Politics June 2004

Kerry’s Secret Weapon?

Hundreds of thousands of swing-state radio listeners may turn the unlikely Howard Stern into a presidential kingmaker
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Though much has been made of the recent debut of Al Franken as a liberal talk-radio host, the most important political voice on talk radio this year may turn out to be not Franken but the usually apolitical "shock jock" Howard Stern.

Recent months have not been kind to Stern, who found himself a target of the backlash against indecency that followed the baring of Janet Jackson's nipple during the Super Bowl halftime show. In February the radio behemoth Clear Channel Communications dropped him from six of its affiliates for being "vulgar, offensive and insulting." The following month the FCC slapped him with a $27,500 fine for his on-air discussions of sexual techniques such as the "nasty Sanchez" and the "blumpkin" (don't ask). As Congress considers raising obscenity fines as high as $500,000, Stern is contemplating a move to satellite radio, where the FCC couldn't touch him.

The proudly boorish host has cast himself as the target of a Republican vendetta—sparked by his criticism of President Bush and spearheaded by Clear Channel (whose CEO is a Bush family friend). So Stern is fighting back, proclaiming "radio jihad" on Bush's re-election campaign and partly remaking his show—well known for its adolescent obsession with fart jokes, lesbians, and strippers—into a platform for anti-Republican invective. "Remember me in November when you're in the voting booth," Stern tells listeners. "I'm asking you to do me one favor. Vote against Bush. That's it."

The idea of Howard Stern as presidential kingmaker may seem absurd on its face. But Stern has successfully dabbled in politics before. In 1994 he launched a Libertarian Party candidacy for governor of New York, only to quit the race and endorse George Pataki, a Republican, over the incumbent, Mario Cuomo. Stern was polling at six percent before he dropped out, and several political observers believed that his endorsement helped Pataki pull off a narrow win. The previous year Stern had endorsed the Republican candidate Christine Todd Whitman for governor of New Jersey, on the condition that Whitman name a rest stop after him if elected. Sure enough, Whitman upset the Democratic incumbent, Jim Florio—and today the Howard Stern Rest Area graces Interstate 290 just east of Burlington City, New Jersey.

Both those races took place within Stern's home market. But with eight million weekly listeners, Stern also has a larger national audience than any radio host other than Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Dr. Laura Schlessinger (the majority of whose listeners presumably tend to be Republican). Stern could sway many undecided voters, according to Michael Harrison, of Talkers magazine, a nonpartisan periodical that surveys radio listener demographics.

Harrison says that Stern has "a gigantic audience of thirty- to fortysomethings, people who have grown up with him, people who are teachers, accountants, lawyers." Several million of them "would say they lean conservative ... but are on the fence" in this race. And the host has tremendous credibility with his listeners. "He may be raunchy, edgy, dirty," Harrison says, "but he's compulsively honest, and his main target is hypocrisy." Also, it's not hard to imagine that Stern's relentless screeds against the President would compel some of the previously nonvoting members of his audience—people whom political campaigns usually ignore—to turn out for John Kerry.

In a closely divided country it may not take many votes to tilt the electoral playing field. Ohio, for instance, went for Bush by fewer than 200,000 votes in 2000, and is up for grabs this fall. Stern's broadcasts in Cincinnati and Columbus reach a total of 138,000 listeners a week, according to Arbitron, an independent firm that tracks radio audiences. Missouri and Pennsylvania are also swing states; his show reaches 139,000 in St. Louis and 358,000 in Philadelphia.

In Florida, the fiercest battleground in 2000, the Clear Channel purge cost Stern audiences in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando—which is fodder for Bush-Clear Channel conspiracy theorists. But even now Stern's show reaches 38,000 people a week in Fort Myers—seventy times Bush's Florida margin in 2000. In short, it's not inconceivable that Stern could swing a state or two into Kerry's column.

Ross Douthat is an Atlantic staff researcher.
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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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