If anyone has a right to feel on top of the world, it’s Howard Stern — especially inside his elegant, cumulus-high apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, dominated by a solariumlike living room with views on one side extending far up the Hudson and the other encompassing the entire bucolic breadth of Central Park.
This is the aerie of a hugely successful man, which certainly describes Stern. Six years ago he cashed in decades of radio notoriety when he moved to the satellite-radio service Sirius (now Sirius XM) in one of the most lucrative deals in the history of show business, with an estimated worth in the hundreds of millions of US dollars.
But when Stern says, “I feel blessed, I really feel fulfilled,” he’s talking about the sum of his career, not his salary.
And the reason he is talking about it at the moment is because his career has taken yet another turn, one he acknowledges he never expected.
“I had decided to slow down,” said Stern, who is 58, relaxing in that Imax-size living room on a couch long enough to contain his 196.6cm frame. His 10-year-old English bulldog, Bernice, a constant and beloved companion, was by his side. (Beth Ostrosky, his second wife, was out at the moment.) “I was going to semiretire. I was doing three days on the radio a week, and that was enough for me. I was trying to get into photography — like a retired guy.”
Instead, as billboards all over New York and promotions all over NBC are proclaiming, Stern has embarked on another high-profile, high-wire adventure, joining the most popular summer series on television, America’s Got Talent, as its latest judge.
There’s a certain incongruity in the move, as Stern realizes. “Me going on a family-friendly show?” he asked. (America’s Got Talent, a celebration of acts from singers to clowns to acrobats to much further afield, definitely fits that description.) “I’m not crazy. I know there’s a huge population out there that thinks I’m going to come on and ruin the show.”
As if on cue, protests from organizations like the Parents Television Council (a longtime nemesis) started even before he officially joined the show. The council issued a statement suggesting the move would result in “the alienation of millions of families, and with it the alienation of tens of millions of advertising dollars,” and last week sent a letter to 91 NBC advertisers urging a formal boycott of the show.
Stern has never really been fazed by organized opposition to his raw and rude comedy, which has been labeled everything from shocking and offensive to outrageous and groundbreaking. But this is a different time and, in many ways, a different Howard Stern.
“It would be really pathetic if I was still in the same space as when I was 20 or 30, when I felt threatened by everyone, and there was no room for anyone else on the radio,” he said. “I’ve come to appreciate other people’s talents.”
That would include competitors Stern once eviscerated. “I’ve actually apologized to some people I was a real jerk to, because I feel ashamed,” he said. “I didn’t need to be that hungry. There was something going on inside me when I was angry and feeling very threatened and not feeling good about myself.”
Even so, he conceded having “a lot of trepidation” about joining America’s Got Talent (though he noted that he has often appeared on network television, on programs like Late Show With David Letterman, and within the bounds of propriety). “This is a show that’s already successful,” Stern said. “I’ve never come into anything successful before. I’ve always been hired by horrible radio stations with horrendous reputations and nothing to lose.”