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Shock jock Stern turns to politics after FCC crackdown
By Colleen McCain Nelson
DALLAS Faced with a government crackdown on obscenity, the radio host who keeps a tape measure handy to calculate women's breast size has gone political big time.
No longer content with simply rocking the boat, Howard Stern is aiming to rock the vote.
"You've got to vote Bush out to send a message as a Howard Stern fan," he tells listeners.
Republicans have dismissed Stern's recent political tirades, deeming his Bush bashing as inconsequential as the flatulence jokes that precede it. But media experts caution against underestimating the self-proclaimed "King of All Media."
Talk-radio heavyweights Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are preaching to the converted, they said. Stern has 8.5 million potential swing voters tuned in, and his loyal listeners have shown a willingness to do stunts far more outlandish than going to the polls at the shock jock's urging.
"I'm hearing from hard-core Republicans who can't wait to vote Bush's (rear end) out," Stern said during his show recently.
Why is Howard Stern so mad?
When Justin Timberlake bared Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show, an estimated 90 million people were watching. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received 500,000 complaints, and Congress took note, amending existing bills to increase indecency fines dramatically. In response, Clear Channel, which operates more than 1,200 radio stations, adopted a code of conduct and suspended Stern from six stations.
Stern is counting on his fans to feel insulted by what he says is a GOP-led effort to muzzle him.
Listeners have responded with a flood of supportive phone calls, online petitions and Web sites trying to "Save Howard."
Matthew Felling, with the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said the New York radio host is as clever as he is crass. If Stern keeps up his anti-Bush drumbeat, Felling said, the shock jock could have a greater impact on the presidential election than independent candidate Ralph Nader.
"The average talk-show listener is extremely suggestible they will do a lot for their radio afternoon or drive-time buddy," Felling said.
Once a vocal backer of Bush's decision to go to war, Stern shifted gears several weeks ago and took aim at the leader he now calls a "Jesus freak."
When Clear Channel announced that it was dropping "The Howard Stern Show" from six stations and Congress began considering increasing fines for indecency, Stern launched a full-on assault on those who would rein in his raunch.
Day after day, hour after hour, he rails against Republicans and what he perceives as their attempt to make radio broadcasts bland.
"It's going to be one sickeningly sweet America," Stern said last week. "All of the shows will be filled with people who got kicked off 'Survivor.' "
Now, in the midst of broadcasting bodily functions and exhorting his guests to remove their underwear, Stern will segue from strippers to the one thing that offends him: President Bush's policies.
"He's his own jihad," Stern said. "He's as bad as these maniacs in Palestine."
The outburst ends as quickly as it began, and Stern returns listeners to their regularly scheduled programming in this case, a contest to determine who can pass gas the longest.
By adding a sprinkle of partisan politics to his usual titillating fare, Stern keeps listeners coming back and gives them something to think about, Felling said.
"If he tosses in less than an hour of political talk, it will be that teaspoon of medicine along with all that sugar going down," he said. "The strippers will always be there. That's the beautiful thing about Howard Stern. He will not beat this horse to death."
This is not Stern's first foray into politics. He backed the gubernatorial bids of Republicans George Pataki in New York and Christie Whitman in New Jersey (she thanked him by naming a rest stop for him).
But Stern, heard on 35 stations nationwide, including KISW-FM (99.9) in Seattle, never has brought this level of commitment to a cause. His Web site (howardstern.com) includes reams of information explaining how to register to vote, contact a congressman or write the FCC.
Listeners are letting radio stations across the country know that they stand by Stern.
Stern offers only faint praise for Democrat John Kerry but says that the Massachusetts senator must be better than the status quo. "My audience is the swing vote," he told listeners recently.
Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the industry magazine Talkers, said the pointed criticism is bound to raise doubts about the commander-in-chief among some listeners.
"Stern's change of position on George W. Bush is one of the most significant political developments in talk radio," Harrison said.
Seattle Times staff contributed to this report