Howard Stern was an unexpected voice of reason during the pandemic

Howard Stern illustration

Illustration by Dan Redding

I felt trapped in my small New York City studio apartment during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no access to a gym, I resorted to the city’s best free workout: taking walks and doing pullups on scaffolding. One source of solace during that stressful pandemic Spring was the voice of New York’s self-proclaimed King Of All Media, Howard Stern.

Sirius made Stern’s show free for a few months, which was a brilliant move. A few times a week, I’d tune in while I walked off a portion of my stress on the polluted streets on Greenpoint’s Northeast side – an industrial area with a smaller likelihood that a pedestrian will cough in your vicinity.

Like many men of my generation, I grew up listening to Stern conjure confessions from lesbians while I got dressed for middle school (we’ve both grown up a lot since then). I’d lost track of him since he’d moved to Sirius – and now the station had offered me a gateway back into his world. In the Spring of 2020, Stern’s incandescent rage helped me exorcise some of my own while I did pushups on the steps of a vacant, garbage-strewn construction site before the start of my workday.

President Trump’s incompetent handling of the pandemic was a frequent target of Stern’s ire. In March 2020, Stern was livid that President Trump had gloated about the TV ratings of his COVID-19 news conferences. “It’s not your incredible reality TV show that you’re putting on for the country,” Stern said of the ratings, “It’s because we’re in crisis and we’re tuning in to see what the president has to say. We’re looking for leadership, motherfuckers!”

In May, Stern directed his fury at the Trump supporters in his own audience. “I don’t hate Donald – Donald’s doing his thing,” he said. “I hate you for voting for him, for not having an intelligence. For not being able to see what’s going on with the coronavirus … I hate you. I don’t want you here.”

Perhaps Stern’s most constant theme of 2020 was that he felt that we were living in an age of surreal nuttiness. He was aghast in April, when Trump floated the idea of fighting the coronavirus with injections of disinfectant. “I don’t recognize any of this as being Republican, I don’t recognize it as being anything political. I see it as insanity,” Stern remarked. Hearing a news anchor recite the suggestion about injecting disinfectant did nothing to capture the unfathomably bizarre nature of the moment. Stern validated my feelings by calling that moment what it is: insane.

Stern championed science when Americans mistrusted it most. His interviews with Dr. David Agus have served as “a tool to combat misinformation about the coronavirus,” according to The New Yorker.

Stern is imperfect and unbalanced by nature. His narcissistic and exploitative tendencies have fueled much of his show. Even the mere name of the show’s cast of characters  – the ‘Wack Pack,’ most of whom are people with disabilities and/or addictions – is unthinkably insensitive by today’s standards. He has spent countless hours pitting these people against each other in the pursuit of on-air fireworks.

However, it’s also true that Stern was practicing inclusivity and diversity way before those values were central to corporate American values, as they are today. When Howard won the Libertarian nomination in the 1994 race for governor of New York, he had Wack Pack member ‘Fred the Elephant Boy’ nominate him in front of a “huge congregation of Libertarians,” he recalled on his show. Stern insists that Fred’s speech impediment made him a compelling speaker and performer. “I remember these Libertarians staring at me, like, ‘You’re making a mockery.’ I was like, ‘Fuck you! The guy has a speech impediment, but he has a right to make a speech. He’s my representative.’”

Has Stern made a mockery of these people, or is he celebrating them and giving them a voice? These two opposing ideas are both true – and they reflect the nature of the man. His imperfections are part of what have made him so relatable to so many listeners. Stern’s validation of my rage was deeply cathartic for me during Our Insane Pandemic Year. But it’s his flawed nature that I relate to most.

Listen to the best
podcast in music.

Subscribe to the Culture Creature podcast:
Apple Podcasts | Android | Stitcher | RSS