NEW YORK — Radio has become an all-time winner in the mass-media sweepstakes by allowing listeners to develop strong bonds with the personalities who talk to them over the airwaves.
These bonds are based on fantasy as much as reality, since the personalities are heard but rarely seen. Successful radio stars cultivate the illusion that they're speaking directly, even intimately to each of us as we listen in our homes, cars, and offices.
So when a particular disc jockey or talk-radio host becomes not just a star but a superstar, it's certain he (or occasionally she) is saying something lots of people want to hear - whether to agree or disagree, cheer or boo, swoon with affection, or boil with anger.
That's why the huge popularity of a Howard Stern shouldn't be shrugged off by anyone interested in the state of contemporary mass culture - even if studying it means putting up with a walloping dose of vulgarity, offensiveness, and childishness that would have been literally unheard-of in broadcasting just a few decades ago.
"Private Parts," the movie based on Stern's life and career, begins with a woman who gazes into the camera and tells us from the get-go how "offensive, obnoxious, disgusting" he is. The next scene brings all those adjectives to life - with a comedy routine so gross that Stern himself claims to be embarrassed by it - and makes you wonder what grotesqueries the picture will trot out for an encore.
From here on, the movie is designed to please Stern's hard-core fans while enticing new followers into his vast radio audience. In this way, it's a full-fledged member of the Hollywood marketing club initiated by "Star Wars" and its ilk, in which every media-related commodity exists largely to promote other media-related commodities.
So the next few scenes try to win over anti-Stern skeptics by portraying him as a likable youngster who dreams of celebrity while staging goofy puppet shows and bumbling his way through college-radio programs.
His only enemies are stuffiness, prudery, and hypocrisy. Stuffiness, prudery, and hypocrisy are obviously bad things. So what fun-loving person wouldn't be on his side?
The picture eventually settles down to business, spending long stretches in Stern's crowded studio while he sizzles the microphone with sexual skits and scatological gags, spiced with sexist, racist, and homophobic humor calculated to make fans feel bold and adventurous for daring to laugh at it. Equally calculated is the large amount of time allotted to his long-suffering but devoted wife and his energetic African-American radio partner. He couldn't really be a bigoted male-chauvinist pig if those nice women adore him!
Maybe he couldn't, maybe he could. All that's certain from "Private Parts" is that Stern is a consummate capitalist who'll say anything to raise his ratings and profits. He drives his network managers crazy, but in the end he wins every battle by pointing out how many dollars he's raking in for them.
Staking out a similar stance, "Private Parts" steers clear of cultural arguments over censorship, freedom of the airwaves, and other complex public issues. "The People vs. Larry Flynt," a movie that treats these matters with some seriousness, hasn't fared very well at the box office. Stern and his handlers aren't going to make the same mistakes. If idiocy sells, idiocy is what they'll peddle. And if old fogies object, Stern will make rude noises at them on the radio.
Surely there's a lesson in this worth pondering.
"Private Parts" was directed by Betty Thomas from a screenplay by Len Blum and Michael Kalesniko, based on Stern's book. Stern and his co-host, Robin Quivers, portray themselves.
* 'Private Parts' has an R rating. It contains very large amounts of foul language, sexual and scatological humor, and nudity.