The Howard has landed

Why the outcry over Howard Stern’s Canadian debut? Other media sold out long ago.

Marketing Magazine, September 15, 1997   

The end is nigh, brothers and sisters. Spores of pure evil have drifted across the border, settling like particulate dung-mist on the once fair and sparkling True North Strong & Free. The Howard has landed. Howard Stern’s morning drive show is infecting not one but two radio stations: CHOM FM in Montreal and Q107 in Toronto. Why, before long, we’ll all be walking, looking, dressing and thinking just like Americans...


A cursory listen to Stern’s work reveals it as the most recent incarnation of what countless performers — Don Rickles perhaps best-known among them — have been doing for years: telling blunt, unvarnished truths about people and situations to make folks laugh. It’s called comedy.


In the press conference immediately following his debut, Stern parried every question, slight and insult — implied and direct — with a remark much more self-deprecating than anything his inquisitors could muster. It’s part of the shtick: no matter how nasty Stern gets in ridiculing his broad range of targets, he always saves the most pointed barbs for himself.


Why the fuss over Howard Stern? U.S. radio shrink Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s daily talk show has been running for a couple of years in the Toronto market (it’s moving to the all-talk 640 from 1050 CHUM-AM) and across the country. In the name of “therapy,” Dr. Laura barks derision at one neurotic after another. It’s a lot like the Howard Stern show, but with less compassion, more self-righteousness and no humor.


Coverage of Stern’s debut indicates Canada’s in worse shape than anyone knew. Forget the prospect of Quebec’s ever-impending separation (go if you’re going; just quit talking about it). Apparently we’re in much greater danger from jokes, and adolescent jokes at that.


In the chorus of disapproval for Stern as an exemplar of encroaching American vulgarity (like Shania Twain is something we should be proud of), there’s a disturbing stench of hypocrisy. The Globe and Mail thought it made sense to compare the debut of the Stern show with the roll-out of the CBC’s effort to fill the Gzowski-shaped hole in its schedule. Hey, they’re both radio shows, aren’t they? Following this line of reasoning, watch the Globe for some penetrating insights on key differences between Marilyn Manson and Mozart: their names both start with ‘M’ and music starts with ‘m’ so there must be a connection.


Funnier, perhaps, is that this pointless comparison appears in the same Globe which pads the product of its too-small, overworked editorial staff with countless reprints from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist and The New Republic, among others.


Along similar “harken-the-pot-to-the kettle” lines, many broadcast news outlets decried Stern too. These would be the same news departments that use stories straight off the ABC, CBS, CNN or NBC affiliate feeds in their newscasts without compunction. These would be the same networks whose prime-time schedules are stuffed with American shows they bought in Los Angeles, just like they do every spring...and whose fringe-prime slots are paved wall-to-wall with syndicated U.S. fare...and whose dayparts would be dead air were it not for U.S. network soaps and/or talk shows. Let’s see if we understand this: it’s okay to import print and broadcast journalism, television, movies, music and just about every other cultural product by the trainload, but a sophomoric radio show is a real threat to our sovereignty. Huh?


There was some lovely syzygy on the CBC as the Stern furor mounted: The National re-ran a very serious series anchored by repatriated correspondent Brian Stewart bewailing the “Americanization of Canada.” I guess during all those years Stewart worked for NBC News, the situation wasn’t as dire. Or perhaps he was doing what he could to reverse the tide, Canadianizing NBC from the inside as a mole...or “stealth beaver.” Maybe between cashing those hefty peacock paychecks he was deeply tormented about his eroding cultural identity but too much of a pro to let it show. Or perhaps the CBC found itself with a bunch of empty airtime late in the summer and knows that Canadians never get tired of fretting about their identity. Or watching somebody else do it.


CHOM and Q107 aren’t paying Stern’s syndication fees (rumored to hover around $350,000 per market) just to shock the Victorian sensibilities of a few self-styled elite bluenoses, or to make CBC cassandras squirm. There’s an audience for this, as Stern and his corporate employer Infinity Broadcasting have already proven so conclusively in the U.S.


And there’s your classic expression of the Canadian identity: we’ll rarely touch something in this country until it’s been proven that folks in some other country like it first (with the usual exceptions of Clamato juice, Shreddies and Smarties).


In the post-show press conference following his inaugural Canadian broadcast, Stern pointed out that Canada is pretty much the 51st state. He can be forgiven for only just figuring that out now. As he confessed, he knows nothing about Canada.