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."
For now, Beck has defied the critics who have said his influence has waned. He is preaching to a smaller audience but a more devoted congregation, and he's making a fortune — all on his terms.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When Glenn Beck left the Fox News Channel more than a year ago, he seemed ready - or even eager - to leave, and Fox News all but told him not to let the door hit him on the way out. Since then, Beck has not dominated headlines the way he once did, and some media observers have written him off. But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Beck appears to have struck gold.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Fox's Sean Hannity is a down-the-line conservative Republican. Glenn Beck? Well, Glenn Beck is just out there with his trademark apocalyptic patter; concerned that liberals are conspiring to strip Americans of their liberties, claims that governments and corporations are conspiring to thwart their rights. Well, there's apparently a lot of conspiring, actually.
(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS BROADCASTS
GLENN BECK: No experimentation on my time, not with my children's money, not with my country.... Progressives get into bed with giant corporations that don't mind that big-government control.
FOLKENFLIK: He still invokes distant history. His delivery - at once histrionic and mesmerizing - and his sets in Dallas, if anything, are more dazzling than ever. Yet at his peak on Fox, Beck had more than 3 million viewers daily. Three-hundred thousand people pay for subscriptions to watch the Blaze TV, Beck's streaming digital channel, and a far smaller audience than that actually tunes in every day. Beck's critics have noticed.
ANGELO CARUSONE: There's no comparison. What we've done this year - since the beginning of the year till now - is only about 14 pieces or so, on Glenn Beck.
FOLKENFLIK: Angelo Carusone is campaign director for Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group that obsessively monitors the media, especially Fox.
CARUSONE: We did, you know, somewhere around 3,500 pieces in his last year of Fox News. And that is a reflection not just of Media Matters' focus at the time, but also his own position within the larger conservative media landscape, and the media landscape generally.
FOLKENFLIK: Variety's TV critic, Brian Lowry, devoted a column to Beck's ebbing influence - and yet, focusing on the size of Beck's current TV audience may miss the point. Beck often irritated his bosses, especially Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, with his 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 Carusone and others. But Beck's biggest paycheck didn't come from Fox - not by a long shot. Fox did give him a platform to promote other parts of his empire. Yet now with the Blaze Online and Blaze TV and Blaze Radio, he is the empire.
Betsy Morgan is Blaze's president and chief strategy officer. She says the new organization has a far more intense relationship with its consumers than most media companies.
BETSY MORGAN: It's not something that mainstream media has done particularly well. 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Morgan says the 9 million monthly visitors to the free site at theblaze.com are center-right politically, rather than necessarily Beck's brand of conservatism. But Morgan says like the paying subscribers, they're passionate about what Beck and the Blaze offer.
MORGAN: We know who these people are. They write us to compliment us; they write us to complain; they write us when they're concerned. And those inquiries get responded to.
FOLKENFLIK: With those paying subscribers, Morgan says 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. And sure, he's been knocked off a few stations, but 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. Blaze is pursuing more such deals.
ZEV CHAFETS: Glenn Beck was enormously influential among conservatives who aren't influential. The grassroots love Beck.
FOLKENFLIK: The conservative journalist Zev Chafets has written a sympathetic biography of talk show host Rush Limbaugh; and his biography of Roger Ailes is due to come out early next year. He says Beck offers something different.
CHAFETS: He was especially popular with evangelical Christian conservatives - which is much less true, let's say, of Rush Limbaugh; or even of Sean Hannity.
FOLKENFLIK: In fact, Chafets says Beck presents himself as a man of destiny.
CHAFETS: And I think a lot of that has to do with his religiosity. I think that he tends to sees things less in political terms - you know, practical, partisan, political terms; and more in terms of good and evil, and with himself as a leader of the forces of good.
FOLKENFLIK: Indeed, on his very first program for the Blaze, Beck broadcast a live, outdoor production from Jerusalem.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZE BROADCAST)
BECK: The only message that I have for Israel and the Israelis is this: My friends, do not lose hope.
FOLKENFLIK: For now, Beck is preaching to a smaller but more devoted congregation. And here's the thing - he's making a fortune, and it's all being done on his terms.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.