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Archive for Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Uncensored Stern unleashed on satellite radio

January 10, 2006

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— The words tumbled out in a torrent - vulgar descriptions of body parts, bodily functions and the kinkiest sexual practices.

The speakers seemed to revel in the telling, reiterating the blue phrases like a mantra, then laughing uproariously at each repetition.

But was it funny? Was it supposed to be?

Each listener who tuned in Monday morning to Howard Stern's debut on Sirius satellite radio answered those questions individually, for humor remains as subjective as any other art form.

Yet to those who work in comedy, Stern - and those who follow him into the anything-goes realm of satellite radio - faces a steep artistic challenge. For if anyone on satellite can say anything, will audiences be amused by streams of profanity for very long?

"My experience is that unless you keep some kind of taboo, you lose the force of any kind of language," said Bernard Sahlins, co-founder of Chicago's long-standing comedy troupe Second City, interviewed before Stern's satellite debut.

"If the language becomes generally broadcast, approved, misused, it becomes meaningless. It has neither mystery nor effectiveness."

No bleeps

Though the effectiveness of Stern's freshman show on Sirius is open to debate, any sense of mystery surely was obliterated by the freedom of the medium. Because the Federal Communications Commission does not subject satellite radio to the same indecency regulations as terrestrial broadcasting, Stern and his longtime cast members blared words that would have been bleeped when he was on free radio.

In the past, the constant editing of censored words not only left listeners wondering exactly what was being said - and how outrageous the conversation was becoming - but also gave Stern something to protest. He often would rail at length about how his art was being ruined by Clear Channel Communications Inc., which pulled him from several stations last year, and the FCC, which fined the company $1.75 million for violations by him and others.

The protestations brought tension and excitement to the broadcasts, Stern likening himself to Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and other comic geniuses who were punished - in one way or another - for violating restrictions of speech that they abhorred.

With Stern and his gang free to speak as if they were broadcasting from a frat house after the beer keg has been drained, the man had no one to complain about and riffed freely in the saltiest terms imaginable. But it would be a stretch to call these soliloquies great art.

"I think he's in a bind now," said veteran comedian Richard Lewis, who appeared frequently on Stern's show on terrestrial radio, in an interview last week.

"He's already shown he has greatness," added Lewis, pointing to Stern's gifts with political and social satire and his virtuosity in defrocking pompous celebrities.

"Short of having just a radio porn movie, how far can he go?"

Quite far, judging by Monday's premiere. In one astonishingly audacious fantasy, an impersonator of David Letterman - dubbed Evil Dave - engaged in a phone-sex sketch involving descriptions of Martha Stewart and certain anatomically impossible events.

In another segment, Stern aired uncensored - possibly for the first time on radio - the explicit messages TV personality Pat O'Brien left on the voice mail of a woman last year. The event caused a media dust-up and prompted O'Brien to temporarily leave his entertainment-news TV show, "The Insider." The exact content of the messages, with specific references to sex and drugs, helped explain why.

Audiences titillated

There's no question, however, that, in the short term, at least, audiences have been intrigued by the possibility of hearing X-rated radio uncensored. New York-based Sirius announced last Thursday that it ended 2005 with more than 3.3 million subscribers, up from 1.1 million a year earlier. The firm gave a great deal of the credit to Stern, rewarding him with 34 million shares of stock worth about $220 million.

Moreover, audiences have been flocking to acquire the equipment needed to receive Stern's satellite signal. And Stern repeatedly complained on air Monday that potential listeners were having to wait up to nine hours over the weekend to sign up for Sirius accounts.

Yet apart from esthetic debates on the nature of Stern's show, many observers believe that the expressive freedom satellite radio allows ultimately will benefit the art of comedy, as articulated on the airwaves.

"Howard still wants to push the envelope, and more power to him," said Tim Clue, a veteran comic and playwright based in Chicago, last week.

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