When Howard Stern famously missed a day of work in May 2017, he told his understandably freaked-out fans that he was battling the flu. Now, in his first new book in more than 20 years, Howard Stern Comes Again, he explains he missed that day because of a cancer scare.

Doctors had discovered a growth on his kidney, and, worried that it could be cancerous, booked an exploratory surgery to see what was going on. Ultimately, it turned out to be a cyst, but Stern was shaken up.

“As you start to get older and your body begins to break down, it does get you thinking about your legacy,” Stern writes in Comes Again, “what you’ll leave behind, what you’re proud of.”

For Stern, that has changed with age, psychotherapy, and marriage to his second wife, Beth. The result has been a change from the crude humor that made him famous on terrestrial radio to his more thoughtful, in-depth interviews on Sirius XM, where has been since 2006.

In some ways, that path started in earnest with syndication in 1986, when he was still at New York station WXRK. His first station in another market was Philadelphia’s 94.1 WYSP, now Sports Radio 94 WIP. By 1990, he was the top-rated morning show in the Philly market.

By 1992, he was syndicated throughout the country and became the self-described “King of All Media,” thanks to his success with pay-per-view specials and home videos. Since then, his fame has only grown, even if there are some parts he isn’t proud of anymore.

The Inquirer caught up with Stern to talk about what Philly means to his career, his famous rivalry with local radio great John DeBella, and whether he will retire in 2020, as some reports have suggested.

Were you surprised by the show’s success in Philadelphia? What did it take to get the show here?

I wasn’t surprised at all, actually, because I was the one who kept pushing for it. The people I worked for did not want to do it. The logic was morning shows have to be local. Maybe the rest of the day doesn’t, but mornings have to be local. I said, “Look, guys, give me a ... chance, for god’s sake. Let me prove to you that that is a ridiculous notion.” Funny is funny. I spent many years traveling the country, and I always believed that audiences were the same. They wanted to laugh in the morning.

It was so important for me to go to Philly that I said, “Look, if you guys don’t do it, I’ve got to leave here. I’ve got to find a company that will back me on this.” And they did, and they were happy they did. I ended up paying them more money than they paid me.

It sounds like we were sort of a watershed moment for you.

Absolutely. I love Philly. Don’t forget, when I would come there, it was like the closest feeling I’ll ever have to being the Beatles or something. I’m locked in a studio all the time, and when you go to Philly, all of a sudden, 15,000 people show up to say hello. So the warm embrace of Philly was just incredible. I always say it on the air: I love the people of Philadelphia. They embraced me. How many people are willing to embrace me?

You buried the hatchet with John DeBella a few years ago in private. What do you make of that particular feud now?

I think what John experienced from me, as many guys did, is I just had this insatiable desire to have everybody in the world listening to me. That’s a miserable way to live — you can’t really function in the real world if you’re consumed with getting every listener.

First of all, it’s an impossible task. Secondly, there’s going to be other guys on the radio dial who you’re going to compete with. But I was so out of my mind with this intensity that it was more out of a fear that it wouldn’t be successful. I was caught up in my own stuff. It really wasn’t any anger at John. I didn’t even know John’s act all that well. It was more about my internal issues.

Still, that mock funeral you held for him in Rittenhouse Square after topping the market ratings in 1990 was pretty funny.
Howard Stern's mock funeral of John DeBella, from the Daily News, May 11, 1990.
Daily News Archives
Howard Stern's mock funeral of John DeBella, from the Daily News, May 11, 1990.

It was funny, there’s no question. You know, we did a bunch of those funerals around the country as the show grew and became number one in all these different markets. They got crazier and crazier. At one point, I think it was in Cleveland, somebody actually cut the wires to our broadcast. It actually became like true warfare. In fact, we ran into a truck and put on Army uniforms because we were going to war. It was nuts.

The other thing that grabbed me about the book is you saying you’re no longer proud of your previous books, Private Parts and Miss America.

Have you ever gone back and looked at your old snapshots? It’s painful — for me anyway. It doesn’t represent who I am anymore, so it doesn’t feel true to me.

Here’s the thing, especially with comedy, everything just has to keep changing and evolving, or else you become like a band that goes out on the road and does their greatest hits. You’ve got to constantly figure out where you’re at in life, and adjust and keep changing so that your audience keeps staying with you. That’s kind of why I wrote the book, too, to just say, “Look, this is where I’m at.”

Where did the idea of doing a book of interviews come from?

All of a sudden, all these people in the media kept saying, “Gee, Howard Stern has become the greatest interviewer of all time.” I don’t know about the greatest interviewer of all time, but I certainly am proud of the fact that other broadcasters were saying, “I really love the interviews that Howard is doing.”

So it didn’t seem like a crazy thing to build a book around these interviews because I just think what some of these people say, especially when you read it, it’s pretty ... mind-blowing. There is a lot of wisdom from these very accomplished people. So that’s where I was at, and I like expressing myself this way.

As far as changes go, you’re not really retiring from radio in 2020, right?

You know something, I don’t know where that story came from. On any given day that you tune into my show, I’ll talk to Robin and go, “I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to retire. I’ve got to end my contract, blah, blah, blah.” But for some reason, they picked it up like it was the gospel truth. That would have been a really lame way to announce I was leaving radio. I am going to do it in a much bigger fashion, man. It will be much more creative.