In Tuesday's Washington Post, Libby Copeland insightfully explored the changes in Howard Stern's style over his decades on the air, including his recent rise as one of America's most perceptive and interesting interviewers.
This assessment of Stern's interviewing chops came as little surprise to me—for several years, I've called for Stern (and Jon Stewart) to host a presidential debate, because he is consistently well prepared, asks difficult, probing questions, and refuses to accept garbage answers.
Yet, while Copeland correctly portrays Stern as having mellowed over time and shifting his focus more towards thought-provoking (if still raunchy) interviews, we must recognize the continuities in his style. To some degree, the idea of a new or transformed Stern is overblown.
Stern's political sensibilities have always defied easy labeling (scholar Susan Douglas argued that Stern possessed an "incoherent combination of libertarian, liberal, and conservative sensibilities"). Often, observers missed Stern's liberal/libertarian proclivities in the haze of crudeness that dominated his show. They focused on sexist, racist, or homophobic remarks or characterizations, even as Stern also expressed support for liberal political causes.
Stern also has always possessed substantial tools as an interviewer. Furthermore, in another continuity, he's still asking low brow questions about people's sex lives (as Copeland discusses). So any claim that Stern has became tame, or that his show no longer resembles the program that launched him to fame would be somewhat misleading.
Nonetheless, he has clearly mellowed over the years. Several cultural and business factors likely explain this transition.
When he moved to satellite radio, Stern likely realized that he needed to adapt his program. For years, he constructed and cultivated a rebellious, shocking persona on terrestrial radio in part by challenging boundaries of propriety, conventions, and laws.
Stern battled the FCC during his final years on terrestrial radio over what he could say—often delighting in baiting regulators. But on satellite radio, the same commentary that generated massive fines for his terrestrial radio employers would no longer be forbidden fruit. Indeed, Stern sacrificed some of the allure of this content by transitioning to a forum where he could genuinely (legally) say whatever he wanted.
Undoubtedly, the astute Stern also recognizes that American culture has evolved. Americans treat the LGBT population, for example, far better than they did in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the stereotypes that Stern once marshaled would bother friends and admirers in ways that they did not twenty-five years ago (his own views might even have changed).
The other transcendent radio talent from Stern's era, Rush Limbaugh, has similarly mellowed with time. Today, Limbaugh is much more traditional political commentator, albeit with an absurdist/satirical streak, than the boundary challenging humorist that he was in his early days in national syndication. Things like Homeless Updates, AIDS updates, and miniseries trailers have faded away, replaced by more traditional commentary.
Limbaugh still broadcasts satirical bits and does the occasional imitation, but his broadcasts are far more staid and predictable today than they were in his early years.
In Limbaugh's case, advertiser and audience demands contributed to the change. Both Stern and Limbaugh also confront far greater scrutiny in the era of internet archiving of every broadcast, increased numbers of watchdogs, and social media. Age, contentment, changes in their own lifestyles, and broader cultural currents have undoubtedly also contributed to the altered product offered by both Stern and Limbaugh.
Finally, we should recognize that pushing boundaries in a fresh way would be far more difficult in a host's third decade of stardom than it was in the first. Had Stern and Limbaugh continued to churn out the sort of "scandalous" content that so enthralled listeners in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it would seem stale and anachronistic today.