• It started with me defending Stuttering John’s right to insult celebrities
• It led to me ambushing Howard and his posse at a TV studio
• He got me back, live on-air, in Los Angeles, during Grammy Week
“So you’re the guy who defended Stuttering John’s First Amendment rights?”
That was an incredulous Howard Stern, asking me, a CNN Showbiz Today correspondent, why I had tried to prevent one of his radio sidekicks from being tossed out of the Grammy Awards telecast at Radio City Music Hall in 1991. It was the first of many times I would appear on his program.
“Stuttering John” Melendez was infamous for being dispatched by Stern to red carpets, premieres and all manner of media events to ask the celebrities in attendance embarrassing, often lewd, questions which would serve as comedy fodder on the next morning’s broadcast. In 1991, Stern was on WXRK-FM in New York, and had begun a syndicated simulcast in Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles. Along with morning radio hosts from around the country, he was doing his show live during Grammy week from a ballroom in the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan.
On the night of the Grammys, Melendez was in the general press area in the lower lobby where winners and presenters took questions from a room full of journalists and music writers. My CNN crew and I were assigned a curtained-off area for videotaping our interviews; between the interviews, I would watch the reporters line up at a floor mic to ask questions. When it was his turn, Melendez was doing his thing, and the room seemed divided – his questions were entertaining some reporters, annoying the hell out of others. After one particularly stupid question (“If [the pop trio] Wilson Phillips wins Best New Artist, do you think the fat one will eat the Grammy?”) Melendez was confronted by a couple of large security people. They were politely but firmly trying to show him the door.
A Billboard magazine reporter, Jim Bessman, and I noticed this unfolding in the back of the room and had the same reaction: wait a minute, he’s a credentialed member of the media being kicked out for asking a question. We stepped in. The security people were hired by Radio City. The press credentials, however, were issued by NARAS, the recording academy holding the Grammy awards show. An academy functionary listened to our argument against booting Stuttering John. I said, “What if I asked, for example, Phil Collins (winner, Best Record, that year) ‘Why do some people think everything you’ve done since leaving Genesis is crap?’ — would I get thrown out?” The NARAS official said he’d go find someone “higher up.” But in the interim, Melendez was escorted out.
I was tapped on the shoulder by an intern for the Stern show: “Would you want to go on the radio tomorrow morning and tell Howard what just happened?” I said sure.
The next morning at the Roosevelt Hotel, Stern was effusive in welcoming me on the air. CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War, which was just winding down, had rocketed the network to prominence. (In its early years, it was derided by some in the traditional news networks as “Chicken Noodle News.”) Stern claimed to be thrilled about having a real CNN correspondent on the show, no less one who tried to save his sidekick from Grammy banishment. He said, with a facetious tone, that he was grateful I had stood up for Stuttering John’s right to free speech. “I know,” I said, “What was I thinking?”
It was a fun interview, and when I showed up at the bureau later that morning, my boss, Scott Leon, called me into his office to tell me he’d heard the show. “Nice job,” he said. “But you do know that CNN employees are not permitted to do interviews without securing advance permission from me and the PR department in Atlanta?” Having been on board only a little more than a year, I pleaded ignorance. Perhaps because Scott was a fan of Howard and perhaps because the Stern show wasn’t yet on the air in Atlanta, there were no repercussions.
I pressed my luck in a similar, more reckless fashion a few years later when the Grammys were being held in Los Angeles. (I loved when they were held in LA, was disappointed when they were in NY. They alternated sites for most of the ‘90s.) First, the backstory:
As Howard’s broadcasting web spread, he was frequently being fined by the FCC for allegedly obscene or indecent content. (By one account he was hit with $2.5 million in FCC charges overall.) I would be assigned sometimes to do a CNN story about a fining, but Stern would never do interviews about them. He said, quite correctly, that everything he had to say about an FCC action he would say during his broadcasts. One day, following the levying of a particularly stiff fine, we received a tip from the producers of Joan Rivers’ then syndicated TV show: Howard was taping a guest segment that afternoon and we could bring a camera crew to the studios to try to talk to him afterward. Unaware of this, Stern and his entourage were “ambushed” by us as he exited the taping. We threw our lights on and I said, “Howard – what’s your reaction to the latest FCC fine?” He froze in his tracks, turned awkwardly, and his posse shambled back around the corner from which they’d emerged. “C’mon, Howard, talk to us!” I shouted.
The next morning, he unloaded on me. “It was that Scheerer guy from CNN. I was ambushed! The nerve of that guy,” etc. etc. I knew that I’d given him a gift – a whole segment in which he could foment and froth and do the kind of adversarial radio that was making him a huge star. Then that evening, my piece aired on “Showbiz Today.” In it, I think I might have used the phrase, “like a deer caught in the headlights” to describe his reaction to our confrontation. The following morning, Howard got to do it all over again, milking his “outrage” over the taped report for another whole segment.
Fast-forward to Los Angeles a year or so later. I was doing a piece on all the events that comprised “Grammy Week,” including a look at the customary gathering of the radio morning show hosts at a hotel ballroom. By this time, the Howard Stern Show was heard virtually nationwide. And his status afforded him a partitioned-off segment of the ballroom, apart from the other “morning zoo” hosts broadcasting live, side-by-side in the big room. My camera crew “sprayed the room” – shot video of the roomful of radio shows — and I taped a short interview with a DJ from a small market. I spotted Stern’s producer, Gary Dell’Abate, and asked him if we could also get just a wide shot of Howard in his elite quarters. “Wait here,” he said.
A few minutes later, Gary returned and said, “Howard wants to see you, right now. Without your camera crew.” As I entered the room, I realized I was walking into a tables-turning “ambush.” Stern was on the air live and motioned me to sit down across from him and put on the headphones. Of course, I couldn’t resist and he lit into me: “There he is: that rat bastard from CNN, that Mark Scheerer guy who ambushed me!” He couldn’t hide his smile. From my experience with morning radio banter, I knew I could give him what he wanted – a good “bit.” But my continued employment at CNN flashed in front of my . . . ears. I said, “We just want to get a shot of you at work, Howard. I would love to talk to you, but I don’t think I’m supposed to. I don’t have permission from CNN.”
“Oh, come on, Scheerer, don’t punk out,” he rejoined, or something like that. I took off the headphones and headed for the door. “Look at him,” shouted Stern. “Scuttling out of the room with his tail between his legs! The rat bastard!”
I wish I had given him a longer bit. Luckily, I again avoided CNN disciplinary action.
Other appearances on Howard’s show were all approved in advance. He ran a faux campaign for governor of New York and invited me and other reporters on the show to do our interviews live. He invited me and a crew to a location shoot when he was making his autobiographical film, “Private Parts.” The campus of Lehman College in the Bronx was standing in for his alma mater, Boston University, and we got to watch and tape the scene where he met his first wife, Alison. The sit-down interview we taped that day was the only one I did with him that wasn’t part of his live show. When “Private Parts” premiered, I was among the reporters invited to interview him on the morning show. He set it up by saying, “Our old friend, Mark Scheerer is here. Mark’s always so nice to me and everything, and then you see his report — it’s always like, Grrrrrr!”
The thing is, Howard Stern is always so nice, really, in person, despite always like, Grrrrrr on the air.
As my relationship with the so-called shock jock evolved over the years, I often thought back to our first encounter. One morning in 1990 he was broadcasting live from Secaucus, New Jersey, where he was announcing the launch of a television show on a local NY station. Cameras lined the back of the room, including mine from CNN. After his statements, Stern opened it up for questions, pointing to me and saying, “You there, in the back, Tim Conway.” Everyone turned and laughed and my Conway-ish face turned deep red.