Every so often on The Howard Stern Show, a guest being interviewed will suddenly exclaim, "Oh, hi, Robin! I didn't know you were there." Stern's long-time broadcast partner, Robin Quivers has traditionally sat inside an isolated booth in the studio across from Stern, and so was not always visible to guests, who normally face Stern.
The exclamation, "Oh, hi, Robin!" has become more frequent in the past year because Quivers is doing the show remotely from her apartment, via an ISDN line, while she recovers from major surgery. Guests don't realize she's part of the interview until they hear her on their headphones. However, long-time listeners would agree that, whether she's physically present in the studio or not, most guests' reaction to first hearing her voice has not changed much in the more than 30 years that Quivers has been working with Stern. With their focus intensely upon Stern, guests easily forget she's there, and so she becomes a disembodied voice interjecting her personal observations and questions between Stern's rapid-fire, wide-ranging, and brutally efficient interrogation.
Left of Center
Yet, it is ironic that, in all the years of The Howard Stern Show during which she has been an integral part, Quivers remains a surprisingly undervalued and even controversial component of Stern's extraordinarily successful career in radio. Most articles about Stern don't even mention her. Even Stern's most devoted fans and his staunchest advocates rarely seem to fully comprehend the critical role she plays in helping their idol achieve his well-earned reputation as one of the best interviewers of our generation. Often, in lavishly praising Stern, they acknowledge her only as an afterthought or as a courtesy, with comments such as "Oh, and you, too, Robin," as if not to hurt her feelings. Even more, she is actually vilified by some fans who express irritation with her distinctive laugh, which they call strident and sycophantic. They see her as a hypocritical and egotistical shrew that weakens the interviewing process and spoils Howard's game.
Quivers, who is African American, is also assailed by other blacks as a "sell out" and traitor to her race for frequently agreeing with Stern, who is white, and his opinions relating to black people. They accuse her of intentionally "sounding white" and playing up to her white boss. Some years ago, on The Jamie Foxx Show, they called her a "house negro" because she agreed with Stern, who accused the Hollywood community of hypocrisy for lavishing praise upon black actress Gabourey Sidibe for her role in the movie, Precious. Stern called attention to Sidibe's excessive weight and said Hollywood would probably never give her another meaningful role because of it. "Everyone pretends that she's part of show business and (yet) she's never going to be in another movie," he said, and Quivers agreed. Foxx felt Quivers should have defended her.
A Moving Tribute
The disparaging and the dismissive attitude toward Quivers has always baffled Stern. He fiercely defends and protects her from anyone who might criticize her. He holds a deep and emotional affection for her. And he readily admits that he would most likely quit radio if he should ever lose her as a partner.
Yet, even Stern has difficulty explaining her contribution to his show. He talks of the millions of dollars she has turned down from competitors who have tried to woo her away, or the fact that she has stayed with him all these years. However, other members of his staff have worked nearly as long with him and displayed similar degrees of loyalty, and he is less protective of them.
One can also make a strong case regarding the importance of his other show partner, Fred Norris, to the success of his show. Norris has an uncanny ability to play the most appropriate sound effects at precisely the right time. He also has an exceptional talent for mimicking the voices of the show's many on-air personalities, which he does often to great comical effect. Stern might miss Norris' departure -- and the show would even suffer without him -- but Stern would carry on. He would not -- and could not -- without Quivers.
Lady in Waiting
Quivers's unique role in Howard Stern's interviewing process is not always apparent because she seldom leads the conversations: it's Howard's job to do the heavy lifting. She is rarely ruthless or tactically insensitive toward guests who are revealing the innermost secrets of their lives -- as Stern often is. Straightforward and quizzical, her questions can simply expand upon a point made by Stern, but they can also redirect Stern's own meandering interview into a more productive path, or take Stern back to an interesting or provocative comment a guest had made that he initially failed to capitalize on.
And this is what makes Quivers a formidable member of the world's most effective interviewing tag-team. While Stern is the main gunner relentlessly strafing his guests with intimate and probing questions, chasing after even the most trivial tidbits of information, Quivers is the sharp-shooter riding shotgun who alertly picks off the strays -- those tantalizing morsels that can wander off Stern's line of sight. Between the two, they often leave guests -- especially those new to the show -- exhausted and disoriented, uncertain as to whether, in their interview with Stern, they have just experienced a liberating catharsis of the soul or a merciless evisceration of every single one of their treasured and desperately clung-to beliefs.
A Mother of Pearls
Most likely, Stern's inability to fully pinpoint why Quivers is so uniquely essential to him is because he is too close to the answer. Ironically, it is an answer that is often palpably present during the show, when the two launch themselves into spontaneous dialogues on random topics that can be just as droll, satirical and biting as anything written in the most tightly scripted show. It is especially present when Stern suddenly veers, apropos of nothing, into a spoof of his elderly parents. As Stern deftly imitates his parents' most hilarious eccentricities in dealing with the vexations of everyday life, the roles of the two co-hosts instantly shift: he becomes the guest and Quivers becomes the curious interviewer. Tolerant and sympathetic, she poses innocuous questions that lead Stern deeper and deeper into his parents' frustrating and amusing world.
And suddenly one realizes that these kinds of exchanges reveal Stern's own highly charged and often-parodied childhood issues with his parents -- especially his father -- whom he feels never fully loved or appreciated his creative talents growing up. According to Stern, his father had even questioned his choice of a radio career, warning him that he would never succeed because he lacked the right type of voice.
At such moments, as Stern drops pearls of insight and anecdotes about his parents and his complex relationship with them, Quivers transforms herself into the world's most indulgent mother; one who is infinitely entertained by her little boy's amusing antics. She feigns astonishment and surprise, horror and disbelief, and talks to him as a doting parent who is eager to encourage her child's creativity.
It is at these moments that finally, in Quivers, Stern finds the acceptance -- fully, eagerly and without judgment -- that he never found from his own parents or the world growing up. Quivers brings out in him all that is creative, all that is brave and foolish, all that is scandalous and dangerous, simply by laughing or feigning shock, or feigning repulsion at his blunt and vicious observations. This is a phenomenon that rarely happens when Stern gives media interviews or does the talk show circuit alone. At such times, he never seems to fully shine, and his crude comments often silence his hosts: They become uncomfortable and even fearful, glance desperately around to see if anyone else gets his jokes. They don't know whether they should play along or censure him for what are often politically incorrect, crude or mean-spirited statements.
It is very possible that without the unconstrained and affectionate indulgence of Quivers early in his career, Stern would never have succeeded as a "shock jock." His shimmering potential would have been snuffed out before he could have found his true, unflinching, bold, and fearless voice. Because early in his career, everyone around him, like his father, was always telling him, "Shut up, sit down! I told you not to be stupid, you moron!"
But Quivers has always laughed and exclaimed, "Really, tell me more!"
And he does.