Radio: Big Mouths

Populist and popular, radio's right-wing pundit and gross-out wild man have new mega-best sellers

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But Stern's infamous specialty is mean-spirited, horrendously tasteless, occasionally racist lampoons. It's he, not Limbaugh, who uses outrageous put- downs and salty language, right? Such as calling a former U.S. Senator "Alan ('the Cadaver') Cranston" and Perot "a hand grenade with a bad haircut." It's Stern, surely, who used to do an on-air stunt with vacuum- cleaner sound effects dubbed "caller abortions," who chatted with a female caller about giving him "a throat massage" with her tongue, whose current newsletter article on health-care reform is headlined BEND OVER, AMERICA, and who just last week on the radio delivered a parody ad for mail- order bricks from L.A. to be used as rioters' weapons, talked about a "drunk penis" and the "scumbags" who get newspaper coverage, and said, "Damn! Damn! Hell! Hell!" Pure Stern . . . ?

In fact, of course, all those were Limbaugh. Such antics constitute a rather small part of his shtick (rather than a majority, as with Stern, who goes much further than Limbaugh would ever dream of, playing "Butt Bongo" and regularly sending out a stuttering hanger-on to ask celebrities rude questions). But it is a good part of what makes Limbaugh so much more successful than more ordinary conservative radio personalities -- indeed, what makes him the most popular broadcast commentator of the age, maybe ever. "I look at this," Limbaugh has said repeatedly, "as entertainment."

Aside from Hollywood producer Don Simpson (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun), who says that "Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are the only two voices of truth in the media," the same individuals who like and admire Limbaugh are probably very seldom the same individuals who like and admire Stern. But just who are they? And why is each audience so fetched by its man? "All those 20 million people are not some kind of Nazis," Mary Matalin says of her fellow dittoheads. "What's really homogeneous about them is not their party affiliation but their mistrust of those they elect to lead them, mistrust of institutional media, inaccessibility to the system." Sounds not unlike Stern's fans, who, according to Robin Quivers, his radio sidekick of 12 years, "feel he's speaking for them. They're voices unheard. They're the hardworking people who pay all the taxes, and they've seen their life-style eroded."

They are temperamentally and often literally Perot voters. Limbaugh says when he started calling Perot a fraud and worse during last year's campaign, "the hate mail I was getting was the most I'd ever received. And it was scary -- 'You represent to us exactly what Perot represents.' "

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