By the time Glenn Beck left the Fox News Channel in June 2011, both sides seemed ready, even eager, to part ways. Beck announced he would move on to bigger and grander ventures with his own production company, Mercury Radio Arts, but some media critics, such as Variety's Brian Lowry, shrugged then and since.
In 2010, he was instrumental in stirring Tea Party supporters to action. This year, though it's an election year and he's supporting Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Beck hasn't dominated headlines the way he once did. And the size of his TV audience has plummeted. At his peak on Fox, Beck had more than 3 million viewers daily; 300,000 people pay for subscriptions to watch The Blaze TV, Beck's streaming digital channel. An audience of undisclosed size that is presumably markedly smaller than that subscriber base actually tunes in each day.
"There's no comparison," said Angelo Carusone, campaign manager for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, which gives especially tight scrutiny to what's on Fox News. Since Jan. 1, he said, his group has posted 14 stories on Beck. Compare that to 3,500 in Beck's final year at Fox. "That is a reflection not just of Media Matters' focus at the time but also his own position within the conservative media and the larger media landscape generally," Carusone said.
Despite all that, Beck appears to have struck gold.
"Glenn Beck was enormously influential among conservatives who aren't influential," said conservative journalist Zev Chafets, the author of a sympathetic biography of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and a forthcoming biography of Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, due out early next year. "The grass roots love Beck."
Chafets said Beck presents himself as a man of destiny in a way that appeals strongly to conservative evangelicals.
"I think that he tends to see things less in political terms — you know, practical, partisan political terms," Chafets said, "and more in terms of good and evil, and with himself as a leader of the forces of good."
Beck now rallies those forces on The Blaze TV, TheBlaze.com and Blaze radio.
Joel Cheatwood, a former CNN and Fox News executive who is now president and chief content officer at Beck's Blaze outlets, says the former cable TV host has been liberated from the strictures of conventional media logic. Religion, for example, can be ratings kryptonite. No matter: If it's important to Beck, you'll hear about it daily during his three hours of radio (live-streamed online) or his hour-long television show.
Indeed, on his very first day for The Blaze, Beck broadcast an outdoor production from Jerusalem.
"The only message that I have for Israel and the Israelis is this: My friends, do not lose hope," he told a cheering crowd.
The speech raised some eyebrows. "It seemed to me, in the rhetoric he was using, he was presenting himself almost as a savior of the chosen people," said Chafets, a former press aide to the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "While that was appreciated by the Israeli government — they like support wherever it comes from — it was also looked at somewhat askance.
"He casts quite a strong role for himself. And I don't think anybody, even [the late Rev. Jerry] Falwell or [the Rev.] Pat Robertson, ever got to the point that what stood between the Jews and destruction was them," Chafets said. "I imagine he was sincere. But it was a little much."
Politically, Beck remains out there, on the far political right with a libertarian streak. He has retained and refined his trademark apocalyptic patter, with concern that liberals are conspiring to strip Americans of their liberties, claims that governments and corporations are conspiring to thwart their rights, and a firm faith in wider conspiracies more generally.
You may not see as many chalkboards on the set, but Beck still loves to invoke distant history and arcane theories. His delivery is at once histrionic and mesmerizing, and the presentation in his Dallas studio is, if anything, more dazzling than ever. (Real estate and labor costs are also cheaper in Dallas, a point not lost on Beck and his cost-conscious executive team.)
Beck used his Fox show as a platform to promote other parts of his empire, when he could. But Beck often irritated his bosses there, especially Ailes, with that entrepreneurial impulse: the books, the concerts, his top-10 radio show. So did his extreme views — calling President Obama a racist, for example. Many advertisers peeled away, under pressure from public campaigns led by Carusone and others.
Yet Beck's biggest paycheck didn't come from Fox — not by a long shot. Now, with The Blaze online, TV and radio, he is the empire.
Betsy Morgan, Blaze's other president and chief strategy officer, said the new organization has quickly developed a far more intense relationship with its consumers than most media companies.
"It's not something that mainstream media has done particularly well," she said, "and I think that's because, historically, it's been a push medium. It's been a one-way medium. The ratings are nameless and faceless."
Small But Passionate Audience
Morgan said the 9 million monthly visitors to the free TheBlaze.com site are center-right politically, rather than being strict adherents to Beck's distinctive brand of conservatism. The site has shown the ability to cut across ideological lines. Scott Baker, the site's editor in chief, surprised many on the political right when he showed how the conservative activist James O'Keefe III posted misleading footage as part of an undercover camera stunt against NPR.
But Morgan said paying subscribers and free Web readers alike are passionate about the content that Beck and The Blaze offer.
"We know who these people are. They write us to compliment us. They write us to complain. They write us when they're concerned," Morgan said, "and those inquiries get responded to."
With those paying subscribers, Morgan said the company will clear revenues of more than $40 million this year, with an editorial staff of a little more than 30.
Beck also has a nationally syndicated radio show. (Though streamed live on The Blaze, it is part of a separate arm of Beck's overall production company, Mercury Radio Arts.) Cumulus Media Networks knocked him off several stations in favor of its own new talk show starring Geraldo Rivera, but Beck remains on hundreds of stations nationally, and he just signed a contract extension that reportedly doubled his compensation to $100 million over five years. Beck has also just struck a deal with satellite TV provider Dish Network to carry his TV programming on its own channel, free to digital tier subscribers, or costing a premium for those without. Blaze is pursuing more such deals to appear on more cable and satellite outlets.
Morgan earlier worked for CBS and more recently was CEO of the liberal website Huffington Post. She said she joined The Blaze without any political agenda, fascinated with Beck's vision of what could be online.
"We are all things media to all people on all the devices we have," Morgan said. "We're building this much differently than I think any other media business has been built to date. We're starting very much in a multiplatform way. We have started equally on all platforms. I think that will make us much more powerful as a brand, much more connected to our audience. And we have created a pretty powerful community around our content."
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