When Robin Quivers met Howard Stern for the first time, she was trying out for the role of his newswoman at a radio station in Washington D.C. As dramatized in the 1997 movie Private Parts, part of Stern’s unstated initiation process was to test Quivers’s mettle simply by being himself. In classic Stern fashion, he told Quivers that he didn’t get laid the night before and that his horniness levels did not match those of his wife. As Stern unfurls the depths of his depravity, Quivers’s face is hard to read, but the radio executives watching warily from a conference room begin emerging in horror. Naturally, Stern carries on with his inappropriate shtick, and asks Quivers if women ever get horny. Wisely, she takes a beat; it’s clear from her face that she thought she was coming in to read the news.
Instead she is facing a tall man with big hair spouting frat-boy, locker-room nonsense at her, whose personality is both noxious and charming. Stern isn’t looking for a real answer, but he’s desperate to have someone take his frivolous and inappropriate-for-the-workplace questions seriously — he needs someone to commit to his bit. Quivers tells Stern that she hasn’t had sex in over a year.
“Finally! Someone more pathetic than me,” he crows. His delight is evident; Quivers didn’t run screaming out of the recording booth, but is unwavering, steady and calm. Leaning into this bit, which is tame for Stern’s standards, he tells Quivers for the first of what is surely by now thousands of times, that his penis is very small. “This author slept with 16,000 women,” Stern says, hitting the cover of How To Score With Babes emphatically. “Wear tight pants, he says.”
Quivers’s face remains inscrutable as she takes in the entirety of the man in front of her, who is, upon first meeting and in a professional setting, bemoaning the size of his penis and telling her that he is grumpy because his wife wouldn’t fuck him. Her answer is sharp. “If this man has slept with 16,000 women, he doesn’t have time to put on pants,” she says.
“You’re a genius,” Stern tells her. “That was great.”
“That was interesting,” she replies. Finally, Howard Stern has met his match — a woman who would not only put up with his sexist comments, but was willing and able to play ball.
My first encounter with Howard Stern’s whole deal was during the pandemic (how boring!), spurred in part by a recommendation from a very close friend whose opinions I value deeply. This friend is intelligent and sensitive in ways that I am not, and so when she mentioned that she’d been listening to Howard Stern — ”It reminds me of my childhood!” she said — I was intrigued enough to hear what he had to say for myself. Any previous knowledge of Stern was acquired purely through cultural osmosis. I knew that he was crude, boorish, loved porn stars, and, crucially, that Patricia Krenctil, also known as Tan Mom, was in his orbit. Talk radio tends to bore me unless it’s the dulcet tones of Tom and Ray Magliozzi of “Car Talk,” but the bits and bobs I heard of Stern before fully immersing were fascinating — an adult man whose palpable insecurities were grating and endearing in equal measure.
In the spring and early summer of 2020, I spent hours lying in a zero-gravity lawn chair on my roof, listening to Howard Stern on noise-cancelling headphones, happy as a clam. After a few months trapped entirely inside my own brain, it was a relief to spend some time in unfamiliar territory. Broadcasting live from “the bunker” during the pandemic’s early months, Stern’s anxiety was a welcome distraction, simply because it was not my own. The first few episodes were overwhelming, fast-moving, and occasionally too offensive, but the payoff for enduring twenty-five minutes of ribald chitchat thick with inside jokes was listening to Howard Stern, one of the best interviewers in the game, do his job. It occurred to me at one point in my exploration, when Stern was going on a particularly poignant tangent about the size of his penis, that maybe for some straight men, listening to the show was a suitable replacement for therapy. When SiriusXM’s pandemic-inspired free trial expired in May, I subscribed without question, and have been a faithful listener ever since.
It’s much easier to like and appreciate the new, softer Howard Stern when you have little familiarity with his past. In the ’90s, at the peak of his career, Stern was inarguably reprehensible, a shock jock who relied on lazy bigotry to achieve both fame and notoriety. This gambit worked, but Stern is nothing if not smart — his past as an asshole whose gut instinct was to punch down made way for his rebirth as the thinking man’s shock jock. Truthfully, though, what I realized pretty early on is that while Stern gets all the headlines, the real key to his success is Robin Quivers. Without Quivers, the Gallant to his Goofus, and his external gut check, he is just an irascible grump, the proverbial old man yelling at the sky, spewing hot air with little context outside of his own insecurities.
Their relationship is the most enduring one Stern has ever had — two loveable jerks, perfectly matched, who need each other to survive, and more accurately, to thrive. Without each other, they are nothing, but for Stern, Quivers is the glue that holds the entire Howard Stern Show together. She is his rock, his moral compass, and the lodestar that guides his specific and enduring brand of humor.
In Private Parts, Alison, Stern’s first wife, endures the indignity and the occasional frustrations of being married to a man who wears his shortcomings like an ill-fitting T-shirt. In a memorable scene, Stern discusses Alison’s recent miscarriage on his radio show, spinning a private matter into public content. “Wow, he’s getting awfully personal this morning,” Quivers remarks, though no one seems to be listening. “I really think you need counseling,” she tells him, when his spiel is over and he’s processed his grief the only way he knows how — by making fun of himself on air for an audience that laps it up. Quivers isn’t quite his mother, but she is a calming force, a grounding presence who reels in the pervasive locker room energy. He is lured back towards propriety by her laugh, which is infectious, warm, inviting, and the teensiest bit judgmental.
Part of what makes Stern so appealing is his unpredictability, which could be dangerous if he was left to his own devices. For many, it is difficult to separate the man who used to encourage women to orgasm on live radio from the man he is today. The Wack Pack, Stern’s associates, are a motley crew of individuals with nicknames given by Stern that are unprintable because they are extremely offensive. They encourage Stern’s desire to push the limits of acceptability, as he has done throughout the course of his career. But Quivers’s presence in the room is enough to keep them in check. It diminishes Quivers career to say that she’s the den mother for these men, her role in the Stern ecosystem is far more capacious and flexible. She’s always in on the joke, even if she is the subject; she is the foil Stern so desperately needs.
Defending Howard Stern is a difficult task, if only because of his history, which is peppered with some of the most noxious displays of misogyny and casual racism on talk radio in the ’90s, all in service to an outdated mode of “comedy.” But he’s come a long way, with Quivers by his side.
Quivers entered Stern’s life after a few years spent as a nurse in the Air Force, eventually joining forces with a young Stern in Washington D.C. as his sidekick. In her working relationship with Stern, she exudes confidence and calm, intuiting precisely when to step in before anyone takes it too far. Her 1995 autobiography, Quivers: A Life, reveals a bit more about the woman behind the man with the loud mouth: Quivers endured a horrific home life as a child. Her mother was abusive and her father molested her for several months when she was 11. The resilience that Quivers telegraphs so effectively on the air was perhaps a result of her traumatic past, born out of necessity then, but deployed to great effect in a room full of men making prank phone calls and singing songs about the size of her breasts. Working in an environment that is as raucous as Stern’s radio show moved Quivers to explore ways to ground herself; after an ayahuasca trip with a shaman, she cracked the code to the meaning of life. “What I learned is very simple: that your life belongs to you,” she told Rolling Stone in 2013. “And it really doesn’t matter what you do with it, but it should be what you want to do with it.”
Part of that tenderness that Quivers inhabits naturally rubbed off on her co-host, who is now a chastened and slightly defanged version of his former self. The softer Stern of today is an animal lover and talented watercolor artist, a Renaissance man who can still make jokes about fucking on his radio station while also showing his vulnerable underbelly. The Howard Stern of 2021 loves the numerous cats that live in his home, most of which are fostered by his wife, Beth Ostrosky Stern. Of the cats that the Sterns do own, Yoda, a smush-faced Persian with a heart condition, is his favorite. He speaks often of psychotherapy and acknowledges his insecurities in a more tender-hearted way. In short, he’s a charming shithead who knows that he’s a charming shithead.
When it really comes down to it, though, Stern can’t be a shithead to Quivers. In 2012, Quivers underwent surgery to remove a massive tumor from her pelvis. When she recovered from the surgery, her first instinct was to make a crude joke about her ordeal. But, as she told Rolling Stone in 2013, some months after the surgery, Stern wasn’t having it. The thought of losing a woman who was instrumental to his personal and professional growth was too much to bear; Robin’s brush with cancer and the possibility of her death was unfathomable. He swore that he would quit the show if Quivers couldn’t be there with him, understanding innately that without her, he is nothing.
Megan Reynolds is a writer and editor based in New York who writes about consumerism, culture, and her cat, Daisy.