The Howard Stern Effect

WHAT ANY LEADER CAN LEARN FROM AMERICA’S #1 SHOCK JOCK

I have something to confess. Though few might suspect, I’ve been a devoted Howard Stern fan since I first started listening to him back in the 80's. To be honest, I think he’s one of the most brilliant entertainers today. But it’s not just because he’s controversial or outrageous. I believe that his ongoing success is due to his great leadership qualities that I’d like to share today because I think all can learn from him. Now for you Stern-haters and non-listeners out there, please hold your judgment until you read what I have to say.

For those who don’t know Howard Stern, he invented shock jock radio in the early-80’s and is the self-proclaimed “king of all media”. For many years, The Howard Stern Radio Show was the #1 show in NYC on WNBC and WXRK before brazenly moving to Sirius Satellite Radio in 2006. His platform is to speak openly and honestly about what’s on his mind no matter how taboo, personal, or uncomfortable. He’s also a lover of music and entertainment and he frequently interviews musicians and celebrities. Some of his top accomplishments include:

  • He’s responsible (estimate) for over $150 million per year in revenue and since he signed with Sirius XM, their stock is up 35%
  • He starred in his own hit movie – Private Parts - and is the author of two best selling books
  • He created the reality show genre long before reality shows were even a thought in TV programmers minds
  • Since 2012, he’s been a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, one of the top rated shows of the summer
  • In August 2013 and 2014, Howard shared first place on Forbes' list of America's highest-paid television personalities with $95 million

But as I listen to Howard today versus 25 years ago, I realize how substantially he and the show have changed. Sure, he’ll still talk about porn and bathroom humor but he’s matured, as has his show. In the early years, Howard was fighting for acceptance and for people to take him seriously. He was always battling with the FCC over show content and at best, most of his guests were B or C level. But Howard and his show have evolved from its shock-jock past. The outrageous stunts are still there, but in an age of over-the-top media, it is his daring and intelligent interview style that has become the show's true cornerstone. And this evolution of Howard and the show leads me to why Howard is a visionary that any business leader can learn from.

He is the embodiment of commitment to his craft. He could have moved permanently to TV and/or movies many times but he knows his strengths and how to capitalize on them. For 32 years, he‘s been waking up at 4AM to produce 4-5 hours of programming five days/week. He’s so committed to making the show the best that rather than stay on terrestrial radio and continually clash with the FCC about the show’s content, he took the chance and moved to unproven satellite radio in 2006 to produce the show he’s always wanted to produce, free from the constraints of the FCC.

He loves his fans and they love him. He’s also very loyal to his fans. He knows his audience and caters to their needs every day, which makes him a great marketer. He has profound respect for his listeners, never talks down to them and never misses a show and this is repaid with an almost cult-like loyalty. In today’s world of customization where consumers rule and brands need to listen and create a two-way dialogue, Howard’s show is all about connecting with fans. He’s honest, authentic and relatable and his fans love him for it.

He values his team and recognizes true talent. His core team – Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Gary Dell ‘Abate and Ronnie “The Limo Driver” Mund – have all been with Howard and remained loyal since the beginning and that speaks volumes about his leadership style. However, when team members do leave the show, his ability to replace them with talent that takes the show to the next level exemplifies his strong vision for his brand. For instance, when Jackie “The “Jokeman” Martling left and was replaced by Artie Lange, the show never missed a beat. This is a testament to his understanding of his fan base and his ability to bring in fresh talent who improve the show while remaining true to its core tenets.

He empowers his team and is confident enough to share the glory. Radio is a team sport and Howard knows that his show works because of the unique, personal connections he and his team have with the listeners. Like any good leader, he’s not afraid to share the spotlight with his co-hosts and talent to make the show better. Where else could the characters Baba Booey, Beetlejuice, Fred the Elephant Boy and Eric the Midget become celebrities? They are celebrities because Howard made them relatable characters his listeners care about and want to hear from every day.

He’s a creative and constant innovator. He is willing to take chances to better his career and the show, but never deviate from his core brand. For example, he:

  • Was the 1st radio DJ to have a TV show (channel 9 in NYC)
  • Was the 1st radio DJ to produce a pay-per-view event
  • Was not afraid to fight with the FCC to push the bounds of his content which made him look like an underdog fighting the big, bad government, ultimately driving awareness (and ratings) for the show
  • Made the risky move to satellite radio in 2006 where he could produce a better show and like any good leader, he had the intuition to know the majority of his fan base would follow him, and they did
  • Joined America’s Got Talent in 2012 to increase his profile on national TV ultimately introducing a new generation of fans to his show

The innovation has continued as the show has evolved with the key focus now being the interview. Howard is one of the best interviewers in the business. He makes his guests feel surprisingly comfortable and take their guards down, and then picks just the right moments to catch them off guard with highly revealing questions that no one else could ask. He injects humor, but also knows when to get serious or even poignant. Above all, he has an incredible talent for sensing when his audience is getting bored and knows how to direct the conversation and guests accordingly. And his guests seem to agree because just in the past few weeks, he’s interviewed Jim Carrey, Amy Poehler, Angus Young, Steve Carell, Graham Nash, Martin Short and Russell Brand. Not bad.

He’ a brilliant communicator. To entertain an audience as much as he does every week, you have to be a great communicator. But more importantly, his key to amazing communication is that he truly listens. He listens to what his fans want and gives it to them every day. And, as a great interviewer, he has to simultaneously listen to and direct the conversation and Howard does this as well as anyone in the business. It’s a key reason why A-list guests are flocking to his show, feeling comfortable that his interviewing style will allow them to shine and provide human insights to the listeners.

He inspires his team and his fans. Strong leaders inspire their team to do their best work and based on the loyalty of his staff and his fans, Howard has achieved this big time. Howard leads by example with his work ethic, fostering an empowering and creative environment for his team to do their best work. Beyond that, he’s not afraid to show his human side and showcase his own awkwardness and insecurities. Leaders are not afraid to be vulnerable and while Howard talking about his small penis is funny, deep down he’s sharing something very personal about himself to his listeners, which is both endearing and inspirational. He might be a multi-millionaire but he is the everyman and that’s why his staff and his fans love him and remain loyal to the show.

So after reading this, I don’t expect everyone to become the Howard Stern fan that I am but I hope the next time (or the first time) you listen to Howard, you have more respect for what he’s accomplished and realize what a great leader he really is. At the very least, the show is really funny so let Howard entertain you on your next commute.

Follow me on Twitter: JFMousseau

Sources: Maria Guidice: Leadership Lessons from Howard …..Howard Stern 2/21/12; Jeff Haden: 7 Things Howard Stern Can Teach You About Business 2/9/11; Tanya Prive: Top 10 Qualities That Make A Great Leader 12/19/12