If you’ve ever followed the Howard Stern Show, you know a big part of the appeal is the personal touch it applies to a format that usually has cut-and-dried rules. Stern did away with the illusion of the seamless radio show and its antiseptic personalities, pulling back the curtain to show his audience the inner workings of his show and pushing his crew onto center stage. There is a soap-opera element to the show that draws the listener in, pulling them into the middle of its cast of players and their sometimes tortured interactions.
As a result, the show has a whole host of personalities from Stern on down. If anyone on the show qualifies as its resident underdog, the honor would have to go producer Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate. Despite his place of prominence in the show’s day-to-day business, he’s always been goofed on by everyone from Stern to the fans themselves. However, he never comes off as a sad-sack victim. He just puts his head down and gets the job done, fighting off the slings and arrows of all comers to keep the show on the road. His resilience always carries him through and this has earned the respect of just about everyone, including the boss himself. If you’ve ever wondered how that resilience was forged, the answers can be found in Dell’Abate’s recent autobiography, They Call Me Baba Booey.
In many ways, this is a surprisingly brave book. It would have been very simple for the author to do a behind-the-scenes book about running the show, rehashing all the famous incidents in the show’s history and sprinkling it with a bit of inside dirt. Instead, Dell’Abate digs deep into his personal history, focusing on how his oft-turbulent home life made him the survivor he is. He reveals how he was born into a home with two brothers — one a rebel, the other secretly homosexual — and raised by a mother who was loving but troubled with mental illness at a time when doctors didn’t know how to handle it properly.
Dell’Abate could have taken this material and made it into a melodramatic weeper of a book but again, he doesn’t take the easy way. Instead, he and co-author Chad Millman present his triumphs and tribulations in a likeably plain-spoken, conversational style that makes it feel like the reader is having a chat session with its main subject. Dell’Abate’s complex relationship with his mother acts as the backbone of the narrative. As it grows and changes with time, the dramatic intensity gently builds until it reaches an unexpected, bittersweet ending that is all the more moving because it is free of cheap emotional manipulation.
That said, fans shouldn’t worry that They Call Me Baba Booey is just “movie-of-the-week”-style domestic drama material. Dell’Abate and Millman wisely pace the dramatic autobiography sections by interspersing them with chapters where they explore key incidents in the show’s history that featured Dell’Abate as the central focus. For instance, there are involved chapters about an embarrasing moment where an “I want you back” videotape he made for an ex-girlfriend resurfaces and a blow-by-blow account of an infamous moment where he threw a “first pitch” at a baseball game that went awry. It’s interesting to see these moments through Dell’Abate’s eyes and his measured but honest recounting of what went down adds a fresh dimension that will intrigue even veteran Stern fans. He also includes music-oriented lists that reflect his pop cultural obsessions.
Show fans will also want to note that the final chapters of the book deal with how he worked his way up the ladder in the world of New York radio, culminating in his audition and subsequent appointment for the producer gig on the Stern show. This is the stuff that will interest hardcore Stern fans most, functioning as a grunt’s-eye view of the radio business circa the early 1980’s — complete with a cameo role by Stern nemesis Don Imus.
In summation, They Call Me Baba Booey is not the book a lot of Stern fans would expect. In many ways, it’s like the “origin” issue of a comic book, telling the tale of how its protagonist came to be who he is instead of focusing on his most famous exploits. Some will no doubt be disappointed that they don’t get more behind-the-scenes material but it could be argued that such material would be a book all its own, one that Dell’Abate will hopefully get to somewhere down the line. In the meantime, They Call Me Baba Booey is a good-natured underdog story whose gentle, perceptive style says as much about its author as the narrative itself.