True Blue Howard

Today we're taking a tour of Mr. Stern's neighborhood, led by your host, Howard Stern. We start in the 36th-floor lobby of Sirius, the satellite-radio company that is reportedly paying Stern $500 million to bring his bawdy talk show to its airwaves next month. Even without knowing Stern's paycheck, you can tell that Sirius has major money. There are 42 studios lining the hallways, some with drop-dead views of New York and all fronted by gleaming glass. We walk by each one--the country-and-Western channel, the sports channel--and without fail the hosts all smile and wave at the very tall man in tinted glasses and a red hoodie. "This is an amazing place," says Stern, his curly hair still damp from a run in the park. "I've never been in such an exciting environment." This is a genuine, if double-edged, remark, because what Stern is also thinking is, fresh meat . Even though he's forbidden to appear on Sirius's air until Jan. 9, Stern has already started skulking around. Last week he disrupted the gay channel's chat with Tony Orlando and started dancing with him, while poor Dawn could only sing in the background. Stern seems almost giddy: "This is heaven."

And the hits keep coming. We come to an enormous poster of oldies DJ Cousin Brucie, another Sirius host. "This guy is a legend," Stern says--another double-edged comment. Hasn't Stern mocked Brucie's singsongy baritone for years? "Yeah," he admits. "I'm gonna bust his balls every single day." We walk a little, past an interview-in-progress with Washington Redskin John Riggins and a visit from CNBC's David Faber, when from around the corner appears rapper 50 Cent. 50--big diamonds, big posse, big smile--gives Stern a hug and asks when he can be on the new program. "I'll bring my own strippers," offers 50. "I'll bring my own whores," says Stern, "and we can really make a show."

And all this can be yours for $12.95 a month. That's the subscription fee for Sirius, which sounds like a lot, considering that you get radio free Howard right now. But you also get the government analyzing every fart joke, which, if you're a Stern fan, is about as noxious as it gets. Across the top of the Web site is a countdown clock surrounded by the words: The revolution begins in... No more FCC, no more boss, no more interference. We're going to the promised land! Like cable TV, satellite radio isn't subject to federal decency laws, so Stern will be free as the breeze. How far will he go? That's going to be the interesting part. Sirius doesn't have a standards department. "We have executives who have taste and judgment," says Scott Greenstein, president of entertainment at Sirius, "and we have Howard Stern, who clearly knows where the line is." Yes, he does. And he will hurdle over it every chance he gets.

Besides, Stern will have to make a lot of noise just to get noticed in his new digs. Sirius has more than 2.2 million subscribers; Stern's current audience is 12 million. For the self-proclaimed King of All Media--he also takes partial credit for the advent of reality TV, lesbian chic, "The View" and Rush Limbaugh--that plunge is a lot to swallow, though Stern already seems to have lured 1.6 million new subscribers to Sirius. "It's like spending years and years building a building and then losing control to another developer," says Robin Quivers, his longtime sidekick. "Sometimes you wonder: What will happen to us? Do you risk your entire legacy by transferring to this new thing?" On the air in recent weeks, Stern has fretted repeatedly about his audience's not following him to Sirius, of not being loved enough for them to pay for him. "To me--and this is a sickness--my audience will never be big enough," he says.

So what does a king do on a shrunken throne? For one thing, he's bringing back many of his greatest hits from early in his career, before he racked up millions in FCC fines. Bits like "It's Just Wrong," where fathers and daughters undress each other, and "The Bathroom Olympics," where Howard and his guys race to see who can pee first. He's creating a bigger and better bikini rack. "It can drop out of the ceiling, which is nice," Stern says. "I've gotten into a few of those bikinis myself, when I was in better shape." He's also thinking seriously about putting cameras in the bathroom that's being built especially for the Wack Pack--Wendy the Retard, High-Pitched Eric, Jeff the Drunk, Cleft Palate and the others who make up Howard's island of misfit toys. It'll be lewd, crude and totally nude--and also available in living color if you subscribe to --the Howard Stern on Demand cable channel. Perhaps the only thing you won't see when Howard goes to satellite: a stripper pole, which, contrary to published reports, will not be a part of the new studio. "When you go to a strip club, you see someone on a pole and it's disgusting," Stern says. So Greenstein is right. Howard does know where to draw the line.

If all this seems like a deep shade of blue even by Howard's standards, perhaps that's because he's making up for lost time. "The show I'm doing now sucks compared to what I was doing 10 years ago," he says, though he is still No. 1 in New York, L.A. and beyond. "I don't have porn stars on anymore. I haven't had lesbians on for six months. There's no point. You can't ask about their lives." Before the Sirius deal came through a year ago, Stern was ready to quit radio after 29 years behind the microphone. "He would come in every day and have to work really hard to think about a word that could get on the air, and even then we were having the button pushed on us," says Quivers. "It was such a compromise. He just hated doing it."

Ironically, some fans believe that the shows in recent years have been among his best because Stern has to fight so hard. There is an undeniable passion and currency to his programs that's unlike anything else on the air. His diatribes against the thought police on both the right and the left come spilling out like soliloquies, and are often backed up with evidence--like the time he wanted to play a tape of Oprah talking about sexual acts, only to be told that not only could he not say the same words Oprah did, he couldn't even play her on tape saying them. "Talk about censorship," Stern says. "I will go to my grave thinking this was all politically motivated, and I'm not a conspiracy theorist." If your mind runs that way, it's fun to hear him still try and tweak the establishment, even the ways he grunts out "Sirius" on his syndicated show because he's under orders not to say the name. As crude as he can be, Stern is a very smart guy, and very quick. On any given morning, he can talk with ease and humor about Google stock, Russell Crowe, Congressman Murtha's antiwar stand and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and wrap it all up with a quip about "Harry Potter." Quivers: "I hear that the new movie is very scary." Stern: "You think that's scary? My kids' father is Howard Stern."

Not surprisingly, Stern thinks the conventional wisdom about him is wrong. He doesn't buy the idea that he'll be less funny on satellite radio because he won't have anyone to fight against. "People have said to me, 'The FCC is such a good foil for you. You need it.' It's such bulls--t," he says. "My act isn't about saying the FCC sucks. It never has been. It's about going out and talking to people in a real way." Shockingly, he doesn't even think of himself as a shock jock. "If I just went on the air and did shocking things, the show would be over in a month," he says. "It's not about someone getting naked in a studio for me. It's about what drives a person to get naked in a studio, who the hell they are and what makes them tick. It's about honesty."

So let's be honest. The freedom, the money, the snazzy studio--isn't life a little too good for Stern? Shock jock or not, he's always been an outsider. "I believe with all my heart that if Howard could redo high school, he'd be a completely different person--a quiet person," Quivers says. "It's a recurrent theme for him: 'I was nothing. Nobody wanted me. I had no friends'." Yet he's happier than he's been in a long time. He's in shape, in therapy and living with a model, Beth Ostrovsky. He even likes his bosses, though it's hard to complain when you're getting paid $100 million a year for five years. "That number's a bit off," Stern complains. "It's high." But still. There's a certain calmness about him in person--smiling, devouring a fruit platter, boasting about his new studio, and barely an expletive in sight. It does make you wonder how much of radio Howard is an act. "I used to say that the guy on the air is a character and the guy off the air is the real me, but then I started to think, well, maybe I'm really me on the air and the guy off the air is a big phony," he says with his glasses off so you can see into his eyes. "Since I've been in therapy, I own who I am. It's all me."

But happy? Hardly. He'll proudly talk about how, after his divorce, he finally got together with a pair of lesbians--and hated it. "I get jealous. I can't even deal with being left out of something. God forbid they shouldn't pay attention to me," he says. Not surprisingly, he's already fighting with Sirius. "We were going to do the High-Pitched Eric Crapathon, where we weigh his bowel movements," he says. "They wouldn't let it in the building. I went berserk." He even seems disappointed to be leaving traditional radio, despite his growing excitement to try something new. "My day in court never came," he says. "If we had gone to court, all of this would have been moot. None of the show would have been found indecent and we could do real broadcasting." Real broadcasting. Does that sound like a man who's at peace? "I'm never happy," Stern says. "I haven't been happy a day in my life." Good news, Stern fans. The angry revolutionary is back.