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Putting Howard Stern’s Audience on the Couch

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

My fans . . . they’re not idiots.

--Howard Stern, on Tuesday’s program

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Radio surveys tell us that the typical listeners of Howard Stern are white and male. Psychologists add that they are also mad as hell.

Stern, of course, is best known for having transformed the act of slapping young women’s exposed backsides to the beat of Led Zeppelin songs into a form of pubescent performance art, and for browbeating gays, women and ethnic minorities as gleefully as Pat Buchanan did at the 1992 Republican Convention.

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His new book, “Private Parts,” has become the fastest-selling book in its publisher’s history, and he has inspired near-pandemonium at book signings to an extent that he announced, on Monday’s show, that he would cancel all future scheduled signings (including one in Los Angeles, where his show on KLSX-FM, 97.1, has consistently been on, or near, the top of the morning drive time ratings).

Critics are violently divided on whether Stern himself is an inspired satirist leading a kicking-and-screaming America into necessary debates of difficult subjects or an ill-informed, politically rudderless buffoon hiding behind the First Amendment. But what about his fans, who are clearly numerous and extraordinarily loyal? A Nov. 1 Time magazine cover story described Stern’s listeners as “people from the broad American middle-class--small-businessmen, taxi drivers, working stiffs who unapologetically enjoy action movies. . . .”

Ann Panofsky, a psychologist in private practice, compared Stern’s most empathetic audience members to those who likewise responded to “Falling Down,” last spring’s white-rage drama with Michael Douglas as the film’s tragically befuddled protagonist, D-FENS.

“Both appeal to people who are feeling threatened right now,” she said. “Like the character in that movie, (Stern’s listeners) are feeling that women are taking over, that minorities are taking over. If they’re suffering in this recession, white males enjoy hearing other groups getting knocked down when they’re feeling vulnerable. Howard Stern says what they feel but feel they can’t say.”

Stuart Fischoff, media psychologist at Cal State Los Angeles, said that Stern himself can be compared to D-FENS, only with longer hair and cooler eyewear.

“The anger in society is similar in both characters,” he said. “But it’s safer to support Howard Stern than a real-life Michael Douglas character. Because it’s presented with humor with Howard Stern, as opposed to the theatrical presentation in ‘Falling Down,’ it bypasses the usual sensibilities and social censors that society has. If I say that Mexicans are lazy cretins, you’d think, that’s terrible to say something like that. But if Howard Stern tells a Mexican joke, you laugh, even if it’s transmitting the same information. Humor subverts social consciousness.

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“These are ugly times, and ugly times need ugly celebrities.”

Linda Beal, a marriage-family-child therapist, is philosophical about Stern’s anti-PC campaign. “Political correctness was something that was a long time in coming, but it tends to be terribly strident, so the reaction to it needs to be equally strident.”

Fischoff said of the people he knows who listen to Stern’s show, “They’re all well-educated, highly paid--and they’re all angry. Howard Stern taps into that anger. . . . He’s tapped into a kind of moral cancer in our society, and he’s working it well.”

Ellen McGrath, president-elect of the American Psychological Assn.’s division of media psychology, is less alarmed by Stern: “These days it’s fashionable to put him down, yet the same people who are attacking him are also listening, probably on the sly.

“Rather than money or class, (his show is) about power. He has become a lightning rod for people who feel too powerless against the changes in society being wrought.

“Howard Stern tells them, it’s OK to be a bad boy or a bad girl. He exercises the power to be outrageous, he says what he wants, and he makes a lot of money. He’s saying, ‘Look, you can be a bad boy, be who you are and still have control over your destiny.’ That’s an appealing message to a lot of people.

“He says you can be a white man and can break out, break free,” McGrath continued. “A number of men are suffering more than they used to, and it’s not just economic hardships they’re experiencing, but emotional ones. They bought into the models that dictated how they should behave in society, and now they’re finding them emotionally bankrupt. . . . Howard Stern tells them, ‘You were sold a bill of goods--you were taught to be a worker, a provider, and look where it got you.’ ”

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As for Stern’s First Amendment martyrdom, “people give him more credit that he deserves,” Fischoff asserted. “He begins to present himself as a political, social figure, which is the furthest thing from what he was when he started out.

“(When something comes under fire), people suddenly decide to ennoble what they’re saying, to give it a social agenda. People are just spewing this stuff out without thinking and eventually they take it very seriously.”

On the other hand, Lilli Friedland, a psychologist in private practice, does believe that Stern is “an important cultural phenomenon,” but not necessarily to the advantage of his audience.

“People today are looking for quick answers. A quick fix for frustrations is to release some kind of emotional expletive, and it’s gonna make you feel OK. But people are doing this instead of addressing the real problem, and the quick fix becomes less satisfactory over time.”

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