Howard's "Idol" Threat

Radio host muses about replacing Simon Cowell. But it might be a bad move for Stern – and the talent show

By Jere Hester
|  Wednesday, Feb 10, 2010  |  Updated 1:33 AM PDT
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Howard Stern, idol of millions.

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Before he talks any more about becoming an "American Idol" judge, Howard Stern might want to take another listen to "Psychedelic Bee."

The song, as hardcore Howard fans remember, was written and recorded by Stern, along with some sixth-grade buddies, circa 1966. The tune is funny, sweet and pretty good for a bunch of school kids.

But for Stern, his childhood stab at rock stardom has been a longstanding comedy bit – an excuse to mix nostalgia and with a heavy dose of self-flagellation.

The creator of “Psychedelic Bee” mused this week on his satellite radio show about replacing Simon Cowell as the bad-guy evaluator of young talent on "American Idol," saying he’d judge “that f---ing karaoke contest” for $100 million a year (not that anyone has made him an offer yet).

Whether Stern is seriously entertaining the notion – or just using the notion to entertain his audience – is unclear. But the publicity bonanza aside, becoming an "Idol" judge might not be the best move for Stern – or the Fox show.

Cowell is blunt to a fault, and sometimes crosses the line from critical to cruel, though he's calmed down a tad in the last couple of years. However he expresses himself, Cowell’s opinion is often on-target – and he ultimate takes the competition very seriously.

While Stern has been around music for years, his game is comedy – he takes nothing seriously, and picks apart everyone, from public figures who deserve to be lampooned to off-the-street characters who would be better off left alone. It's hard to imagine the man who judged “Butt Bongo” contests letting some poor deluded talentless teenager down easy.

He also runs the risk of alienating both his loyal fans if he tones down his act too much for “Idol,” and the show’s core family-oriented audience, which might not be able to stomach even a mellowed Stern.

For Fox, replacing Cowell is a tricky business. There's a delicate balance in maintaining the show’s appeal: is “Idol” more about the judges or the contestants? To succeed and thrive amid panel changes, the show ultimately needs to be more about the young singing hopefuls.

Both "Idol" and Stern are at crossroads. Ellen DeGeneres, another out-sized personality, debuted as a permanent “Idol” judge Tuesday night, replacing Paula Abdul. Cowell is leaving at the end of the season to work on an American version of his successful international TV talent show franchise, "The X Factor."

Stern, meanwhile, is figuring out what to do with the rest of his life after his $500 million Sirius XM contract runs out at the end of the year.

There's been talk about him returning to terrestrial radio, though his future is far from certain. He's been getting plenty of attention, which he's been missing on a mass level since going to satellite radio in 2006.

As much as he must like the buzz, Stern, as he mulls his next move, would be wise to remember than even a psychedelic bee can sting.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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