But let’s take the self-proclaimed “King of All Media” at his word: Stern has more than once — both on the air and in print — explicitly called himself a libertarian or made statements that were strongly libertarian in nature.
For example (according to longtime fan Robert Goodman), in 1984 Stern said, “I’m for personal freedom. I’m for freedom of the marketplace.” In 1991, when a caller suggested that Stern pay more attention to the Libertarian Party, Stern answered, “I guess I really am a libertarian…” In the early 1990s, Stern called for privatizing many government functions and quipped, “If Donald Trump delivered the mail, you could send letters for 12 cents — and also gamble with the stamps.”
Stern, who has been fined numerous times by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for indecency, also sounds like a libertarian when it comes to free speech. In 2004, Stern spoke to FCC Chairman Michael Powell during a radio call-in show. Complaining about the latest FCC fines, Stern told Powell, “I think it’s a sad day…when the marketplace no longer determines what is indecent.”
In 1994, Stern launched a short-lived campaign for governor of New York, running on the Libertarian Party ticket. Writing about the campaign in his 1995 book, Miss America, Stern wrote: “I really didn’t know much about the Libertarians. I knew they were for less government and more individual freedom. I liked that.” Stern later dropped out of the race because he refused to comply with state financial disclosure laws. In Miss America he wrote: “I didn’t like the whole idea of filing. Hey, I was a Libertarian.”
Commentators have noted Stern’s libertarian leanings. In Reason magazine (July 1994), Nick Gillespie wrote that Stern has an “intuitive embrace of the Libertarian rebuke of the leviathan state… He is a devotee of individual responsibility and supports legalizing drugs, lowering taxes, and shrinking the state.” Salon.com (March 12, 2004) said Stern is “known mostly for his libertarian take on politics.”
So Stern is a libertarian? Maybe not. In 1992 he endorsed Republican Christie Todd Whitman for New Jersey governor, and in 1994 (after dropping out of the race) seemed to endorse Republican George Pataki for New York governor.
So Stern is a conservative? Maybe not. In 2004, Stern launched a “radio Jihad” against Republican President George W. Bush and urged his listeners to vote for Democrat John Kerry for president. While the anti-Bush campaign was partially a reaction against FCC penalties, some theorized that it also represented a shift to the left by Stern. For example, dKosopedia reported: “Although Stern used to be a self-proclaimed libertarian, in recent years he has abandoned that philosophy and embraced positions that are in direct opposition to libertarian ideology…”
So Stern is a liberal? Maybe not. In July 2004, he told his listeners: “I’m an independent… I always vote for the best guy.”
Whatever Stern’s true political identity, there is certainly one area in which he agrees 100% with libertarians — the importance of protecting free-speech rights. Stern’s favorite radio topics are strippers, porn stars and deviant sex of all kinds. Toss in his (allegedly) racist or misogynistic comments and you have a blueprint for enormous popularity — and continuous controversy. His brand of vulgar talk has made Stern the most-fined broadcaster in history; he and his radio networks have been hit with more than $2.2 million in FCC penalties. But Stern says that’s the price of free expression. “I’m in a war, a cultural war,” he said in 2004.
The future culture warrior was born on Long Island in 1954. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in communications, and got his first job as a DJ in Westchester County, New York. He began to hone his blunt, confessional style, and subsequently moved to radio stations in Hartford, Detroit, and Washington, DC. In 1982, he made the jump to WNBC-AM in New York City, where he lasted for three years before being fired for offensiveness. He took a job at New York’s WXRK-FM, and in 1986 earned a syndication deal with Infinity Broadcasting. He quickly became the #1-rated host in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other major media markets.
By the early 1990s, there was little argument that Stern was the most popular radio personality in America, with more than 10 million listeners a week. The secret to his success? To his fans, the show is a tantalizing mixture of personal confession and envelope-pushing outrageousness. To his detractors (like Al Martinez of the Los Angeles Times), Stern is “pandering to humanity’s basest instincts.” Stern talked frankly about his married life, shared details about his personal shortcomings and discussed his love of pornography. He also interviewed celebrities, feuded with his station management and hosted lesbian “dial-a-date” episodes.
Additionally, there was his 1994 foray into politics. To this day, many debate whether Stern was serious — or whether his campaign for governor of New York was an elaborate gag. (Stern’s decision to invite a stripper to the nominating convention lent ammunition to those who saw it as a publicity stunt.) Stern encouraged his fans to join the Libertarian Party of New York so they could vote for him at the party’s nominating convention. They did, and handed him the nomination on the first ballot. If elected, Stern promised to reinstate the death penalty, stagger tolls to reduce traffic congestion and have road repair work done at night. (None were traditionally “libertarian” issues.) Four months after getting the nomination, Stern dropped out because he refused to disclose his income, as mandated by state law.
By the mid-1990s, Stern was no longer content with ruling radio and began to expand his media empire. He wrote two autobiographical books, Private Parts (1993) and Miss America (1995), which reached #1 on the bestseller lists. In 1997, Private Parts was released as a movie and grossed over $60 million. Stern also had three national television shows: The Howard Stern Interview on E! (1992–1993); the syndicated Howard Stern Radio Show (1998–2001); and Howard Stern on E! (1994–2005).
In 2004, Forbes magazines ranked him #30 on its list of the 100 Top Celebrities in America. That same year, Stern announced he had signed a five-year $500 million contract with the satellite radio broadcaster Sirius. “I’m tired of the censorship,” he said. “Every time the religious right complains about the show, they get their way. The FCC…has stopped me from doing business.” The move, effective January 2006, took Stern beyond the reach of the FCC, which lacks the power to regulate satellite radio.
– Bill Winter
“I really didn’t know much about the Libertarians. I knew they were for less government and more individual freedom. I liked that.” — Howard Stern in Miss America (Harpercollins, 1995)