If anyone has a right to feel on top of the world, it’s Howard Stern — especially inside his elegant, cumulus-high apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, dominated by a solariumlike living room with views on one side extending far up the Hudson and the other encompassing the entire bucolic breadth of Central Park.
This is the aerie of a hugely successful man, which certainly describes Mr. Stern. Six years ago he cashed in decades of radio notoriety when he moved to the satellite-radio service Sirius (now Sirius XM) in one of the most lucrative deals in the history of show business, with an estimated worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
But when Mr. Stern says, “I feel blessed, I really feel fulfilled,” he’s talking about the sum of his career, not his salary.
And the reason he is talking about it at the moment is because his career has taken yet another turn, one he acknowledges he never expected.
“I had decided to slow down,” said Mr. Stern, who is 58, relaxing in that Imax-size living room on a couch long enough to contain his 6-foot-5-inch frame. His 10-year-old English bulldog, Bianca, a constant and beloved companion, was by his side. (Beth Ostrosky, his second wife, was out at the moment.) “I was going to semiretire. I was doing three days on the radio a week, and that was enough for me. I was trying to get into photography — like a retired guy.”
Instead, as billboards all over the city and promotions all over NBC are proclaiming, Mr. Stern has embarked on another high-profile, high-wire adventure, joining the most popular summer series on television, “America’s Got Talent,” as its latest judge.
There’s a certain incongruity in the move, as Mr. Stern realizes. “Me going on a family-friendly show?” he asked. (“America’s Got Talent,” a celebration of acts from singers to clowns to acrobats to much farther afield, definitely fits that description.) “I’m not crazy. I know there’s a huge population out there that thinks I’m going to come on and ruin the show.”
As if on cue, protests from organizations like the Parents Television Council (a longtime nemesis) started even before he officially joined the show. The council issued a statement suggesting the move would result in “the alienation of millions of families, and with it the alienation of tens of millions of advertising dollars,” and last week sent a letter to 91 NBC advertisers urging a formal boycott of the show.
Mr. Stern has never really been fazed by organized opposition to his raw and rude comedy, which has been labeled everything from shocking and offensive to outrageous and groundbreaking. But this is a different time and, in many ways, a different Howard Stern.
“It would be really pathetic if I was still in the same space as when I was 20 or 30, when I felt threatened by everyone, and there was no room for anyone else on the radio,” he said. “I’ve come to appreciate other people’s talents.”
That would include competitors Mr. Stern once eviscerated. “I’ve actually apologized to some people I was a real jerk to, because I feel ashamed,” he said. “I didn’t need to be that hungry. There was something going on inside me when I was angry and feeling very threatened and not feeling good about myself.”
Even so, he conceded having “a lot of trepidation” about joining “America’s Got Talent” (though he noted that he has often appeared on network television, on programs like “Late Show With David Letterman,” and within the bounds of propriety). “This is a show that’s already successful,” Mr. Stern said. “I’ve never come into anything successful before. I’ve always been hired by horrible radio stations with horrendous reputations and nothing to lose.”
So given semiretirement and his trepidation, why make this move now?
Simple, Mr. Stern said: “I love the show.” He said he has been watching most of the network talent-competition shows avidly for years: “I’m fascinated by the whole judging thing. I would talk about this stuff regularly on my show.”
NBC executives heard those comments and believed them. Paul Telegdy, NBC’s top executive in the reality arena, said that once they met with Mr. Stern, “we realized we were in the company of an insane enthusiast for what we do.”
Mr. Stern recalled: “When they called I said: ‘Are you guys nuts? As much as I think I would be a good judge, and I’d love to do it, it’s a family show, and you’ve got to think of your audience.’ ”
NBC was thinking of an audience, of course, the formidable one that follows Mr. Stern and might help to push its already popular show to new heights. “What we wanted to do was invest in the long-term future of the franchise,” Mr. Telegdy said. And the sharp ratings declines across television this season, including a plunge for the talent-competition titan “American Idol,” provided all the more reason to try to create some new excitement.
It took months of negotiations — including an undisclosed salary agreement estimated at $20 million a year and NBC’s commitment to move the show from Los Angeles to New York to accommodate his radio schedule — before Mr. Stern chose to take up what he called “a noble cause”: giving unknowns a chance at a show-business career.
“I’ve been in radio for over 35 years, and to me that’s the biggest competition in the world,” Mr. Stern said, outlining the ferocity of facing off against every kind of format and host in that medium. “And I was a music director early in my career. So I feel like I have credibility, something to offer.”
He has strong opinions, of course, many framed by what he has seen on other competition shows. He favors the unsentimental, honest judges, the ones “where you say, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be watching,” he said. For Mr. Stern that means the man who defined that persona on “American Idol,” Simon Cowell (who is also the top producer on “America’s Got Talent”), L. A. Reid from “The X Factor” and especially Len Goodman of “Dancing With the Stars.”
This is the kind of commentary Mr. Stern said that viewers should expect, though he added, “I’m not going to be a stereotype of the mean judge. I’m relying on straight talk.” He replaces Piers Morgan, who had a reputation for brutally frank assessments, and is working with the holdovers Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne.
So far at least, in tapings of the show, the relationships are working out. Ms. Osbourne, a longtime guest on Mr. Stern’s radio show, said in an e-mail message: “He is definitely a master at what he does. I am intrigued at how 40-year-old-plus males in the audience continuously scream, ‘I love you Howard,’ and all the women want to have sex with him.”
In an e-mail of his own, Mr. Mandel added: “I have nothing but positive things to say about working with Howard. Between him and me we are having more fun than a barrel of neurotic monkeys.”
“America’s Got Talent” kicks off its new season on Monday with audition episodes taped in cities like Los Angeles; St. Louis; Austin, Tex.; and New York. “So much for slowing down,” Mr. Stern said.
As for his approach to judging, he said he believed he was doing many of the performers a service. “They’re not going to be stars, and it requires somebody to say that to them. Some people get up and sing. I say to them: ‘Look, you are dull, and you’re not fun to look at. I went on radio because I wasn’t fun to look at.’ ”
He mentioned being impressed by the wide variety of acts, ranging from a builder of improvised musical instruments to a shy opera singer. Some acts played to his anarchic sense of entertainment.
“A guy came on, and his whole act was getting kicked” in an especially sensitive area, he recalled. “I’m telling you, it was the greatest act you’ve ever seen. I gave him a standing ovation.” The performance culminated with the man leaping crotch-first from a high point onto a balance beam. Mr. Stern’s face lit up at the memory. “I’m laughing hysterically. I would pay to see this.”
In chasing Mr. Stern an NBC goal was clearly to add humor. He acknowledged he provides that but noted, “Howie is the comedian on the show.”
“I don’t do one-liners,” he added. “My attitude is what’s funny.”
Mr. Stern said he would almost surely disappoint any watchdog seeking signs of how he might degrade the show. “The most sexual reference I made was when a group of very attractive women got up and danced. They were awful. They had these bikini tops on, and I said: ‘You’ve got to do something with this act. It’s not going to fly. Maybe if your implants had all exploded, we would have gotten a kick out it.’ ”
The audition audiences have been packed with his fans, and they have brought more noise and a different attitude at times. Mr. Stern said: “A sweet older couple had come on to do a dance act. It was the sweetest thing ever, and the audience is screaming. They wanted to chop their heads off. I turned around and said, ‘What is wrong with you people?’ ”
If that sounds like a more sensitive Howard Stern, he presents himself that way on the air and in person, where he comes off as effortlessly gracious and sincere. That might seem at odds with his former image as the relentless self-promoter who often declared himself “the king of all media.”
But there may be another reason for the equanimity. “I go to therapy three days a week, and it has actually really helped me. It’s not an easy road to take a good hard look at yourself, but I feel happier.”
Maybe it was the therapy or just the passage of time but Mr. Stern, who once disparaged radio as the lowest of the performance arts, now professes great satisfaction in his achievements. Of course his transition to satellite radio, where he has become far richer but much less widely heard, is still debated by fans and critics.
Not by Mr. Stern, though. “I was literally going insane doing the show on terrestrial radio,” he said, blaming censors and what he called unacceptably heavy editing. “I felt I was losing what my mission statement was.”
“Think of the guy, in his car, miserable driving to work,” he continued. “And I’m no longer feeling that guy was being properly entertained. So satellite was a saving grace for me.”
He takes pride in the expansion of satellite subscribers to about 21 million, and his own part in building that audience, even if a lawsuit he brought seeking a $300 million stock bonus from SiriusXM based on those totals was dismissed last month. (He is considering an appeal.)
But his audience is smaller than it used to be. Radio audiences are notoriously difficult to quantify, but some analysts estimate he reaches about 3 million listeners now, as opposed to the approximately 12 million he had on terrestrial radio. That leads to inevitable speculation: Is he joining “America’s Got Talent” because he has lost some of his pop-cultural punch?
Sliding into the back of a black stretch limousine that had been waiting to deliver him to his dentist, Mr. Stern said the question is fair. “I’m sure there’s some psychological component you could explore to say there’s never enough fame, and you’re power hungry. But I didn’t feel that way anymore. I felt very successful.”
Mr. Stern does not argue that nothing drives him anymore. “There’s still a part of me that just wants to prove to my parents that I’m not an idiot,” he said.
When “America’s Got Talent” shot auditions in New York, he invited his elderly parents to sit in the audience.
“My father was very tough on me,” Mr. Stern said of his childhood. “He would call me a moron.” At the taping Mr. Stern decided that a singer had no talent and told him: “I’m going to do for you what my father did for me. I’m going to say, ‘Don’t be stupid, you moron.’ That’s my father’s line.”
Then Mr. Stern called Ben, his 89-year-old father, up: “He comes onstage and he starts to lecture this guy. And he walked offstage lecturing him.”
Mr. Stern described the scene with clear admiration for his father’s ability to impart some useful sense into a young man.
“I’m still that little kid who needs that approval,” Mr. Stern said. “It’s awful.”