"What the hell did you do to piss off Howard Stern?"
Such fond memories of a sunny October morning in 1992. This is what the hell I did to piss off Howard Stern:
"Wake up, Howard, it's your conscience calling. Or is that number permanently disconnected?"
Plus about 700 other words in that same vein, addressing nothing as profoundly meaningful to the gentleman as unflagging penile stimulation (an even greater national crisis before pills turned American men into four-hour coat hangars).
No. This merely addressed a suicide.
I had offended Howard Stern—an accomplishment falling short, perhaps, of brokering a Mideast peace accord or wrestling cellophane wrapping off a new CD, but one of which I am nonetheless proud.
I'm reminded of this with Stern's flight after Monday's show from Vegas terrestrial radio on KXTE 107.5-FM—ejected by a contractual quirk here before his mid-December departure nationwide to fly the satellite skies on Sirius Radio.
But back in 1992, as his show spread from its Manhattan base like some syndicated STD, Stern was still warring with DJs daring to occupy his top ratings spot, arriving city by city to mock 'em, shock-jock 'em and knock 'em on their ass. And topped off by symbolic, public "funerals," the humiliating cherry on the sundae of professional degradation.
Up in Albany, New York, Stern easily ascended our mild-market throne via WQBK-FM without as much as a memorial service. Neither a frothing fan nor a consternated critic of this avatar of aural sex, I monitored the hiring, firing and Stern-o-philing for the daily Times-Union in a thrice-weekly TV/radio column. His appeal, I understood, was about ripping the lid off the id, and stretched far beyond listeners whose most articulate thoughts are expressed, roughly, as "Woooo-hoooo!" Intelligent people were among his admirers; I respected that, recorded his ratings triumphs, but cared little in any critical way, unlike Stern's smitten sycophants elsewhere in the media-verse.
Fall '92. Philadelphia. Against top-rated John DeBella, Stern launches an utterly ruthless assault that even seasoned, seen-it-all radio vets label "brutal." Stern's bludgeoning instrument of choice is the anguished marital woes of John and Annette DeBella, already painfully chronicled by local press. Stern stages a "Divorce Party" at Independence Mall. Fans in flatbed trucks parked below DeBella's station scream, "I f--ked your wife!" DeBella is s burned in effigy. Stern caps the cruelty by paying Annette $5,000 to guest on a car wreck of a show in which the troubled woman—sounding disoriented and unstable, as the host must have noticed—responds to Stern's prompts like some Pavlovian mutt, ridiculing her husband's endowment and bedroom skills, among other niceties.
A month later, Annette DeBella's body is discovered. After a drunken night around town, she passed out in her car after pulling into the DeBellas' garage. The door was shut, the engine was running; she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Cops rule it a suicide, though Stern argues it could have been accidental.
With his show now piped into—and leading—my market, I address the event:
"The death of Annette DeBella ... must give you pause," I columnize. "While it's impossible to accuse Stern of (legal) complicity in the death ... Stern can't escape the stench of this one. ... By fueling this bonfire to national proportions with unrestrained glee, Stern went way out of bounds, even for him ... Exploiting the private pain of others to satisfy ratings lust? ... No, Howard, you didn't cause her death, but your role in events leading to a tragedy is duly noted. Will the next ratings book ease your conscience?"
My editors read it, rule it "fair comment," it goes to press.
And then the morning ...
"Did you know that Howard Stern was talking about YOU this morning?" someone asks me, wearing a look of pity mixed with awe as I stroll into the cafeteria.
They gather like flies buzzing a briefly celebritized corpse.
"Yeah, you didn't know? Weren't you listening? Damn, that went out across the country."
"He was pretty angry. Called you 'a radical critic from Albany' ... and some other stuff."
"How could you have missed it? Damn, you're famous, man! Howard talked about you, and he's The Man!"
"Howard said ..."
"Stern was really raggin' on you, dude ..."
"He was going off about that column you got today ..."
It seemed I came out of nowhere to strike a nerve.
"You can probably get laid a lot from this ..."
At my desk, I retrieve a voice-mail message. It's from Gary Dell'Abate—you know him as Baba Booey. I return the call.
"Mr. Dell'Abate, this is Steve Bornfeld at the Albany Times Union. What can I do for you?" I brace for a foul-mouthed tirade.
"Yes, Steve, I'm Howard Stern's producer and we were interested here to see your column this morning," said a carefully polite voice. WQBK faxed it to Stern's studio. "We'd like to invite you to come on the show tomorrow and discuss it with Howard. We think it will make a good segment for the show."
I make an instant decision. I'm up for a fair fight, but not a rigged slaughter. It is the one way that bullies always feel confident.
"I have to decline, Mr. Dell'Abate. From what I've heard, when Howard has his critics on with him, he eats them for breakfast. It's always on his turf, the advantage is always his. Now, if he wants to write a response to the newspaper, we will print it, word for word, editing only for spelling and clarity."
"I don't think Howard is interested in that. But I promise you will get a chance to defend yourself."
This is like telling a schnauzer it can defend itself against a crocodile.
"I'm sorry, but this is not a level playing field and I'm not a fool. So let's say that I have my forum to say what I please, and Howard has his infinitely larger forum to say what he wants, and in fact, from what I've heard, has already said it."
The phone conversation breaks off in tense politeness. The following morning, Stern reloads, aims, takes another round of shots. I let it go. I'd made my point.
Later, I receive a perplexed message from a cousin in California. His name, coincidentally: Steve Bornfeld. He is confused. His wife has left him an alarmed voice-mail:
"What the hell did you do to piss off Howard Stern?"