Howard Stern made lots of headlines when he announced, on Thursday, that he had re-signed with Sirius XM satellite radio for five more years.
Something happened soon after that announcement, though, that illustrates why this is such a big deal for satellite listeners. Stern pulled off one of the greatest pranks in his 35 years on the air.
Sal Governale, who writes and appears in comedic bits for the show, was late to work, and missed the big announcement. So Stern solemnly told him he was quitting, not staying. Governale was distraught, and broke down, sobbing.
The show's other crew members played along perfectly. George Takei (the "Star Trek" star, who occasionally sits in as the show's announcer) cried as well, even though he knew Stern was faking. He just got caught up in Governale's very real pain.
Was it cruel? Yes. But Governale would be the first to pull an outrageous prank on someone else, so somehow it felt okay. And once Governale was informed of the truth, his sense of relief was so enormous that the nightmarish moment turned supremely feel-good.
Part of the reason the segment was so riveting was because a Stern listener knows Governale as a real person. His hero worship of Stern (whom he thought he wouldn't be working with anymore) has been explored on the show. So have his marital difficulties, as well as his enduring love for his wife (despite their problems) and their three sons. When he thought he was losing his job, he wondered, aloud, what this would mean to his children -- that was the most heartbreaking thing of all.
This all unfolded at a slow pace, without the commercials and other interruptions that impede the flow of other radio programs. Afterward, Stern and the rest of the staff talked it all over, reliving it and reveling in it.
It was astonishing radio -- a moment that will be replayed in Stern's "Best Of" specials for years to come, and become part of the show's lore. When it was over, I realized that I was almost at the end of my commute; the 40-minute drive had just breezed by.
In a strange way, it overshadowed the real Stern news of the day. And it showed fans that Stern -- now 56 and prepping for what he believes "with almost certainty" (his phrase) will be his last five years on the air -- isn't likely to turn into a sentimental softie. With almost certainty, he'll be as daring and bracing as ever.