Howard Stern, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, didn’t become successful overnight. Here are 10 things you can learn from his must-see radio movie Private Parts.
He’s on the airwaves for over 40 years, and had many celebrities attend the recent 60th Birthday Bash during his Sirius XM Radio show. But how did a shy, nerdy teenager become the self-acclaimed King of All Media? Howard Stern‘s movie Private Parts shows that you have to break with traditional habits and show the real you to stand out as a radio personality.
$96 a week
1. Start in radio early
Many of the best on-air personalities have early radio roots. Howard Stern knows that he wants to be on the radio at the age of five, when his father Ben takes him to WHOM (now WZRC) in Manhattan, New York, where he works as an engineer. Howard’s first disc jockey experience is at Boston University’s campus radio WTBU in 1973, followed by a job at ‘Westchester 107’ WRNW (now WXPK) after graduation in 1977 for a salary of $96 a week. Based on the movie in which he plays himself, he must have sounded like this:
Because he’s not a great jock at that time, but shows a good work ethic, the station manager promotes him to program director (photo from a New York Times article in 1978). To his own surprise, Stern is successful in his new role. Ratings and profits go up, but he hates uncomfortable social interactions like firing people. He decides to put joy first and money second, gives up his PD paycheck of $250 a week, and gets back on air for a lot less money.
3. Be prepared and focused
Howard Stern is evolving as the ‘wacky morning man’ on WCCC in Hartford, Connecticut in 1979. It’s an interesting first day on the job. Despite practicing the route countless times, he takes a wrong turn on the freeway and ends up being in the studio at the last minute. All sweaty out of breath he sits down in the control room, just a few seconds before his first break and on-air debut – realizing how important it is to be on time and well prepared. And yet, when the mic goes on, it’s like he pulls a mental and physical switch. He’s able to focus completely on the on-air performance, regardless of the actual circumstances at that moment. During the show, nothing is more important than that show.
“I want time & temperature
four times every fifteen minutes!”
4. Develop your on-air character
CCC is the station where Stern gradually develops his personality, also with help of his wife Alison who makes him realize that he should be honest rather than just being entertaining. One day he’s doing a live ad, but can’t find the script that goes along with it. He improvises by ad-libbing on the spot, but gets caught up in his own words. It forces him to get out of the ‘disc jockey role’ and level with the audience by telling the truth and admitting his fault:
Next stop: WWWW (now WDTW) in Detroit, Michigan, 1980. After a fight with Alison he now lives by himself, which makes him frustrated and uninspired. Listeners don’t like him. Neither do his colleagues: “You talk too much, and – very important – I want time and temperature four times every fifteen minutes. Not three times, four times!”, his PD shouts. When the station then flips from Rock to Country, he decides to do what feels right and quit (live on the air).
6. Make life your showprep
Looking back at his 4W stint, Howard admits to Alison (who got back to him) that this failure was caused by him, and not by the station, even if it was lame. He realizes that he’s the only one responsible, and that he needs to get more intimate with the audience by talking about his private life on the air. It becomes clear that he’s been holding back a lot – maybe being afraid of what others might think when he says what he really thinks. Alison’s advice is to go all the way on the air. She regrets that later, when he not only shares publicly that she’s had a miscarriage, but also pulls some self-depricating jokes about it.
7. Be innovative and creative
Howard Stern moves to another major market in 1981, as morning host of DC 101 (WWDC) in Washington, DC. There he manages to be not only entertaining, but also do things that nobody else has done before. Pressured by a sales manager who is worried about advertisers who cancel because of Stern’s unheard style, the GM and PD try to control his spontaneous ideas – such as satisfying a woman through the radio, in a legendary scene of Private Parts. Whatever you may think of it, it definitely shows what kind of radio turns a passively consumed medium into an active listening experience. It’s radio that you cannot turn off.
It’s at DC-101 that he meets news anchor Robin Quivers (photo) who quickly becomes his witty ‘voice of reason’ on the show. Stern knows how to hire co-hosts and producers who complete you, as he brings in ‘quiet storm’ Fred Norris who is great with character voices, comedy bits and sound effects. They know each other from WCCC, where Fred was then doing the nightshift. Later, comedy writer & producer Jackie Martling joins the team.
9. Push (don’t break) boundaries
When executives of NBC New York learn that in one year, one deejay of a competing station took away a great deal of their Washington, DC listenership, they offer him a $1 million contract to host afternoons on 66 WNBC for five years. Funny enough, that’s where he faces the biggest management resistance. They try to tame him with format rules (“WNnnnnBC!”) and FCC regulations, only to see that Howard & Co. find creative workarounds to go against the grain, because they believe to do the right thing. One step too far might be making fun of the program director – nicknamed ‘Pig Vomit’ – on the air constantly, which in the movie leads to a real fight (that Stern manages to broadcast live from) inside the PD’s office.
“I wanna’ see what he’ll say next”
10. Keep listeners constantly hooked
In 1985, when the movie story ends, Howard Stern has the most-listened to show in New York. We see the program director, station manager and NBC president question if it’s true, and wonder how it’s possible. Then, an audience researcher explains why the show has an unparalleled TSL – proving that you can win radio wars by having authentic personalities, especially polarizing personalities. An amazing insight is that people who dislike Stern are actually listening much longer than his biggest fans! Yet, they all share the same motivation: “I wanna’ see what he’ll say next.”