As the race for the White House gathers steam, there's a segment of voters suddenly drawing more attention than soccer moms or NASCAR dads: Howard Stern fans.
"[The Howard Stern vote] will have more of an effect than the Nader vote," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
In recent weeks, the syndicated radio icon has launched an all-out assault on President George W. Bush, calling on his loyal audience of millions to vote Bush out of office in November.
Stern, who had applauded Bush for his decision to launch military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, began criticizing the president several weeks ago for the controversy surrounding his National Guard duty and his opposition to gay marriage and stem-cell research.
The jock's criticism intensified when the Federal Communications Commission placed Stern at the center of its investigation into broadcast indecency. (Coincidentally, Stern was last fined by the FCC in December 1992, when Bush's father, George Herbert Walker Bush, was in the final days of his presidency.)
The jock then became irate when late last month radio giant Clear Channel Communications dropped his show from its six stations that had carried the program, citing a self-imposed crackdown on indecent material. Stern argued that Clear Channel's move was motivated not by indecent content, but by his anti-Bush statements. Clear Channel chairman and CEO Lowry Mays and his family have made significant financial contributions to Bush's campaigns dating back to his days as governor of Texas.
Following those moves, Stern has cranked up the volume, claiming that the FCC investigation is another example of Bush "pushing the agenda of the religious right" and telling his audience, "Payback is a bitch. Everyone who loves this show should vote Bush out of office."
The usual Stern parade of freaks, oddballs, and wannabe Playboy Playmates has dried up over the past four weeks as Stern devotes increasing amounts of his airtime to what he has called his "radio jihad." At his kindest Stern has called Bush a "religious nut" and a "Jesus freak," and at his worst he has likened Bush's administration to the Taliban.
"There's only one thing you can do," said Stern. "Remember me in November when you're in the voting booth. I'm asking you to do me one favor. Vote against Bush. That's it."
The radio personality has even taken the fight to his Web site, which previously contained only a solitary photo but now includes a "required reading" list of articles about the indecency crackdown and columns in support of Stern.
Some dismiss Stern's statements as whining or a ratings stunt, but he insists his motives are genuine. And while that may be debatable, his impact can't be denied. The jock's daily morning show is syndicated to more than 30 markets, and a reported 8 million listeners tune in each week (reps for Stern and his show would not confirm the size of his audience). Most of those listeners are white males, a voting segment that recent polls show is cooling on President Bush.
"For these guys, the issues haven't been framed in a way that makes sense to them," Felling said. "If he asks his listeners to go out on election day, they will go. These guys are highly suggestible. They'll strip for a 12-pack of Powerade."
There's no doubt that Stern's audience is dedicated, and the controversial jock has proven his clout in the past. Both New York Governor George Pataki and former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman got a boost in their campaigns thanks to Stern's support.
This time out, he's found supporters in Congress, including Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman of New York, who weighed in on the House floor, saying, "The issue is that he is beginning to speak out against the president and the administration, and he is paying the price because of the pressure on the media by the president and his media cronies."
So far, however, the Bush camp — at least publicly — isn't making much of Stern's attacks. The Republican National Committee would not comment when contacted by MTV News.
The Bush campaign may not be paying much mind, but Stern's loyal army of followers seem to be getting the point. Each day, another wave of listeners calls in to his live broadcast to announce that they are rethinking their position on the president.
It's the same type of voter sway that has many Democrats concerned about Ralph Nader's effect on the upcoming election. In 2000, some Democrats believe, Nader pulled enough votes from nominee Al Gore to swing the election in favor of Bush. This time around, many Kerry supporters have tried to negate the Nader effect, and Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs said Bush supporters might want to take a similar tack with Stern.
"They're going to have to start a 'stop the Howard vote' [initiative]," Felling said.
It remains to be seen, however, if fans will still be tuned in to Howard's message when the polls open in November. Stern has vowed to carry his fight until voters hit the polls this fall, if he can hold on to his platform until then.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation that would increase fines for perceived indecent material to as much as $500,000 (up from $27,500) and would broaden the targets of those fines to include not only broadcasters but on-air talent as well. Stern has said he will quit his show should the bill become law.
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