"Whether you liked it or not, or the person down the street liked it or not — I didn't care as long as I kept growing that audience."
Stern ultimately grew an audience of millions over a four-decade career, first on terrestrial radio and now on satellite radio. At 65, Stern says he's not the raunchy shock jock he once was. "If I hadn't grown and evolved and changed ... I don't know that I could still be on the radio," he admits.
Stern's new book, Howard Stern Comes Again, is a collection of some of his most memorable interviews with celebrity guests, including Madonna, Mike Tyson, Jerry Seinfeld, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.
With two years left in his contract at SiriusXM, Stern says he's not sure what's next for him. "I'm kind of afraid of retirement," he says. "It's like on any given day I don't know — and this disturbs me that I don't know myself well enough. ... I don't really know what it is I want, and what I want to do."
For now, Stern is the happiest he's ever been in radio: "I think where I'm at now is the perfect place," he says.
Editor's note: This Fresh Air interview will air in two parts over two days. You can read highlights below — edited for length and clarity — or click the audio link above to hear the first part of the conversation.
On how therapy changed his interviews
Gross: Your interviewing approach has changed over the years — you go deeper, you have more empathy. You've said when you think of the interviews you did during the first couple of decades on your show, that you cringe ... [and] that therapy was a turning point for you. You started therapy, what, 20 years ago?
Stern: I remember the first day very clearly. ... What was so profound for me — and why I signed on — I sat there with the psychoanalyst, the psychiatrist, and I said, "Oh, I guess I'll tell you about myself," and I started to go into a fabulous routine that I'd done many times on the radio. I would start talking about my parents and complete with impressions. ... I'm going into this elaborate thing, and he stops me cold, looks at me, he says, "I don't find any of this funny." I was like, hey, what the hell is he talking about? ... I mean, I get paid a lot of money to do this stuff! He goes, "No, I find it rather sad. And why are you telling me stories? Why are you not talking to me about anything real?"
I had no clue what he was talking about. I had never sat alone in a room with any human being on this planet and been listened to in a real way. Everything with me was shtick and funny, and that's how my family related.
On how therapy helped him focus his interviews on the guests
Stern: I began to contemplate. ... How about bringing in a guest here and there and really having a real conversation? ... What if I could let the other person shine? What if I could shut my big yap and not make it about me?
Everything started to change. ... My policy was to be pure id ... Let your brain just dump every bit of feeling and information out — but mostly what would come out was anger; it wasn't fully dimensional.
In therapy I began to explore other ways of communicating, and I'm the happiest I've ever been on the radio. And it's not to suggest that the radio show isn't completely insane still — which it is. There's a lot of outrageous humor in things, but what I also began to guard and protect are certain things in my personal life, that some things became precious and off-limits. There became a better balance.
On feeling lost as a kid, and looking for attention and approval in his audience
Stern: I grew up in eventually what became an all-black community. And I was one of a few white kids, and I never once said to my parents, "Gee, I'm feeling estranged here. All my friends have moved away ... I'm having a hard time with this." There wasn't that kind of discussion. My feelings and my difficulties were not on the table, and so I buried them. I think when I eventually got on the radio and I was roaring loud and certainly had everyone tuned into me, I couldn't get enough of it.
There was a point in my career where we did research [that] one out of every four cars on the Long Island Expressway in the largest market in the United States, New York, were listening and tuned into me. And when I heard that I was massively depressed that three of those four cars were not listening to me. ... So when you want everything and nothing satisfies you and you only want to be — in a narcissistic kind of way — the center of the universe and the focus, I was clearly a starved person who only would believe that the focus needed to be on me. ...
I realize now, my father was a radio engineer and he looked at those broadcasters with such reverence. He was so kind and loving toward them and worshipped them. I said, "A-ha! So that's what you do. You get behind a microphone and you get everyone listening, and then everyone loves you!" Well, that's a sad way to live your life, because nobody really genuinely loves you. They appreciate what you do ... the entertainment you give them, but that's not the kind of love I was looking for.
On his mother's trauma and depression
Stern: My mother was a depressed woman — suicidal. She had a horrible life — terrible, terrible life. Lost her mother at 9, [and she] was sent away from home. ... I was raised by a traumatized woman. She had terrible, terrible trauma and overcame a lot in her life. But she became very sad when her sister died — who was really her only family. ... And I'd come home from school and my mother was just distraught. Didn't know what to do with her. I'd come home from school and she'd be sobbing.
Gross: What was it like to have a mother who put the idea of suicide on the table?
Stern: In my family, words meant nothing. ... We didn't have real, serious conversation. I thought it was all kind of for drama. I didn't know how real it was. ... You know, sex we could talk about, race we could talk about, homosexuality we could talk about — you name it, we could talk about it — but it was always in a joking way. We could talk about the news of the day in a joking way. But to really address something in a serious way? That was difficult. ...
This is a terrible burden on a kid — to have to cheer up a mother. I remember doing very, very elaborate impressions of all the mothers in the neighborhood. ... Not only was I doing impressions of them — but I was also ripping them apart. And my mother loved it, because what it meant was: She was the best mother. ... What was really cheering her up was: You see? I'm the best mother. And I knew that on some level. Now, that's too much for a kid to know.
On the "unleashed id" of his radio show
Stern: On my radio show there was so much sex and so much wild behavior. Listen, I was in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s, and this was all fascinating to me. ... It was like punk rock. It was like, "What can I do that will freak everyone out? Oh! Everyone's uptight about sex. Sex, sex, sex." ... I wanted to decriminalize sex. I want to go on and celebrate sex and say, "Who cares? We're talking about sex. We're all animals and we all have sex."
Gross: OK, I really like the idea of celebrating sex. The part I didn't like about your show was talking about the size of women's breasts and how much you'd like to have sex with them and rating women 1 to 10 — or asking guests to. And you had such a large following of young men — and I'm specifically referring here to like the '90s, the early aughts — and it's like you were teaching young men how to leer at women, and be really crude, and judge women according to their breast size. That always really troubled me, and I know you cringe about a lot of things when you look back at your early career — do you cringe about that?
Stern: This was my thinking back then: Hey, I am not going to hide what men are thinking. I'm not going to BS the women in my audience. ... Let women hear what real guys sound like. ... So I thought I was performing a public service. I thought I was like, "Hey, guys are jerks and you need to know it!" But hey, I'm a jerk, too — and I was a jerk.
Gross: I felt like you were going like, "If you want to be cool, if you want to be like Howard Stern, this is how you treat women, this is how you talk to women." And I found that really upsetting.
Stern: I don't think I had the wherewithal to really analyze it. I just was doing my thing, and then, you know, as I got older and wiser I started to look at that, and I said, well, it troubles me. That's not who I am anymore. I don't really care about any of that. It's not to say I wouldn't be on the radio today commenting on somebody who wore an outrageous outfit to the Met Gala or something, but it's done in a different way with a different approach.
And a lot of that stuff I can't stand now. It's too harsh. And if I hadn't changed, if I had become a 65-year-old guy fawning over women, it would have been pathetic and sad, and I would have ended up an oldies act. My audience would've aged out with me.
On having obsessive compulsive tendencies
Stern: It was magical thinking. Let's say I was listening to your radio show and I would be like, "Oh my God, I have to be better than her." So I would tap on the radio three times above the speaker so that I was better than you. It was my attempt to control the world.
My world was so chaotic and so freaky and so really unexplained. ... I didn't control the ratings. There's this weird kind of vague notion of who's out there in the audience. Who's out there? I don't know. And they're coming out with a ratings book, and if I don't get a certain amount of ratings? I'm gonna be fired. They're not going to put up with me. And having that loss of control, I think, overwhelmed me. I became literally paralyzed, except when I was on the air I could ignore it but ... it was tough to ignore. ... So I would think this magic would control it. ... It keeps you very distracted from all of your problems.
On a recent health scare
Gross: One of the things you reveal in your book is that ... you actually had a really big health scare. ... You had a body scan and there's a little shadow on your kidney, so you had to check that out and have exploratory surgery. Everything was fine, but ... do you feel like that made you think more about like, gee, what if I were dying?
Stern: Oh my God. That's why I wrote the book! I did not react well to being told by a doctor that [it's a] 95% chance you have cancer. I freaked out. You want to know how unrealistic, again, and unprepared I am for life? I somehow assumed because my parents were 96 and 91 and have experienced very good health that I'm entitled to this, that nothing bad should happen to me.
But, man, if that doesn't rock your reality and get you into a frame of mind where you're like, wow, how much time do I have left? And what is it I'm really trying to accomplish with that time? ... I paint now, and I want endless hours to paint. I wish I could go back in time and start as a young child and learn to paint. I have so many things that I'm interested in learning about, and I wish I had more time.
I suddenly realized my age. I realized that I'm not invincible, that things like this are going to occur. And that also influences: Am I going to stay on the radio? Is that how I'm going to end my life — that I'm just going to be on the radio and not have time for all these things I want to do? And what is it I really want to do? The whole thing is mind-blowing.
Editor's note: The highlights above have been edited for length and clarity. Stern also talked about why he doesn't use drugs, his early experiences with porn, and how he used to be self-conscious about his voice. To hear those conversations and more, click the audio link at the top of the page, and tune in for the second part of this conversation, airing Wednesday on Fresh Air.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, Beth Novey and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Howard Stern. And yeah, I know: we're kind of radio opposites. But we both do interviews, and in my opinion, his have gotten really good. He does a comedy show, but his interviews can go deep. He's collected some of his best in the new book "Howard Stern Comes Again." I guess the title had to have some kind of sexual reference. He's Howard Stern.
But he's the 65-year-old Howard Stern who's allowed himself to change over time and to move away from some of the crude sex talk and sexism of his earlier years and, in his interviews, to emphasize empathy over outrageousness. But he admits that his show still contains a fair amount of what he describes as second-grade humor.
After his show became nationally syndicated in 1986, its success, his subsequent books and the movie adaptation of his memoir "Private Parts" led him to crown himself the King of All Media. In 2005, Stern moved to satellite radio, where he didn't have to deal with the regulations of the FCC or the standards of local stations and he was free to say anything. His show was so important to building a subscription base for Sirius XM and he has such a devoted following that he was given two channels. We recorded our interview Friday.
Howard Stern, welcome to FRESH AIR. I am so excited this is happening. You know, like, some of our listeners - I think just a few - but some of our listeners are outraged that Howard Stern's going to be on our show. And some of your listeners probably think - public radio's so incredibly boring; why are you wasting your time on public radio?
HOWARD STERN: No, I actually got a really great reaction when I said on my show that I'm coming on the Terry Gross show. Everyone was like, oh, she's the best interviewer in the world. To hear you two guys together, it's going to be awesome, blah, blah, blah. And I was like - oh, this is great. So no, no, I - I don't know about your listeners. But certainly mine, we seem to be pretty jacked up about it.
GROSS: A lot of our listeners are, too. I just know some of them are like, what? (Laughter) But...
STERN: Yeah, well...
GROSS: For those of us...
STERN: Can I tell you one thing? This...
STERN: ...I woke up.
STERN: And I said to my wife, I'm going on the Terry Gross show. I'm going to go learn about her. And the first thing I learned was that you had written a book.
STERN: And so - yeah - so I went on my Kindle account, you know? And here, you have written a book on interviewing, which is why I'm here talking to you. And I went - oh, wow, I should have read this.
STERN: So I - on my Kindle, you get a little chapter for free. You know?
STERN: So I began reading it. And the first thing, like, literally that you wrote is, hey, when I was writing a book about interviews, I didn't know if they'd be good to read because, you know, people have heard them on the radio. And that was my whole dilemma. That's why I almost didn't write the book. It was as if you were talking to me.
And then I read a little further along. And you said something about when you interview people that you cut them off quickly if they're boring or going on too long. And then I got filled with dread because I don't know that I'm a really good interview, to be honest. And I go on. I'm verbose. So I said, oh, she's going to be cutting me off every minute.
STERN: And when she cuts me off, my ego is going to be destroyed 'cause I think I'm a pretty good broadcaster. But I don't know if I'm a good interview. So you know, I'm...
GROSS: It's funny 'cause I was thinking, like, is Howard going to give long answers? And I thought, no. I mean, Howard knows what good radio is, so he's not going to go on too long. He knows exactly what timing is. But I so identified with your introduction - (laughter) - of the book 'cause you didn't want to do the book because you know how hard it is.
And even books when an editor promises you it's going to be simple, it's so hard. And one of the great things about doing a daily show is that it ends. And you feel like, yeah, I did it. It's over.
GROSS: I accomplished it. It's done. You know you've got another show the next day. But you have this momentary feeling of, like, it's over. And you never get that with a book until, like, years later.
STERN: I know. And this comes as a shock to me each time I write a book. For some reason, I think it's going to be easy. And when I agreed with Simon & Schuster that I'd go write a book about my best interviews or maybe, you know, just sort of my philosophy on this, they said, you know, just write a little something before each interview, and it'll be done in a few weeks, and you'll be fine. And that is just not the case - certainly not with me. I labor over everything, and it took me two years to write this book.
GROSS: Exactly. But I'm really glad you did. So listen, I'm in a studio in Philadelphia. You're in a studio in New York.
STERN: I didn't know if you admitted that or not, so I didn't bring it up.
GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I usually don't get to see my guests 'cause they're not in Philly, so we just connect via high-tech stuff. But...
STERN: But I was shocked. In your book - the little part I read today, you said you like that. And I would dread that. That would be the worst thing in the world not to look someone in the eye while I'm interviewing them. I don't think I - you know, I'm not comfortable with that.
GROSS: Oh, I'm surprised to hear that because - well, let me describe your set a little bit or maybe ask you to describe it. I mean, you're on a desk that almost looks like a barricade (laughter). Like...
STERN: That's right (laughter).
GROSS: You're in this big desk that has this - like, big, like, almost half-oval rim around it that really looks like you're barricaded in. And then your guest is, like, a bunch of feet away from you...
GROSS: ...On a couch. And it's...
GROSS: ...A pretty big distance. Like, it's not a distance you would typically sit from someone. You'd sit much closer if you were having a conversation that wasn't on the radio, if you were just talking to each other in a room. Why do you have a - why do you have the barricade and the distance from your guest?
STERN: Wow. That is really interesting that you say that, and I hadn't really considered it. Now, part of it is that I work my own equipment. And I say this in my book - that if anyone is serious about radio, that I think they should work their own equipment. They should learn how to run a board, as we say in radio.
And I - for me, I'm such - maybe it's the control freak in me, but I like to control every microphone, the volume, the sound effects going on, whatever it might be. So all of that equipment in front of me and that big barricade has a lot to do with the physical equipment. I'm running the show. And while sometimes, it's a pain in the neck and you wish you'd had some liberation from it, I think it's essential.
But to tell you the truth, I had not really considered the distance between me and the guest. It actually felt pretty intimate and comfortable. Maybe being on top of each other would be too much.
GROSS: So anyways, a question for you - your interviewing approach has changed over the years. It's - you go deeper. You have more empathy. And you've said when you think of the interviews you did during the first couple of decades on your show that you cringe. You say, I was an absolute maniac. My narcissism was so strong, I was incapable of appreciating what somebody else might be feeling.
In your introduction to your interview with Gwyneth Paltrow in your book, you write, that on terrestrial radio, my interviewing technique was like bashing someone in the face with a sledgehammer. I treated my guests as props. All I wanted was to cause chaos.
And you've said that, you know, therapy was a turning point for you. You started therapy - what? - 20 years ago.
GROSS: Is it too personal to ask you what the therapy approach is that you use?
STERN: No, not personal at all. I'm happy to talk about it. And I hope something that comes out of this book - that people aren't afraid of therapy. I think it is the most useful tool in the world. And I talk to people who are really uptight about it, and I understand that it took me five years before I called this guy that I go to see.
And it's psychoanalysis. It's - I want to say it's more Freudian. But you know, I don't get that sense. I don't lay on a couch, although he suggested that I do. But I was not comfortable with it. I couldn't get used to it. I just - even the thought of laying down on a couch and not being able to look at a person - speaking of what we just spoke about...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
STERN: I need to look the person in the eye. And I think it's my own insecurity. I'm afraid they'd fall asleep on me...
STERN: ...Or they weren't really paying attention. I really - I have a lot of issues. But psychoanalysis really did a big change for me. I didn't go there thinking that it would affect my radio show so much. I went there because, you know, I wanted to examine my relationships, how I related to the world and the people around me. And I felt that I was in a bit of a crisis, having gone through a divorce. And with all of that going on - and I had three young children, so I really wanted to be the best father I could be. I had a lot of lofty ambitions. I was...
GROSS: So what kind of analysis is it? How does it work?
STERN: Well, what was so profound for me and why I signed on - I sat there with the psychoanalyst, the psychiatrist. And I said, oh, I guess I'll tell you about myself. And I started to go into a fabulous routine that I'd done many times on the radio. I would start talking about my parents and - with - complete with impressions. And I would - I was like, you know, listen. My son - this is my mother talking. My son was raised to please me, and then he knew how to behave. And I taught my son how to respect people. And I told him every day to dress like he was meeting the governor.
And I'm going into these routines, and then I bring my father into it. I told you, you're very stupid. You're going to make a million dollars on the radio. You don't even know how to speak properly. You don't even know how to speak properly. Why are you two yelling at each other?
So I would start to do this routine, and I'm going into this elaborate thing. And he stops me. He stops me cold, looks at me. And he says, I don't find any of this funny. Now, I was like, hey, what the hell is he talking about? What do you mean, it's not funny? I get paid a lot of money to do this stuff. He goes, no, I find it rather sad. And why are you telling me stories? Why are you not talking to me about anything real?
I had no clue what he was talking about. I had never sat alone in a room with any human being on this planet and been listened to in the way - in a real way. Everything with me was shtick and funny. And that's how my family related. We didn't sit and ask about feelings. This took me years to get used to. It wasn't like, all of a sudden, I had an epiphany. I was freaking out.
STERN: I was like, man. I'd go like, this guy wants me to talk. What does he mean he doesn't want me to be funny? I'm funny. You know, it was just - it rocked my world. Now, you know, as I was going through therapy, I was also making a transition from terrestrial radio - commercial radio - to satellite radio. On satellite, they were giving me the time to do whatever I want. And Terry, I mean by whatever I want, I had no government restrictions. I could be as dirty as I wanted to be. I could be as outrageous as I wanted to be. And I realized rather quickly, that's so boring on satellite radio. You have to rail against someone. All of the outrageousness that I was about was because the government hated it. Religious groups hated it. And now suddenly, I'm in the Wild West. I can talk about anything I want. It's paid subscription radio.
So with that, I started to not only get turned on by how I was being heard in that psychiatrist's office, but I began to contemplate what would really be interesting now that I have this format - how about bringing in a guest here and there and really having a real conversation? And what that meant for me - and this was mind-blowing to me - not to you, but to me - what if I could let the other person shine? What if I could shut my big yap and not make it about me?
GROSS: Was that hard for you - to not make it about you?
STERN: Oh, my God. The inner child - you know, look. The reason I - you quoted my book. The reason that this was so difficult - when I was on commercial radio, I couldn't allow a guest to even say five words in a row. I'm looking at the clock. I need high ratings. When you're doing an act like mine, you need high ratings. They're not keeping you around for the joy of it. They want to be No. 1 because they're putting up with a lot of government fines, a lot of religious groups complaining, people complaining to get me off the air. So I had to deliver the goods.
And so when a Robin Williams walked in or a Gilda Radner - people I love and adore - I'm like, I've got to keep this going. So I'm blurting out jackhammer-like questions. Robin Williams, I hear you're having sex with your nanny. Gilda, what's it like to - you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, rah (ph), rah, blah, blah, blah. Well, the audience is cheering me on because it sounds outrageous, and it sounds wild. And it sounds like, oh, my God, did he just say that to Robin Williams? But there's no dialogue. There's - you know, I'm not learning anything.
GROSS: We have to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Howard Stern. And he has a new book of interviews with essays in it. There's a really interesting introductory essay to each interview, plus an opening essay. And the book is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOL BORDELLO'S "NOT A CRIME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Howard Stern. He has a new book collecting some of his greatest interviews. It's called "Howard Stern Comes Again."
OK. So the therapist - you explain this in the book - that the therapist said to you that, you know, when you were telling him all these funny stories about your parents, what he heard was the sadness underneath the comedy.
GROSS: So when he pointed out the sadness in your comedy, had you not been aware of it before? And also...
STERN: No. I never let it touch me.
GROSS: Uh-huh. So when he, you know, like, underscored - hey, this sounds really sad; this is coming from unhappiness - did it change your comedy in addition to changing your interviews?
STERN: Yeah, it did. It changed the - it changed my whole perspective. It - I mean, everything started to change. You know, I describe in the book that my policy was to be pure id and open and just let your brain dump every bit of feeling and information out. But mostly what would come out was anger. It wasn't fully dimensional, you know? And so, yes, in therapy, I began to explore other ways of communicating.
And I think I - you know, I'm the happiest I've ever been on the radio. And it's not to suggest that the radio show isn't completely insane still, which it is. There's a lot of outrageous humor in things. But what I also began to guard and protect are certain things in my personal life - that some things became precious and off-limits. And so there became a better balance. And now I find it's more multidimensional, and I'm happier with it.
GROSS: You had, like, no boundaries earlier in your career...
GROSS: ...When you were doing interviews.
GROSS: You'd talk about anybody in your life, anything in your life. And you'd...
GROSS: You'd ask your guests about anything in their lives - their genital size, their sex lives, anything. And it made a lot of people afraid to come on your show. Were there boundaries in your home when you were growing up?
STERN: That's a really good question. There were a lot of rules and regulations but no real boundaries.
GROSS: What were the rules and regulations?
STERN: Anything - well, I was a very regimented kid. I mean, there were lots of rules about behavior and, certainly, discipline and really probably not being allowed to really think for myself. You know, I was in the service of my parents. You know, it's a strange thing, what happens with trauma when you're young. You shut down if you want to self-protect. You know, I don't want to get all heavy here, but what happens is - in my opinion, I had a very strange upbringing, you know? And I grew up in a - eventually what became an all-black community. And I was one of a few white kids.
And I never once said to my parents, gee, I'm feeling estranged here. I'm - all my friends have moved away. I - sometimes, I'd knock on my friend's door. And overnight, they'd moved away. And I never saw them again. And all my friends are gone and - but I would never go to my parents and say, gee, I'm having a hard time with this. There wasn't that kind of discussion. My feelings and my difficulties were not on the table. And so I buried them.
And I think when I eventually got on the radio and I was roaring loud and certainly had everyone tuned into me, I couldn't get enough of it. You know, I - there was a point in my career where we did research. One out of every four cars on the Long Island Expressway in the largest market in the United States - New York - were listening and tuned into me. And when I heard that, I just was massively depressed that 3 of those 4 cars were not listening to me.
GROSS: Yeah, right (laughter).
STERN: And it's a staggering - you know...
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
STERN: So when you want everything and nothing satisfies you, and you only want to be - in a narcissistic kind of way - the center of the universe and the focus - I was clearly a starved person who only would believe that the focus needed to be on me.
GROSS: You use the word trauma - when you survive trauma. What is specifically the trauma of your early years? Was it...
STERN: Well, I think it was the burying of emotion. It was certainly being in a lot of fights. You know...
GROSS: Verbal or physical?
STERN: No, physical. When I - where I grew up - it was a very difficult time. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. And when you live in an all-black community, I was the victim of a lot of anguish and anger. And it was a very, very difficult time in my life. And when I say trauma, I don't think I recovered from it. When I went off to college, I felt very unprepared. I felt very - everything was difficult. I don't know where I found the strength to actually go on the radio and pull this whole career off. There was a lot of shyness on my part. But when I got behind the microphone, I just always thought that that would be my salvation.
And I realize now - you know, my father was a radio engineer. And he looked at those broadcasters with such reverence, with such - he was so kind and loving toward them and worshipped them. I said, aha, so that's what you do. You get behind a microphone and you get everyone listening, and then everyone loves you. Well, that's a sad way to live your life because nobody really genuinely loves you. They appreciate what you do, and they appreciate the - you know, the entertainment you give them. But that's not the kind of love I was looking for.
GROSS: So what was the worst physical beating that you took?
STERN: Well, I can point - I have a greatest hits coming out of that, greatest beatings I ever took. But...
STERN: I remember one specifically. And there were some tough guys there. And I'm - I can tell you one that really sticks out in my mind. This one guy, who was about two years older than me - he was in my grade, but he was two years older than me. He already had facial hair. He was taller than I was and very strong, a very good fighter. He expected me to give him money every day - try to shake me down for money. And it was getting really bad.
I finally complained, and my mother went to the dean of boys - big mistake. We had a dean of boys. They were trying a new approach to get the kids under control. Well, the dean of boys dragged this guy in who was trying to shake me down. And he didn't give my name, but he said, someone has complained about you, and you're in big trouble. Well, he hunted me down. He figured it was either me.
So he confronted me in a shop class. I just remember, this guy said, did you - mob style - did you squeal on me? I said, no, I didn't. It wasn't me. And he - I was getting nervous. I was like, oh, he knows, he knows. But I better just keep sticking to my story. I have to stick to my story. Did you tell?
And then he grabbed me around the neck and began to squeeze. And the air was going out of my thing. And I'm struggling. I'm - and in Roosevelt, you fight back. Even if you're not a great fighter, you fight back. You must fight. And so I remember thinking, I'm going to pass out here. This could be it. I don't know what's happening.
But then he let go. He goes, all right, I believe you. And then he left. But oddly enough, it wasn't only black-on-white violence. It was white-on-white violence. The few white kids who were there - I remember there was a guy who sat in front of me.
GROSS: They hated you too. (Laughter).
STERN: Yeah. I was universally hated and despised, I guess.
GROSS: My guest is Howard Stern. His new book, collecting some of his favorite interviews, is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." After a short break, we'll talk about things that have troubled me about his show, like the sexist sex talk. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Howard Stern. His new book, "Howard Stern Comes Again," collects some of his best interviews with people like Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, Paul McCartney, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Lady Gaga, Amy Schumer and the interview he says is his favorite, with Conan O'Brien. When we left off, we were talking about growing up in Roosevelt, Long Island, where he was one of the few white kids remaining in a neighborhood that had become predominantly black. He says he was beaten up a lot.
Was talking a weapon for you? I mean, you're so funny, and you're so...
STERN: No, I shut down.
GROSS: Like, you're so verbally agile.
STERN: I didn't talk at all.
GROSS: You didn't talk at all.
STERN: No. No, in fact, when I went to this white community, I was even more out of my element. I was completely inhibited. I remember I took a class in psychology senior year. I couldn't talk to any of the kids there. I had a few friends, but nothing great. And I was just out of it and more alone than ever. I couldn't relate to these white kids. I couldn't. I just - I was just whacked out from the whole thing.
And so I remember being in this psychology class. I refused to talk. The teacher called me in afterwards and said, you have to talk in my class, or I'm going to flunk you. I said to her, I can't. She goes, well, then I'm going to flunk you. Here - she's a psychologist. She should've said, well, why not, you know? But OK.
So she said, I'm going to flunk you. And I couldn't talk. She said, you have to get an A on the final project if you're going to - this is interesting, actually. I wish I'd put this in the book. So I had to get out of school. I mean, I - it was my senior year. I just wanted to graduate. I didn't like being there at all. So I panicked. And you know what I did? I went and interviewed, on tape, my cousin who was in psychotherapy and on several drugs to treat it. And I did an hour and a half interview with my cousin Jack. And she played it in class, turned to me. She said, this is the greatest project I've ever heard. I'm giving you an A. Can I own this record so I can play it for future classes? You know, I hadn't made that correlation. Maybe that was the first interview I ever did. It was my cousin, and he got me an A.
GROSS: That's interesting.
STERN: So - yeah. That's pretty crazy, isn't it?
GROSS: So I have to ask you about this. So much of your show over the years, especially earlier in your career, has been about sex in ways that have been interesting and enlightening and ways that seemed really kind of gross or intrusive or, you know, just sexist. So I want to ask you just a couple of things about that. So you told Jonah Hill in an interview that you envied young men who can have women as friends and not just want to have sex with them. And you said that's something you had to learn later in life. So how much later (laughter) and...
STERN: A lot later. You know - I mean, I always had friends - women friends - growing up, but it wasn't by choice. Nobody wanted to have sex with me. But no, I really did have friendships with women, and some of my best working relationships have been with women.
STERN: In fact - well, Robin, for sure; Fran Shea of the E! Network, who gave me my first interview show; Denise Oliver, who was my program director who put Robin and I together. And yet there's this - as you say, on my radio show, there was so much sex and so much wild behavior. And in my mind, I was also a guy - you know, listen; I was in my 20s, my 30s, my 40s, and this was all fascinating to me. But what was really great about it was it was like punk rock. It was like, what can I do that will freak everyone out? Oh, everyone's uptight about sex - sex, sex, sex.
Now, in my family, my mother got me a subscription Playboy at 13. And she sat me down and said, I want you to know something. First of all, real women don't look like this. These women in Playboy are freaks. No one looks like that. They look more like me and your sister and your aunt and all these women. And you can have Playboy, and I don't care. You want to talk about sex, you want to show your friends, blah, blah, blah, - I don't care. But just keep in mind there's no reality to this.
So in a sense, my friends - their parents wouldn't even mention sex. And to me, going on "The Tonight Show" and talking about lesbianism, bringing out two lesbians and having Jay Leno walk out or having these hypocritical religious jerks who raise money, you know, ripping people off, telling them all kinds of garbage - and what's the one thing they can't handle? Sex, sex, sex, sex. I wanted to decriminalize sex. I wanted to go on and celebrate sex and say, who cares? We're talking about sex. We're all animals, and we all have sex.
GROSS: OK. So I really like the idea of celebrating sex. The part I didn't like about your show was talking about the size of women's breasts and how much you'd like to have sex with them and rating women 1 to 10...
GROSS: ...Or asking guests to. And you had such a large following of young men. And I'm specifically referring here to the '90s, the early aughts.
GROSS: And it's like you were teaching young men how to leer at women and be really crude and judge women according to their breast size. And that always really troubled me, and I know you cringe about a lot of things when you look back at your early career. Do you...
GROSS: ...Cringe about that?
STERN: Yeah, I do. But, you know, in one sense, I could get defensive and tell you that we would also do this to men. It wasn't just - it was a show that was super judgmental and, you know, again, unleashed id. My evaluation was, hey, I am not going to hide what men are really thinking. This was my thinking back then. I am not going to hide what men are thinking. I'm not going to BS the women in my audience. By the way, my audience is 40% female. So that might shock you, but it was like, let women hear what real guys sound like.
Now, this was my thinking. I didn't know that that isn't what real guys think. This is what my perception was. So I thought I was performing a public service. Now, I mean, I thought I was like, hey, guys are jerks, and you need to know it. But hey, I'm a jerk, too. And I was a jerk.
GROSS: Yeah, but I felt like you were going, like...
GROSS: ...I'm a - you know, this is how - if you want to be cool, if you want to be like Howard Stern, this is...
GROSS: ...How you treat women.
STERN: This is how you behave. Yeah.
GROSS: This is how you talk to women. And that...
GROSS: I found that really upsetting.
STERN: I don't think I had the wherewithal to really analyze it. I just was doing my thing. And then, you know, as I got older and wiser, I started to look at that. And I said, well, it troubles me. That's not who I am anymore. I don't really care about any of that. And it's not to say I wouldn't be on the radio today, commenting on somebody who wore an outrageous outfit to the Met Gala or something, but it's done in a different way with a different approach. And a lot of that stuff I can't stand now. It's too harsh. And if I hadn't changed, if I had become a 65-year-old guy fawning over women, it would have been pathetic and sad. My audience would have aged out of it.
GROSS: So tell me more about what changed you.
STERN: Well, a couple of things - first of all and number one, psychotherapy. When I entered psychotherapy - and now I was divorced - I thought, oh, gee, I could have any woman I want - just extreme narcissism. I'm famous. I can have - everything in the world is mine. The world is my oyster. I'm the center of attention. This is what I went in with.
And so psychotherapy - I began a process of really becoming empathic with people and empathic with my daughters and empathic with my wife. When I met Beth, that was a huge game changer for me. It was - first of all, I realized I'm not some kind of crazy playboy. I wanted a loving, monogamous relationship, and I didn't want to screw it up. How was I going to pull that off if I'm this crazy guy who's sitting and thinking about breast size and all that other stuff? There's a complete disconnect here. And so...
GROSS: Well, how did you pull it off in your first marriage? You were married for 25 years the first time.
STERN: My marriage didn't go well. Let's be honest. It ended in divorce. I mean, listen; we had many, many good years, but ultimately it failed. You know, I didn't know - you know, I wasn't a cheater. I wasn't anything like that. I really was committed and had a sense of morality, you know, with all of that, but yet I was a confused guy. I'd never been given lessons on how to be a man.
GROSS: I always wonder what it was like for your wife - for your first wife when you were on the air doing all the sex stuff.
STERN: I'm sure it was difficult. And by the way, I can't imagine anyone having been married or in a friendship or relationship with me back then. I was singularly focused on my career and petrified that I wasn't going to be able to make a living. And even all the sexual antics, the religious antics, the race antics, everything that I talked about, every outrageous thing that I did was to entertain my audience and grow my audience. That's all I was focused on.
I wasn't putting that much thought. I said, unleash the id. Be open and honest, and let it fly, baby. And that's where I was at. And whether you liked it or not or the person down the street liked or not, I didn't care as long as I kept growing that audience. And I knew - and quite frankly, I thought, oh, my God, I'm doing the greatest radio of all time; everyone should be tuned in. But I wasn't, and it's ridiculous to think that everyone's going to enjoy my radio show. So you can see the whole thing was a fantasy.
You know, if I hadn't grown and evolved and changed and really had a profound kind of new approach to radio, I don't know that I could still be on the radio, and I don't know that that would be interesting to my audience. I think where I'm at now is the perfect place.
GROSS: I think it's interesting that you're talking about changing as you get older. I think there's an impulse a lot of people have that if they change as they're getting older, they're giving in to getting old and old is bad, so they should hang...
GROSS: ...Onto everything from their youth because that means that they're young and they're not aging out of everything. So I like that you're embracing (laughter) the...
STERN: This whole book is about change.
GROSS: Yeah, I like that, yeah.
STERN: It's a complete - and it's not a revolution. It's an evolution.
GROSS: My guest is Howard Stern. His new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAX MORAN AND NEOSPECTRIC'S "ALL RIGHT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Howard Stern. His new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." When we left off, we were talking about how he became famous for his crude and sexist humor about sex and about women. He says he was unleashing his id back then but that he's since grown and evolved.
So another question that kind of relates to this - in your interview with Amy Poehler, she talks about how she thinks, like, pornography can be desensitizing, that it is desensitizing. And you kind of agree. You agree with her.
GROSS: And so I'd like you to talk about that a little bit, about how you think pornography is desensitizing. And more specifically, was it desensitizing for you?
STERN: It scares the - yes. It scares the hell out of me, pornography. But let's be candid. I still watch pornography two or three times a week, so this might sound hypocritical. But at the same time, I worry, quite frankly, that it is desensitizing. I can't imagine what it would be like to be a kid now growing up with access to, you know, YouPorn and all that stuff.
I mean, my God, how could you ever have a normal sex life when you watch that stuff? And in a way, like, I never learned about sex. No one taught me about sex. No one spoke to me about sex. And in a way, I fumbled around like many of us do and kind of figured stuff out. If I had had an instruction manual like pornography, like, probably my first sexual experience - I mean, I don't know what I would have been doing. I mean, I don't know what I would have expected and what kind of presentation I would have expected from a woman and a presentation that I was making. And oh, my God, I don't know what the hell pornography is doing to our culture, but I'll defend it to the end.
Look; I'm not comfortable with censorship. I do wish kids were a little more innocent now. It really has to be doing something. So, you know, I'm not someone who's for regulation, but good Lord, I don't know. I don't know. There's no governor on the thing, you know? It's crazy. And...
GROSS: Did you look at porn before having sex for the first time, and was real sex disappointing compared to the expectations from porn?
STERN: Listen; I'm 65. There was no porn back then. I had one stag film...
STERN: ...That somebody gave me.
GROSS: Did people have socks on (laughter)?
STERN: Yes, and the woman was wearing a fur coat, and there was a refrigerator repairman involved. It was ridiculous. But nevertheless, I saw that. And you know, my father had a Super 8mm. I had to wait for them to leave the house - my parents and my sister. I had to go down to the basement. I had to get the Super 8 rigged. And then I would watch this thing, and I was so nervous they were going to come back home. I would say, let me memorize this, and maybe I'll go think about it. You know, back then, it was as innocent as watching "Gilligan's Island" and waiting for a moment when Tina Louise would come on or something. So you know, New York Times girdle ads were my pornography.
STERN: So you know, when I first started to see pornography, I was like, oh, my God. I would go to movie theaters to see pornography when I got older. I had a fake ID. I was so stupid. All of my friends had the same fake birth certificate. It all said we were 18 years old. Now, if you were going to a movie theater to get into an X-rated film, wouldn't you present your driver's license? We'd go up with our birth certificate.
STERN: And we all had the same name, and stupid me would be the last guy. I would sit on the curb while they went in to watch pornography. And I had to sit outside because by the third guy, the guy would go, hey, look; you all have the same name. Get out of here. So you know, that - it was so much more innocent. If you saw pornography, it was for a fleeting second.
And I don't know. But is it healthier? I'm not a psychiatrist. I don't know. But I somehow think maybe that innocence was a good thing. I wasn't so charged up sexually. And then sometimes I think, well, maybe if I'd been exposed to pornography, who knows? Maybe even I wouldn't have gotten married so young. Is that convoluted in the sense that - I was just like, oh, I guess you get married, and you have sex. And you know, it was like - I don't know. Up was down, and down was up. But I just know it troubles me that a - like, a 13-year-old boy or girl - they're checking out, like, really hardcore porn...
STERN: ...And expecting that. And you know, what I've learned - and again, through psychotherapy and from being in a terrific marriage with my wife, Beth - that I really am a monogamous person. But you know what? I'm proud of myself for one reason. I worked on myself. I did something that a lot of people aren't willing to do. I go to therapy. Would I rather be out playing chess or painting or even just sitting and watching a television show than walking into that room and confronting my demons? I'd rather be doing anything else.
GROSS: My guest is Howard Stern. His new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." We'll be back after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROLLING STONES' "NOW I'VE GOT A WITNESS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Howard Stern. His new book of interviews is called "Howard Stern Comes Again."
So we were talking about your father being a radio engineer who co-owned his own studio. And cartoons...
GROSS: ...And commercials, jingles were recorded there. I want to play something that was recorded there when you were a kid - because you used to go to the studio with your father sometimes. And this will give everybody a sense of what you were hearing as a kid. So this is a clip from "The History Of Howard Stern," like, an audio documentary. So a DVD had been released of one of the cartoons that your father recorded audio for. And it was called "Tennessee Tuxedo." I'll confess I'd never heard of it.
STERN: Wow. It's a huge part of my life.
GROSS: Yeah, OK. So the DVD had extras in it, and one of the extras has your father recording the theme. And you hear his voice slating the theme at the beginning of this recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BEN STERN: Want to try one?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #1: Why not?
STERN: Stand by - thirty-second opening, take two.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER #2: One, two, three.
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Come on and see, see, see Tennessee Tuxedo.
GROSS: OK, that's (laughter) - it kind of...
STERN: Makes me sad.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter). So what was wonderful about...
STERN: My father's 96 years old now, and my dad used to be on the show a lot. And to hear him as a young man doing that, you know, it's hard for me because he just - you know, he's lost a lot of ability.
STERN: And it wrecks me. It really does. And "Tennessee Tuxedo" was magical for me in the sense that once a year, my mother would force my father to take me to work with him. I don't think he particularly wanted me there. I think I was a big pain in the ass to him. But I would go there, and I was just mesmerized by what my father did.
He was a radio engineer that transitioned to owning a recording studio with four other guys. At one point, it was five guys. It was a team. And they had a successful studio called Aura Recording, and they did a lot of recording of, you know, cartoons. And back then, the way they made cartoons - they don't do it this way anymore, but all of the actors - the voice actors on "Tennessee Tuxedo" would be lined up in a room all working together. And my father would kind of throw me in the recording area and let me sit there. If I - you know, he'd tell me, sit quiet. And he would let me watch what would happen. And again, you know, it was Don Adams - "Get Smart" from TV - Larry Storch from "F Troop"...
GROSS: And then he was, like, a Borscht Belt comic, too, wasn't he?
STERN: Oh, my God, yes. And Larry Storch was - and these guys all did "Tennessee Tuxedo." And it was like, you know - and Don Adams would stand there and go, Tennessee Tuxedo - oh, Mr. Whoopee. And he would do these voices, and they would crack each other up. And the way my father looked at them, the way he was so reverential and he was so - oh, he - oh, if my father could look at me like that, if I - I got to get behind that microphone. Now, this didn't all play out like a light bulb went over my head. I realize now that's what was going on. You know, for years, I was in denial. I was like, I don't know why I got in radio. It had nothing to do with my father. I mean, that's a ridiculous statement, but that's how closed off I was.
GROSS: How old were you the first time you heard your voice recorded, and how did it sound to you when it was played back?
STERN: I was very young. My father would - once a year, again, we would go down - the family would go to his recording studio. And, you know, back then, you didn't have - you didn't even have VHS recording or anything, so to go and have your voice recorded at a young age was a big deal.
GROSS: It was huge. Yeah.
STERN: Huge. And so I would go there, and I was a little kid. I mean, we played tapes of it on the air. I don't know. Maybe I was 5, 6, something like that. And I remember my father would put me in front of the microphone, and then I would sing - well, I was singing "Jelly Beaner," which was a local kids' show. So I must have been 5 or 6.
GROSS: Oh, jelly beaner, jelly beaner, jelly beaner, one and all.
STERN: (Singing) Jelly beaner - yeah - jelly beaner, jelly beaner. But I was a little kid, and I'd go, I just want to sing "Jelly Beaner."
STERN: And, you know - and I was crying and whining in the microphone. And then my sister would get to perform, and I would be recorded. And as I got older, I got to go down there, and I would do impressions of Soupy Sales. I was like, well, I'm going to be like Soupy.
GROSS: Oh, I love Soupy. Yeah.
STERN: I got to bring my friends down.
GROSS: Was it traumatic for you when your voice changed during puberty?
STERN: Yeah. You know, I was very uptight about my voice because, again, I had this fantasy that I was going to be on the radio. When I was 16, I used to write to this - I had a very - I thought I had a serious girlfriend. She describes it as, I thought we were just hanging out. But I was in love with her. And I would write her letters all the time. You know, I would've loved to have had, like, email and stuff, but we had to send letters. And I wouldn't dare use my father's phone because, my God, what a phone call would cost to the Bronx was ridiculous from Long Island.
So I would write her these love letters and say, you know, I'm going to be this huge radio star, and I'm going to be super famous. I was, like, trying to point out to her that she should really be into me. And I was using my - you know, my future career.
GROSS: Your future fame (laughter).
STERN: Yeah. And she actually came on our show and read these letters on the air. I sounded like such a douche. But, you know, to me - when my voice changed, there were times that it was deep when I was relaxed because - don't forget - if I was going to get a radio job, I couldn't sound - you know, you had to have a certain sound, especially back then, to do rock radio. And, you know, you had to have a professional sound. And so when my voice changed, it was OK, but I had a thick New York accent - very thick New York accent. And my voice was somewhere in here, like - you know, I'd get uptight, or if my voice got tired, I'd kind of sound like Kermit the Frog.
STERN: And when I got on the radio when I was nervous - when I first went down to a college radio station or I got on WRNW in Westchester, and even all the way through to D.C. - DC101, where my ratings really started kicking - my voice was very tight. And I would be like, you know, hi, this is Howard Stern. And I was like, I don't sound like a guy on the radio. And then I remember, at some point, I even started to talk like this because it would loosen up my voice. And I - and people were like, oh, yeah. And, like, people hear my old tapes, and they go, what the - were you on helium? You know, what were you doing? But I was just trying to relax and get loose.
And so, you know, I was so jealous, when I worked at NBC, of those - you know, those deep-voice announcer guys. Oh, my God. But now I realize that was my key to actually sounding like someone in the audience. Thank God I didn't sound like one of those deep-voice guys 'cause I probably would've gotten real lazy and just gone and done voiceover work, as opposed to doing what I ended up doing, which was way more satisfying. I did not want to be playing music on the radio. I didn't want to play the Beatles. I wanted to be the Beatles.
GROSS: We've been listening to the interview I recorded with Howard Stern on Friday, and there's still more of it. We'll hear part two tomorrow. This'll give you an idea of why Howard called the interview exhausting. His new book, collecting some of his best interviews, is called "Howard Stern Comes Again." Also, tomorrow, we'll listen back to my interview with Doris Day. She died yesterday at the age of 97, and we'll play some of her recordings. I just love her singing. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I REMEMBER YOU")
DORIS DAY: (Singing) I remember you. You're the one who made my dreams come true a few kisses ago. I remember you. You're the one who said, I love you, too. I do. Didn't you know? I remember, too, a distant bell... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.