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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Howard Stern


On this final day of the decade, we're continuing our series featuring some favorite interviews of the decade as selected by our staff. We start today with an interview from this year - Howard Stern. I spoke with him last May after the publication of his book, "Howard Stern Comes Again," collecting some of his favorite interviews.

He's become a really good interviewer. At the age of 65, he says he's changed over the years and has moved away from some of the crude sex talk and sexism of his earlier years and has been emphasizing empathy over outrageousness in his interviews. But he admits his show still contains a fair amount of what he calls second-grade humor. His show became nationally syndicated in 1986 and moved to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006. Here's our interview.


GROSS: 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: ...Morning...

GROSS: Yeah.

STERN: ...I woke up.

GROSS: Yeah.

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STERN: So I - on my Kindle, you get a little chapter for free. You know?

GROSS: Yeah.

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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. 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...

STERN: Right.

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 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. 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.

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.

STERN: Yeah.

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. 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...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STERN: ...Or they weren't really paying attention. I really - I have a lot of issues. 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. I was like, 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 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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, 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: 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.

GROSS: Robin.

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 to 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. 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.

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 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...

STERN: Right.

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'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...

STERN: And...

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...

STERN: Right.

GROSS: ...How you treat women.

STERN: This is how you behave. Yeah.

GROSS: This is how you talk to women. And that...

STERN: Right.

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 if I hadn't changed, if I had become a 65-year-old guy fawning over women, it would have been pathetic and sad. 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 want to play an example of how you draw on your life for your interviews. So what we've just been talking about, your mother's depression, her need to be cheered up - this comes into play in one of my favorite moments of your interviews, and this is with Stephen Colbert from 2015. And you're talking to him about how he lost his father and two of his siblings, two brothers, in a plane crash. And I forget how old he was - 9 maybe? I forget his age.

STERN: Yeah, something like that. Yeah.

GROSS: And so you're asking him about that and what it was like for his mother. So I just want to play a short excerpt of that.

STERN: Sure.


STERN: How did it change...

STEPHEN COLBERT: But the thing...

STERN: ...Your mother? Did she - was she able to have a strong face in front of you, or would she break down a lot?

COLBERT: Both. You know, a little mix of everything. It wasn't - there's no clean description of what life was like.

STERN: Is it difficult for you to be around a crying woman now because of your mother?

COLBERT: Wow, that's deep, man.

STERN: Well, seriously.

COLBERT: Yeah. Deep, Howard.

STERN: Well...

COLBERT: You're getting deep. No, seriously, that's a very deep question, Howard.

STERN: But when women are difficult - because your mom had to be difficult. She was going through a crisis.

COLBERT: Not difficult. But you know...

STERN: Upset.

COLBERT: I think there's no doubt that I do what I do because I wanted to make her happy - no doubt.

STERN: You're used to cheering up a woman.


STERN: Yeah.


STERN: I know of this.

ROBIN QUIVERS: Did you cry? Were you...

COLBERT: Really? Did you cheer up - what?

QUIVERS: Were you able to cry?

COLBERT: No, not publicly.

STERN: Well, speaking of...

COLBERT: But hold on. Wait a second.

STERN: Yeah.

COLBERT: How do you know to ask that question?

STERN: Because I spent many years cheering up your mother, as well. I didn't want to tell you this.


STERN: No, no. What happened - my mother lost her mother when she was 9. And my mother became very depressed when her sister died, and I spent a lot of years trying to cheer up my mother. And I became quite proficient at making her laugh and doing impressions and doing impressions of all the people in her neighborhood. It made her feel - so I - I wonder - and even to this day, when I see a woman in distress, I feel like I have to...


STERN: ...Jump in and solve her problem.

COLBERT: That's not a bad impulse, though.

STERN: Well, it certainly makes for a career. But I mean...


GROSS: I just love hearing how stunned Colbert is when you ask him about, you know, having to cheer up his mother, and if it's hard for him to see women cry because his mother had cried so much.

STERN: Well, I love that moment. I'm so glad you pulled it because I'm proud of that moment. Because only someone who had to cheer up a mother would know to ask that question.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly.

STERN: And, you know, again, I've explored the fact that this is a terrible burden on a kid, to have to cheer up a mother. I remember doing, you know, very, very elaborate impressions of all the mothers in the neighborhood. And what I was doing is 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. It meant that when I would sit there and make fun of these other mothers, it meant not only was it funny and not only did it make her cheered up, but 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. So when Colbert - I had to go there with Colbert, and I think what really shocked him is, well, wait a second. Here is Fartman, and all of a sudden, maybe there's something a little deeper behind Fartman, you know? Maybe this guy gets me. And so that's a real moment.

GROSS: Well, I'm going to let you go 'cause I know you got to go. It's been...

STERN: Well, a pleasure.

GROSS: ...Really, really wonderful to talk with you. Listen. I want to thank you for staying in radio all of these years and not using radio just as a stepping stone to TV or movies. You've turned down so many offers, and you've stayed in radio. You've done a lot of, like, kind of pioneering work in radio. thank you. As a radio person, thank you for staying in radio...

STERN: Oh, thank you for saying that.

GROSS: ...And for acknowledging, like, the greatness of radio.

STERN: I love radio. Radio is the best. And that's it. We'll end on that. Radio is great.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, thank...

STERN: And thank you.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

STERN: I think you're a terrific interviewer. And thank you for giving me access to your audience, which, you know - like I said, that's a good audience.

GROSS: Howard Stern recorded last May after the publication of his collection of interviews called "Howard Stern Comes Again." After a break, we'll hear my 2010 interview with Joan Rivers as we continue our series of some favorite interviews of the decade. After Rivers died in 2014, Howard Stern gave her eulogy at the request of her daughter, Melissa. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.