Dateline: August 25, 1997

Give Howard Stern A Chance.
An Editorial From The Montreal Gazette.

Radio talk show host Howard Stern may be obnoxious, objectionable, gross and offensive. But those who would run him out of Montreal before his New York-based talk-show makes it's local debut Sept. 2 are not only guilty of political correctness, they have little understanding of the value of freedom of expression in our society.

Yes, Mr. Stern breaks all the taboos. He's been known to crack jokes about miscarriages, offer tips on masturbation, pass wind on the air, talk about the size of his penis, and his voyeuristic lesbian fantasies. It's a sophomoric, tasteless brand of humor. It doesn't deserve respect, or even attention, but it does deserve at least the chance to be heard.

The commercial market, the libel laws and the broadcasting regulations will determine the success or failure of Mr. Stern's show in Canada. So far, he's a runaway hit in the U.S., where an estimated 20 million Americans in 35 cities each day tune into his syndicated radio show. But his outrageous remarks have resulted in more than $1.7 million in legal judgments against him. CHOM-FM, the Montreal station that will carry Mr. Stern's show, would be well advised to take out extra libel insurance.

Canadian audiences in Windsor, Ont., were first exposed to the self-styled Shock Jock when Mr. Stern returned to the air in Detroit last February. Although the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement does not rate the impact of U.S. stations on Canadian markets, industry sources agree that largely because of the curiosity factor, Mr. Stern has drawn listeners from all 32 stations on both sides of border in the competitive Windsor-Detroit market. CHOM-FM is gambling he'll do the same thing here.

In other markets, the Howard Stern show begins slowly, and builds ratings incrementally adding to its audience bit by bit. But will this snowball effect be duplicated in Montreal? Mr. Stern will not be the first to attempt to stretch the bounds of decency in this city. Radio listeners, especially French radio audiences, have been exposed to shamelessly outrageous hosts like André Arthur for years. It is precisely because the city is so tolerant that CHOM-FM has added Mr. Stern to its programming. Executives at the station's head office in Toronto have said they felt Montreal would be more receptive to new ideas and could deal with Mr. Stern's antics better than those in Toronto.

But it's also true that a lot of what passes for sensationalism on the other side of the border might be considered sophomoric in a sophisticated city like Montreal. Then too, freedom of speech isn't interpreted as broadly in Canada as it is in the United States. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission has rules against anything on the air that might incite hatred "on the basis of race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation or physical disabilities." Mr. Stern could run afoul of those regulations here with his often misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic rants.

Surveys show most of his listeners are males between the ages of 21 and 50. Diehard fans swear by him for what they consider his frankness and fearless honesty. They regard him as someone who fights hypocrisy without censoring himself. His detractors consider him a purveyor of hate, racism and sexism, another unwelcome intrusion of lewd and crude American junk culture.

Mr. Stern himself contends he's harmless. "Don't be afraid of words," he has said, "and don't be afraid of what's different." Montrealers have embraced that attitude for years and are no strangers to arguments of all sorts.

 

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©1997 The Montreal Gazette.