PHILADELPHIA – To the naked ear, Howard Stern is still our regent of raunch. Lately, he has groused to his loyal listeners about the zit on his nose and the cellulite on his butt, dished about his morning trysts with his model-girlfriend, and opined on the watchability of DVD porn.

But Stern has also ushered in the era of shock-jock politics, so when he split for a long vacation at the start of July, he minced no words:

“I’m not only anti-Bush, I support John Kerry. … He’s going to be the guy who gets us back on track. … Our audience is really making a difference in this upcoming election. … It turns out everyone listens to us, especially a lot of dudes who are swing voters.”

This might seem a bit outlandish, the idea that Stern, who features a 30-second audio clip of flatulence on his Web site, would fancy himself a presidential power broker. After all, this is a guy whose ill-fated 1994 New York gubernatorial bid was based on only two issues: “Fix the roads at night, and kill the criminals.”

But he has been railing against Bush for months, on everything from Iraq to gay rights, and this is a guy who each week commandeers 8.2 million pairs of ears; only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have bigger audiences. Stern is a fixture in a number of key states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri. And, starting Monday, he is picking up three new markets in Florida, including the swing-voter cities of Orlando and Tampa, along with Pittsburgh.

“Howard is now a huge political force,” insists Michael Harrison, a radio industry expert who edits Talkers magazine.

“Look at his audience. These are normally apolitical people, the non-zealots, who generally haven’t made up their minds about this election. … That’s very different from Limbaugh, who is only preaching to his choir of conservative listeners.”

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Matthew Felling, a former talk show personality and current media analyst, says: “This year, we could see more mullets and T-shirts at the polls than ever before. If Howard tells people to wake up 15 minutes early on Election Day to vote against Bush, it’ll happen. Some of his listeners would consider it a debt paid for all the free entertainment he has given them. Some are so suggestible that they’d strip naked in his studio for a 12-pack of Powerade.”

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The Bush campaign is ignoring Stern’s attacks, which began in earnest in March after the Federal Communications Commission cracked down on his crass talk. Bush spokesman Kevin Madden hews to the high road: “The American people are going to choose their President based on careful consideration of the big issues facing the country, namely the economy and winning the war on terror.”

Other Bush backers are willing to utter Stern’s name, if only to shrug him off. GOP pollster David Winston says: “Listeners may find it interesting that Stern opposes the President, but they’ll put it in the context of entertainment. He’s an entertainer, not a political sage.”

But conservative commentator Rich Lowry senses potential trouble: “Obviously, the Bush people would be happier if Stern was praising Bush. … And it’s definitely true that popular culture seems to be breaking against Bush. Blockbuster movies and books are bashing Bush, and now there’s Stern. It has all been negative. It shows you where the energy is.”

Stern has been dissing Bush daily, calling him the kinds of names that ticked-off motorists usually use in traffic, and generally painting him as mortal danger to the republic. He has also retooled his official Web site, adding a plethora of anti-Bush links, and featuring a 60-second anti-Bush audio attack (“You committed American troops to war, but when it was your turn to go to war, you went to Daddy and said: “Boo hoo …’.”).

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And fan Web sites record his every utterance. Here’s a typical excerpt from June 28: “Howard said that (“Fahrenheit 9/11) is scary because it’s so real and you see what the President is up to while in office. Howard spent a couple of minutes on that and then took a call from High Pitch Erik who was flushing the toilet.”

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Naturally, Stern’s attacks have drawn the attention of Democrats – who decided last month to commission a poll about Stern. So they hired President Clinton’s former pollster, Mark Penn. And they were pleasantly surprised to learn that – contrary to the stereotype – Stern’s acolytes are not just kids who party hard and wear their baseball caps backward.

The first surprise, according to Penn: nationwide, 17 percent of all likely voters polled listen to Stern. The second: Stern fans are just as likely as non-fans to attend religious services daily or weekly; just as likely to be highly educated; more likely than non-fans to have young children at home; and more likely than non-fans to own a gun. In other words, average Americans. And Stern fans in 18 battleground states said that they now prefer Kerry over Bush by 59 percent to 37 percent.

Simon Rosenberg, who directs the New Democratic Network, the group that sponsored the poll, says: “Democrats have been hammered on conservative talk radio for years, and now we have a glimmer of hope. I’ve seen this guy’s impact, first-hand. It’s incredible. I went on his show (June 29) to talk about the poll, and right after that, 25,000 people downloaded the poll from our Web site.”

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And Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic strategist, says: “What’s compelling here is that Stern is not a political person. That makes him more genuine. His audience may not accept a political message from a normal political source, but they’ll take it from him. He can open the door for us, and then maybe we can reinforce that message.”

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Some skeptics are trying to undercut Stern by questioning his motives – contending that his assaults are fueled not by concern for the commonweal, but for his career; after all, the Republican-led FCC has slapped him with heavy fines, and the Clear Channel Communications chain (whose owner is close to Bush) dumped Stern this year in several key markets.

That’s why Lowry says: “I’m not sure how many swing voters are going to decide on the basis of, “Hey, let’s vote to make sure that Howard doesn’t have to pay any more fines,’ as opposed to voting the way they normally vote – for their own pocketbooks.”

And while some observers believe that Stern’s politicization is sincere, they also detect a savvy strain of pragmatism; as Jesse Walker, an ex-disc jockey and author of a book on alternative radio, notes: “If he gets more political, it’s harder to censor him, because the courts are more wary about suppressing political speech than, say, a discussion about penis size.”

Stern critics vent in cyberspace, too. One ex-fan insists, in a posting on Rosenberg’s Web site, that Stern “needs to stick to entertaining the demented, and keep his huge hypocritical nose out of politics.”

On the air, Stern typically bristles at these kinds of barbs. He’s currently vacationing, and his agent, Don Buchwald, did not respond to e-mailed questions about the critics. But Stern, who wants to be respected, has hinted in broadcasts that he would welcome a studio visit from John Kerry. Such an event could legitimize Stern as a broker, although he has also told listeners that he won’t put the squeeze on Kerry for any favors.

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Rosenberg loves the idea of a Kerry visit; the Democratic operative says: “We’re a diverse party, so why not put Kerry on the air, and make Howard’s fans part of our family?” But thus far, the Kerry campaign sees wisdom in avoidance (“I have no comment in any direction, 360 degrees,” says spokeswoman Kathy Roeder), which means that it is heeding analyst Felling’s argument that “you don’t want to align yourself too closely with a guy who pines after porn stars on a daily basis.”

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It’s still possible, of course, that there is no such thing as a shock-jock voting bloc, and that the politicized fans who are messaging Stern’s Web site are aberrations (“I just love you so much! I’ve never registered to vote until recently and I will vote for Kerry. … Some jerks at work don’t like you, but I tell them to know their role and shut their holes.”).

But maybe the Sterniacs are for real, as even some Republicans suspect. As party strategist Mike Murphy told conservative columnist Andrew Ferguson the other day, “Stern listeners should be Bush voters. … He is a symptom that something’s going wrong.”

Or, as radio industry expert Harrison says: “In a close race, everything counts. Any slight, insult, remark or incident can count. That’s when Howard would count.”



(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Howard Stern

AP-NY-07-17-04 1648EDT


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