Howard Stern and AMERICAN IDOL: When Worlds Collide!

As a long-time fan of both THE HOWARD STERN SHOW and AMERICAN IDOL I’ve been following with supreme interest the recent, somewhat surreal head-on collision between these two pop-culture phenomena as rumors persist that the self-anointed King of All Media may take over Simon Cowell’s soon-to-be-vacant judge’s seat on IDOL.

The IDOL connection is of course nothing new to Stern’s loyal army of paid listeners (among whom I count myself); he’s long been an avid IDOL watcher and regularly devotes lengthy portions of his own show to deliciously excoriating both its contestants and judges - which of course makes for great radio. As an aside, I’d just like to say I admire the fact that the world’s first - and still its pre-eminent - shock jock, whose career was built on a reputation as the sworn enemy of anything safe and mainstream, has been refreshingly honest and unapologetic about his changing sensibilities as he’s gotten older. Instead of trying to cling on to some wild rock’n’roll image that at his age he can no longer pull off, Stern happily talks about how these days he prefers a quiet night at home in front of the TV with a hot cup of cocoa. The man admits to watching THE BACHELOR, for crying out loud – uh, not that there’s anything wrong with that (Jake, what were you thinking?)

To my mind at least, Stern’s razor-sharp understanding of what makes AMERICAN IDOL work as a TV show and the sky-high entertainment value of his brutally candid opinions make him the obvious successor to Cowell. Stern is absolutely right when he talks about Cowell as the only IDOL judge with any credibility and the chief reason for the show’s success. There’s a reason why Simon’s opinion is typically saved for last: it’s the only one that means anything. Every week we wait patiently for the other makeweight judges to finish blowing smoke up the contestants’ asses so we can watch Cowell eviscerate them with the cold truth of what everyone is thinking but no-one else has the balls to say. Without Cowell the show is nothing; in a recent poll more than 60% of IDOL viewers said they’d quit watching if Cowell left. Now that he’s doing exactly that, to start his own rival show, Fox is in a panic as the wheels threaten to come off their ratings juggernaut. Their only hope is to find someone as acerbic, as unflinching – ultimately, as watchable – as Cowell. I personally don’t think there’s any candidate who fits that bill better than Stern, a larger-than-life personality in the unique position to not only replace Cowell but actually go one better with a brand of judgmental invective that could have hapless contestants wishing for the good old days of Simon.

And though he’d surely never admit it publicly, I suspect Stern secretly craves a return to the mainstream. Aside from the fact that a guy as media-savvy as he has to know that satellite radio is a moribund medium, soon to be rendered obsolete by the inevitability of wireless internet saturation, it must surely irk him that he simply doesn’t have the far-reaching pop-culture footprint he did during his unprecedented dominance of conventional radio. Then, he was a household name; he still is today but based more on the lingering infamy of those terrestrial glory days than his current, far more limited cultural impact – these days Stern’s name is only mentioned or his voice heard by anyone outside the walled garden of his satellite show when his name is linked with a genuine mass-media phenomenon like IDOL. All these recent rumors have resulted in a resurgence of mainstream interest in Stern which he’s clearly relishing – and which I think might be reminding him of how much he misses being at the very center of America’s pop-culture zeitgeist. And while satellite radio’s subscriber model allows Stern an unprecedented level of editorial freedom, free from censorship and beyond the FCC’s fine-imposing reach, wasn’t breaking the rules and pissing off the establishment always part of Stern’s notorious appeal, part of what made him such a controversial, headline-making figure in the first place? What does it matter if you can say “fuck” on-air if the only people listening are those guaranteed not to be offended? Where’s the fun in that?

 For all his on-air bluster about how much he doesn’t care whether or not he winds up as a judge on some “karaoke show”, the chance for Stern to use an established platform like IDOL to reclaim his mainstream relevance while re-asserting his credentials as a media rebel by severely rocking the boat once he got there (as he no doubt would) is surely too good an opportunity for his ego to pass up. The only question now is, which karaoke show? Despite all the rumor-mongering about IDOL, that’s looking like an increasingly remote prospect if only because Stern’s frequent and increasingly venomous pronouncements about DeGeneres, Seacrest and pretty much everyone else currently involved with the show has surely created an atmosphere in which it would be almost impossible for him to go there without the producers re-casting the entire judging panel around him – which might not be such a bad thing, actually. 

But now the plot thickens still further with the emergence of this latest rumor that Stern has been trading phone calls with Simon Cowell about his new show which is currently being set up in direct opposition to IDOL. For those unfamiliar with the history, after Cowell rose to fame in the UK as a judge on POP IDOL, the British progenitor of the American version, he defected to set up his own more lucrative rival version, THE X-FACTOR – essentially the same show with a few minor changes in format. Fueled by Cowell’s presence, THE X-FACTOR now reigns as the UK’s #1 TV show while POP IDOL has long been relegated to the trashcan of history. The same now threatens to happen all over again on this side of the pond.

Cowell is shrewd enough to recognize that a Stern-powered IDOL would be the greatest threat to his new venture’s success. Better to have Stern inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, and since Cowell is currently scouting for his own X-FACTOR judging panel, why not hire Stern and deny IDOL its best shot at staying interesting? This seems the most likely scenario, but the outcome beyond that could go either way. Is there any judging panel on the planet large enough to accommodate the XXXL-sized egos of both Stern and Cowell? Would Cowell really be willing to tolerate a situation where he’s no longer the show’s “alpha”, and can you really see Stern playing second fiddle to anyone? If Stern and Cowell do indeed join forces, the volatility of that pairing once the cameras start rolling will either be a recipe for TV gold or the greatest train wreck since [insert recent NBC show of your choice here]. Either way, I will be watching.

GARY WHITTA is the former Editor-in-Chief of PC GAMER magazine and the writer of THE BOOK OF ELI, now in theaters.

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