''Howard was a very sensitive child,'' says his mother, Ray Stern, sitting at the kitchen table of the Rockville Centre, Long Island, home where the family moved when Howard was 15. ''He was always very mature for his age. Not that I said it, but others told me.''
''He was a leader as a boy,'' his older sister, Ellen Dunn, remembers. ''Kids ( always gravitated to him. He didn't go to people's houses. They came to ours.''
''He was a very creative kid,'' adds his father, Ben Stern, a retired radio engineer who once worked at the same Manhattan studio from which Howard now broadcasts. ''He did puppet shows all the time.''
Somehow this sensitive, pied-piper puppeteer grew up to be a shock jock who takes shots at everyoneincluding his family, whose lives he ruthlessly dissects in his book (his mother ''ran her household with the intensity of Hitler''; his father's ''favorite sport was yelling'') and on the air. But they see his rantings merely as a job requirement.
''Howard has four hours to cover, and he has to make it interesting and funny and entertaining,'' his mother explains. ''And we're part of that.''
Stern's wife of 15 years, Alison, 39, a former social worker, still hasn't totally adjusted to being fodder for his comedy. ''At first, it was, 'What are you saying? How dare you?''' she says. Now she claims she's less bothered by his radio analyses of their sex life, although ''there are times when I say to him, 'This cannot go on the radio.' And he'll say, 'I wasn't thinking of that. What a great idea!' Then I'm in trouble.''
Living on the North Shore of Long Island, Stern protects the privacy of his childrendaughters Emily, 10; Debra, 7; and Ashley, 8 months. He also shields their ears from his show. ''They don't know I'm Howard Stern. They think I'm a Harvard professor,'' he jokes. ''They'll probably end up on the psychiatrist's couch talking about how f---ed-up I was, and how they were ashamed of me, and all that kind of crap. And I'll end up paying for the f----ing psychiatrist.''
Often mentioned on (and sometimes even participating in) his program, Stern's relatives have gained their own measure of fame. His mother recently made a personal appearance at a dried-fruit-and-nuts store in Rockville Centre. ''People came all the way from Brooklyn and Queens, and they all told me how much they loved Howard,'' she says proudly. ''One woman said, 'Thank you for mothering such a wonderful son.' That made my day.''
But her show-biz career may have ended there. ''Howard said it was her last hurrah,'' his father says. As his mother explains: ''Howard thinks it's tacky.''