.

At least some of that speculation is on the mark, but for me, a devoted fan for nearly 20 years, something more insidious — and heartbreaking — has happened: Howard Stern has become a celebrity. Yeah, I know, he’s been rich and famous for a long time, but somehow he just never FELT like a beautiful person before. Somehow, despite the multimillion dollar income and stratospheric ratings, we longtime fans felt a deep kinship with a guy who spent his off duty hours holed up in a Long Island basement, a mass of melancholy, misanthropy, and sexual frustration.

We identified with him in his rage against name dropping ”phony baloney” jet setters, saving particular ire for those middle aged stars who, as soon as they hit the Hollywood jackpot, dump the long suffering spouses who stayed with them through the salad days, only to hook up with bodacious chippies a decade or two younger than them. That Us against Them kinship may have been illusory, but it was an exciting, comforting illusion, crucial to the familial devotion felt by fans for the ostensible King of All Media.

Then in 1999 Stern got separated from his wife Alison (his long suffering spouse who stayed with him through his salad days), bought himself a fabulous new apartment in Manhattan, and began living the single life. Since then, Howard has sounded decidedly more content and engaged with life than ever. Unfortunately, he’s also become one of Them… and it shows.

These days you’re prone to hear Bizarro Howard blather on about the fabulous cuisine he sampled the night before at one chi chi New York eatery or another, or the marquee name acquaintances he made at various velvet roped hotspots. Or maybe, as he did recently, he’ll reminisce about taking in a performance of ”Cabaret” on Broadway so as to see his sexy ”friend” Gina Gershon, or recall a hopping Malibu beach party where he hung out with another new pal of his, Carmen Elektra.

At the same time, he’s seemed to acquire a disturbing taste for the mediocre, whether it’s jumping on the ”Survivor” bandwagon or buddying up to the likes of E! channel gossip hack A.J. Benza and unctuous frat boy Craig Kilborn. Say what you will about showbiz oddities — and former Stern show regulars — like ”Grandpa” Al Lewis and ”The Legend” Steve Rossi, they were not mediocre.

The whole thing has been a traumatic spectacle for true Stern acolytes, something like that agonizing high school moment when your best friend suddenly deserts you and starts sitting at the cool kids table. Presumably, to love someone is to want them to be happy, which Howard seems to be. And his is still the funniest syndicated show on the air, bar none, still capable of reaching the gut busting heights of its halcyon days. But something deeply special has been lost, and us former fanatics have to wonder, Was it all a big lie? Has Howard Stern grown up… or just flaked out?

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