Howard Stern's Partner Explains Why, Oh, Why : Forget the critics--Robin Quivers says her presence as sidekick is proof that the host's outrageous act isn't meant to be taken so literally

Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer.

She's bright, articulate, well-educated--and she works as the sidekick to raunchy radio personality Howard Stern.

The question frequently asked of Robin Quivers is "Why?"

Why would she choose to be partnered with a comedian who has been accused of being sexist and racist? Why does she sit there and take it while Stern makes jokes about women, blacks and other minorities?

"I chose to jump on the bandwagon with someone I felt to be incredibly creative, and we do a comedy show," Quivers explains. "It was simply that he was incredibly talented. I knew he was different from anything else I'd ever heard on radio and I wanted to be around that. He was not the run-of-the-mill disc jockey. He was definitely not the kind of guy who just played records and told you the weather."

That was three stations and 12 years ago, in Washington, D.C. Quivers has been at Stern's side throughout his rise from obscurity to major media star, as the top-rated--and most controversial--morning radio host in both Los Angeles and New York.

Now she is basking in the reflected notoriety and hoping to parlay it into something of her own.

"I have been there for the entire evolution," she says proudly. "I helped him become who he is. I'm a partner in this--this crime." The latter remark is punctuated with one of her trademark raucous laughs.

Quivers' role on the broadcast, heard locally on KLSX-FM (97.1) and in nine other cities, extends well beyond simply laughing at the boss's jokes.

She delivers "newscasts" that provide the essential jumping-off points for Stern's provocative comments and often politically incorrect, sometimes brutally honest opinions about celebrities, public figures, criminals and the current state of society.

Quivers also joins in his merrymaking, reacting bemusedly to such trademark Stern features as "Lesbian Dial-a-Date" and "Butt Bongo" (in which women are spanked to the beat of a song), and chiming in on Stern's tirades about his detractors. And occasionally, she takes the wind out of his bluster with a good-natured rebuke.

"Oh, you're wacky," she told him one day recently when he was sounding off on why John McEnroe was right to split with Tatum O'Neal because she wanted to pursue her acting career instead of staying home with their three children. And when he took up the subject again the following day, calling O'Neal immature, Quivers quipped, "Here he goes again--like he's a grown-up!"

"I feel that I'm a cohort, an instigator, the audience," Quivers reflected in an interview. "It depends. I can take any number of roles depending on what the situation is. People say, 'Well, I like it because now you're challenging him more. I think that's really good.' I say, 'I was? I'd better stop. I didn't mean to.' It's simply however I feel that day."

It's less what Quivers does, however, than the fact that she is there at all that makes her a focal point in the debate over whether Stern's show is fun and frivolous or indecent and insulting. Stern's supporters contend that, as an African-American woman, her presence is proof that his outrageous comments aren't meant to be taken seriously. Critics argue just the opposite--that by being party to his act, she is validating it.

Stern was complaining about life in New York City. "It's like living in Africa," he insisted.

"Oh, you," Quivers interjected. "You don't even see any black people!"--a reference to the fact that he lives on Long Island and commutes in a limousine.

This, in the view of Stern's supporters, is Quivers' most valuable function--gently taking the host to task for his assumptions or his glib remarks or his inconsistencies in how he chooses to remember events. (Stern, who avoids giving interviews, could not be reached for comment.)

"At her best, Robin's role is that of the adult on the show and, as such, at times she serves as the surrogate for the people in the audience who skew somewhat away from Howard's point of view," said Dan O'Day, an independent radio programming consultant based in Santa Monica.

"I seriously doubt whether anybody said, 'Let's put a black female on to help soften the blow,' but it certainly helps to have that effect. If Howard is saying something that some would think was derogatory to blacks, it helps that a black woman is in the room to either counteract his remarks or at the very least to provide a perspective he doesn't have. It makes it a lot more palatable than if they had two white guys in the room."

But the National Organization for Women sees Quivers as aiding and abetting Stern's misogynist agenda.

"We're not gaining anything because this young woman is being lauded for talking back," said Tammy Bruce, president of NOW's Los Angeles chapter. ". . . Women are being bashed on a daily basis on that show regardless of their exchange. (Quivers) is portrayed as an onlooker, as a cohort, as a caretaker. That reinforces the message that this is not wrong, reinforces the attitude that women enjoy this and think it's funny."

Quivers is an amiable woman who clearly prefers joking around to getting on a soapbox. But when challenged, she tackles the issues head on, point by point.

She vehemently denies suggestions by Bruce and others that she is at Stern's side because of a calculated strategy to exploit her gender and ethnicity.

"I really don't think that my blackness or my femaleness has anything to do with me being on the show," she said. "All I can tell you is that he heard a tape of me but he never saw me (before she came on the show in 1980). No one ever really discussed my ethnicity at the time we were thinking of putting this together. It certainly wasn't calculated in the sense that anybody knew what Howard did at the time, because he wasn't the Howard Stern he is today."

As for the argument that her presence somehow validates Stern's attitudes toward women: "I see it as exactly the opposite," Quivers said. "I'm a woman who sits there and says, 'You don't have to please a man, you can be exactly who you are.' But I don't have to try to seek their approval. There are all these women who say, 'I wanted to meet Howard, so I'll come in and take my top off.' I sit there as an example of how you don't have to be that every day."

She stresses that those women who choose to acquiesce to Stern's requests to spank them or to bare their breasts do so willingly. "I thought the women's movement was so that women would have a choice to be who they want to be," she said. "I'm going to continue being who I am."

Stern, she said, is simply a comedian for whom no one and nothing is sacred.

"Howard didn't create the world; Howard is a product of it," Quivers said. "And I don't really think he's a misogynist. I think he's looking (at women) on a very surface level. But just because someone says something, they might be doing it for effect. It doesn't mean that's how they live their lives. . . . He's not like that off the air. He's just a quiet, shy, retiring guy who likes to go home and be with his family. . . . There's a lot of understanding, a lot of communication that goes on between us, and I don't think people who are that set in their ways are that open to discussion. And not only that, but there are many times I've changed his mind and gotten him to admit that he's wrong."

She is equally adamant in defending herself as an African-American.

"Usually what I get is, 'Oh, she must be a self-hating black to sit there while this or that is being said,' " Quivers said. "The truth of the matter is that there is racism in this country. I have the contention that if you were born in America, you are a racist. So if I'm not going to be in the company of racists, I'm not going to be in the company of anyone. There's a lot of hypocrisy in all of this. People say, 'You shouldn't be there.' Well, where should I be?, because it exists around the world."

Quivers said she does not find Stern's discussion of people's sex lives or his sexually oriented antics offensive: "Quite often I find a lot of things too ludicrous to even be believed. I think, 'Why would you challenge that? That's so ludicrous.' "

Nor does she take umbrage at his racial barbs.

"Why would I get offended? This is not happening just on the radio," she said. "I would be offended every day of my life. You don't think I don't walk down the street and hear people say the word nigger ? You think the only person doing this is Howard Stern? You walk down the street, you get wolf whistles. This is the world. That's what we're presenting. This is the one we live in. This is the one we've made.

Rather than being offended all the time, you better start dealing with it. You can sit around and be offended all day long but that doesn't change a darn thing. I don't base my opinion or my definition of who I am on the feelings and beliefs of other people. I don't get offended because somebody tells a joke or uses the word nigger or adheres to a stereotypical characterization of people. I think that's a definition of who they are."

In any case, Quivers believes that critics take her and the show too literally. She approaches her work as a performer taking on a prescribed role.

"There's a character on that show and that person doesn't relate as a black person necessarily, or as a woman," Quivers said. "She relates on a whole different level. I'm not that person on the air. A lot of her qualities and my qualities are very similar. It's like a person who plays a role and says, 'Yes, there's a lot of me in that person.' She's much more together than I am, much more self-assured, much more aware. She can't be thrown. She's definitely not a real person. It's a persona, and every once in a while she cracks and I come through. But most of the time it's her."

So just who is the real Robin Quivers?

"I grew up in the South and I was told that all whites wanted to rip my heart out and not to go near them," Quivers said with tongue in cheek.

Actually, Quivers--who will only give her age as being close to that of Stern, who is 38--said that she grew up in a middle-class Baltimore neighborhood and that many of her neighbors were white and Jewish. She enjoyed school but wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her education.

"I was like one of those clueless people. I had no idea what I should be doing," Quivers said. "I bumbled around and I hadn't declared a major my first couple years of college and they told me in my sophomore year, 'You have to declare a major.' I thought, 'Gee, I just want to keep going.' Who wants to stop? I mean, out there's the real world where you have to get a job. I thought, 'Well, I know you can always get a job as a nurse so I guess I'll go do that.' "

She graduated from the University of Maryland in 1974 but became disillusioned with nursing after a few years and enlisted in the Air Force. "I went to see the world and they sent me to Ohio," Quivers said with her signature laugh.

After that, she dabbled in sales and bummed around with actor friends in San Francisco. Then she returned to Baltimore and enrolled in broadcasting school, with an eye toward breaking into television. But she chose radio because the people "always sounded like they were having a good time."

She began her radio career in 1980 as a news anchor-reporter at a small station in Pennsylvania, then did another short stint as a consumer-affairs reporter in Baltimore. Later that year, she began working with Stern at WWDC-FM/AM in Washington, delivering short newscasts during his show.

Initially, Quivers was like many other bit players on zany morning radio shows--reading the news, sharing a quip or two with the host, then exiting. It worked well enough that she moved with Stern to WNBC-FM in New York City in 1982. But she wasn't content with her limited role.

"I'd come in and do the news and we'd carry on for a few minutes about something and then I'd be gone," Quivers said. "And then WNBC came into the picture and they kept tinkering and tinkering and tinkering. I don't know what they thought they were trying to do. . . . At that point Howard could talk to me before a commercial or after a commercial, but he couldn't talk to me both times, and there were a set number of times he could talk to me during the week, and there was somebody out in the hall checking them off every time I opened my mouth.

"I finally said: 'This is ridiculous.' I just figured, 'One of us has to get fired to make some changes around here, and I guess it's me.' So I came into the studio one day and I never left. I was fully expecting them to walk down the hall and fire me. And they never came in. And consequently that's how I got to be this co-host. It was not by design. It was really to force an issue."

After three years at WNBC, the show moved to Stern's present flagship station, WXRK-FM in New York, where his show originates. Although there is a cast of about half a dozen other people on the program, Quivers plays the largest role next to Stern. Because she is the only woman, some have likened her to the baby-sitter for a bunch of pre-pubescent boys, or as wise Marge Simpson to Stern's bumbling Homer. Quivers sees it a bit differently: "I would probably characterize it as Wendy and Peter Pan and the Lost Boys."

Quivers now says she hopes to parlay her radio success to television, either by having her own show or contributing regularly to an established program. She says she has also been approached about writing for magazines.

But she has no plans to leave Stern's radio show.

"People have often said, 'I don't know how you put up with him,' " Quivers said. "Man, we're having the best time. There's nothing to put up with. It's like a club, you know? And this is our meeting and you get to listen in. This is what goes on in the meeting. And we're just having a royal time. These are the people we'd hang out with, even if we weren't doing radio."

So when she gets the chance, does she--a self-described "single chick living in New York"--socialize with Stern, the self-avowed family man? "Unfortunately, we do radio, so we don't hang out together," she says with another laugh.

But when the heat is on and protests of the Stern show intensify and the Federal Communications Commission cites his stations for indecent broadcasting, does she ever wish she were back in the lower-profile world of nursing?

"I think I heal a lot more people with humor than I ever could by laying on my hands in a one-on-one situation," Quivers said. "This is truly where I was meant to be. It's wonderful when people tell me, 'I was getting a divorce and I was at my wits' end then I turned on your show and you guys made me laugh.' That's a very rewarding thing."

Still, fending off the critical onslaughts gets tiresome.

"I'm an entertainer. Why should I have to deal with all these weighty kinds of things like 'Are you undermining the role of women in culture'? I would just like to be seen as an entertainer. We give a lot of people a few laughs every day; we get them through the day and through traffic."

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