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A Great Innovator

What Howard Stern Can Teach Us About Innovation

As I was listening to the Howard Stern “60th birthday show,” I couldn’t help but think that he might be one of the most disruptive innovators of the past 30 years. He’s probably the best interviewer of all time and has pushed the boundaries of nearly everything he’s touched. It has come at the cost of infuriating everyone from his management to religious groups to the FCC.

You can love or hate Howard Stern (rare to find someone in the middle), but it’s hard to dismiss his influence.
Without him, we likely wouldn’t have:
  • Reality TV
  • Seriously probing interviews
  • Talk radio as it exists today
  • Much of the content of sitcoms and late-night TV
  • Some of the free speech freedoms we enjoy today (If you don’t believe me, spend some time researching it)
  • Satellite and on-line radio
  • The demystifying and normalizing of professional (mental) therapy (this could be his single most important contribution to society)
  • The survival of many long distance commuters (as I used to be), truckers and others
What are the secrets of these innovations?
  • Intense work ethic and discipline
  • Trying and failing dozens of times 4 or 5 days a week for 30+ years — the iterative process
  • Hiring smart and unique people — who aren’t afraid to challenge and disrupt
  • Also hiring some anchors whose loyalty is unwaivering
  • Patience — trying variations of the same thing over and over
  • Ability to say no — to hang up on the boring caller, to say no to “creative suggestions” of management, to say no to bad projects
  • Intense curiosity about life — especially people
  • Belief that you can always do better and the desire to do so — he’s probably better than he’s ever been at 60 — when he has more of everything than he could ever want
  • Playing the long game — turning down the “get rich quick” moments — like merchandising — throughout his career
  • Crowdsourcing — before it was cool! Between listeners calling in, guests and staff, nobody ever got more opinions about his product than Howard!
  • Courage
  • Transparency

You would have to produce some heady names to find people who’ve had a bigger influence in their respective fields than Howard Stern.

Postscript:

I wrote most of this article a few years ago. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate one aspect of Howard Stern that has held him back — he’s never been able to let his people really flourish outside his control.

If you compare Howard to Jon Stewart, they’re more or less contemporaries. They both revolutionized their respective fields. One thing that’s different though — Many of Jon’s former team have blossomed (Jon Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore and 10+ others!).

Imagine if Howard had let some of his stars loose, if he’d have supported them the way that Jon did. He’d have attracted the next generation of talent and had a legacy that truly outlived him. That would have made him the “King of Innovation,” not just the “King of All Media”.